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Radiation - Visible And Invisible

( Originally Published 1905 )

BETWEEN the mind of man and the outer world are interposed the nerves of the human body, which translate, or enable the mind to translate, the impressions of that world into facts of consciousness and thought.

Different nerves are suited to the perception of different impressions. We do not see with the ear, nor hear with the eye, nor are we rendered sensible of sound by the nerves of the tongue. Out of the general assemblage of physical actions, each 'nerve, or group of nerves, selects and responds to those for the perception of which it is specially organized.

The optic nerve passes from the brain to the back of the eyeball and there spreads out, to form the retina, a web of nerve filaments, on which the images of external objects are projected by the optical portion of the eye. This nerve is limited to the apprehension of the phenomena of radiation, and, notwithstanding its marvellous sensibility to certain impressions of this class, it is singularly obtuse to other impressions.

Nor does the optic nerve embrace the entire range even of radiation. Some rays, when they reach it, are incompetent to evoke its power, while others never reach it at all, being absorbed by the humors of the eye. To all rays which, whether they reach the retina or not, fail to excite vision, we give the name of invisible or obscure rays. All non-luminous bodies emit such rays. There is no body in nature absolutely cold, and every body not absolutely cold emits rays of heat. But to render radiant heat fit to affect the optic nerve a certain temperature is necessary. A cool poker thrust into a fire remains dark for a time, but when its temperature has become equal to that of the surrounding coals, it glows like them. In like manner, if a current of electricity, of gradually increasing strength, be sent through a wire of the refractory metal platinum, the wire first becomes sensibly warm to the touch; for a time its heat augments, still, however, remaining obscure; at length we can no longer touch the metal with impunity; and at a certain definite temperature it emits a feeble red light. As the current augments in power the light .augments in brilliancy, until finally the wire appears of a dazzling white. The light which it now emits is similar to that of the sun.

By means of a prism Sir Isaac Newton unravelled the texture of solar light, and by the same simple instrument we can investigate the luminous changes of our platinum wire. In passing through the prism all its rays (and they are infinite in variety) are bent or refracted from their straight course; and, as different rays are differently refracted by the prism, we are by it enabled to separate one class of rays from another. By such prismatic analysis Dr. Draper has shown, that when the platinum wire first begins to glow, the light emitted is sensibly red. As the glow augments the red becomes more brilliant, but at the same time orange rays are added to the emission. Augmenting the temperature still further, yellow rays appear beside the orange; after the yellow, green rays are emitted; and after the green come, in succession, blue, indigo, and violet rays. To display all these colors at the same time the platinum wire must be white-hot: the impression of whiteness being in fact produced by the simultaneous action of all these colors on the optic nerve.

In the experiment just described we began with a platinum wire at an ordinary temperature, and gradually raised it to a white heat. At the beginning, and even before the electric current had acted at all upon the wire, it emitted invisible rays. For some time after the action of the current had commenced, and even for a time after the wire had become intolerable to the touch, its radiation was still invisible. The question now arises, What becomes of these invisible rays when the visible ones make their appearance? It will be proved in the sequel that they maintain themselves in the radiation; that a ray once emitted continues to be emitted when the temperature is increased, and hence the emission from our platinum wire, even when it has attained its maximum brilliancy, consists of a mixture of visible and invisible rays. If, instead of the platinum wire, the earth itself were raised to incandescence, the obscure radiation which it now emits would continue to be emitted. To reach incandescence the planet would have to pass through all the stages of non-luminous radiation, and the final emission would embrace the rays of all these stages. There can hardly be a doubt that, from the sun itself, rays proceed similar in kind to those which the dark earth pours nightly into space. In fact, the various kinds of obscure rays emitted by all the planets of our system are included in the present radiation of the sun.

The great pioneer in this domain of science was Sir William Herschel. Causing a beam of solar light to pass through a prism, he resolved it into its colored constituents; he formed what is technically called the solar spectrum. Exposing thermometers to the successive colors he determined their heating power, and found it to augment from the violet or most refracted end, to the red or least refracted end of the spectrum. But he did not stop here. Pushing his thermometers into the dark space beyond the red he found that, though the light had disappeared, the radiant heat falling on the instruments was more intense than that at any visible part of the spectrum. In fact, Sir William Herschel showed, and his results have been verified by various philosophers since his time, that, besides its luminous rays, the sun pours forth a multitude of other rays, more powerfully calorific than the luminous ones, but entirely unsuited to the purposes of vision.

At the less refrangible end of the solar spectrum, then, the range of the sun's radiation is not limited by that of the eye. The same statement applies to the more refrangible end. Ritter discovered the extension of the spectrum into the invisible region beyond the violet; and, in recent times, this ultra-violet emission has had peculiar interest conferred upon it by the admirable researches of Professor Stokes. The complete spectrum of the sun consists, therefore, of three distinct parts: first, of ultra-red rays of high heating power, but unsuited to the purposes of vision; secondly, of luminous rays which display the succession of colors, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet; thirdly, of ultra-violet rays which, like the ultra-red ones, are incompetent to excite vision, but which, unlike the ultra-red rays, possess a very feeble heating power. In consequence, however, of their chemical energy these ultra-violet rays are of the utmost importance to the organic world.

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