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Origin And Character Of Radiation

( Originally Published 1905 )

When we see a platinum wire raised gradually to a white heat, and emitting in succession all the colors of the spectrum, we are simply conscious of a series of changes in the condition of our own eyes. We do 'not see the actions in which these successive colors originate, but the mind irresistibly infers that the appearance of the colors corresponds to certain contemporaneous changes in the wire. What is the nature of these changes? In virtue of what condition does the wire radiate at all? We must now look from the wire, as a whole, to its constituent atoms. Could we see those atoms, even before the electric current has begun to act upon them, we should find them in . a state of vibration. In this vibration, indeed, consists such warmth as the wire then possesses. Locke enunciated this idea with great precision, and it has been placed beyond the pale of doubt by the excellent quantitative researches of Mr. Joule. "Heat," says Locke, "is a very brisk agitation of the insensible parts of the object, which produce in us that sensation from which we denominate the object hot: so what in our sensations is heat in the object is nothing but motion." When the electric current, still feeble, begins to pass through the wire, its first act is to intensify the vibrations already existing, by causing the atoms to swing through wider ranges. Technically speaking, the amplitudes of the oscillations are increased. The current does this, however, without altering the periods of the old vibrations, or the times in which they were executed. But besides intensifying the old vibrations the current generates new and more rapid ones, and when a certain definite rapidity has been attained, the wire begins to glow. The color first exhibited is red, which corresponds to the lowest rate of vibration of which the eye is able to take cognizance. By augmenting the strength of the electric cur-rent more rapid vibrations are introduced, and orange rays appear. A quicker rate of vibration produces yellow, a still quicker green; and by further augmenting the rapidity, we pass through blue, indigo, and violet, to the extreme ultra-violet rays.

Such are the changes recognized by the mind in the wire itself, as concurrent with the visual changes taking place in the eye. But what connects the wire with this organ ? By what means does it send such intelligence of its varying condition to the optic nerve? Heat being, as defined by Locke, "a very brisk agitation of the insensible parts of an object," it is readily conceivable that on touching a heated body the agitation may communicate itself to the adjacent nerves, and announce itself to them as light or heat. But the optic nerve does not touch the hot platinum, and hence the pertinence of the question, By what agency are the vibrations of the wire transmitted to the eye?

The answer to this question involves one of the most important physical conceptions that the mind of man has yet achieved: the conception of a medium filling space and fitted mechanically for the transmission of the vibrations of light and heat, as air is fitted for the transmission of sound. This medium is called the luminiferous ether. Every vibration of every atom of our platinum wire raises in this ether a wave, which speeds through it at the rate of 186,000 miles a second. The ether suffers no rupture of continuity at the surface of the eye, the inter-molecular spaces of the various humors are filled with it; hence the waves generated by the glowing platinum can cross these humors and impinge on the optic nerve at the back of the eye.' Thus the sensation of light reduces itself to the acceptance of motion. Up to this point we deal with pure mechanics; but the subsequent translation of the shock of the ethereal waves into consciousness eludes mechanical science. As an oar dipping into the Cam generates systems of waves, which, speeding from the centre of disturbance, finally stir the sedges on the river's bank, so do the vibrating atoms generate in the surrounding ether undulations, which finally stir the filaments of the retina. The motion thus imparted is transmitted with measurable, and not very great, velocity to the brain, where, by a prosess which the science of mechanics does not even tend to unravel, the tremor of the nervous matter is converted into the conscious impression of light.

Darkness might then be defined as ether at rest; light as ether in motion. But in reality the ether is never at rest, for in the absence of light-waves we have -heat-waves always speeding through it. In the spaces of the universe both classes of undulations incessantly commingle. Here the waves issuing from uncounted centres cross, coincide, oppose, and pass through each other, without confusion or ultimate extinction. Every star is seen across the entanglement of wave-motions produced by all other stars. It is the ceaseless thrill caused by those distant orbs collectively in the ether that constitutes what we call the "temperature of space." As the air of a room accommodates itself to the requirements of an orchestra, transmitting each vibration of every pipe and string, so does the interstellar ether accommodate itself to the requirements of light and heat. Its waves mingle in space without disorder, each being endowed with an individuality as indestructible as if it alone had disturbed the universal repose.

All vagueness with regard to the use of the terms "radiation" and "absorption" will now disappear. Radiation is the communication of vibratory motion to the ether; and when a body is said to be chilled by radiation, as for example the grass of a meadow on a starlight night, the meaning is, that the molecules of the grass have lost a portion of their motion, by imparting it to the medium in which they vibrate. On the other hand, the waves of ether may so strike against the molecules of a body ex-posed to their action as to yield up their motion to the latters and in this transfer of the motion from the ether to the molecules consists the absorption of radiant heat. All the phenomena of heat are in this way reducible to interchanges of motion; and it is purely as the recipients or the donors of this motion that we ourselves become conscious of the action of heat and cold.

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