Wonders of Atoms
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
TO use the language of an American poet, the atoms "march in tune," moving to the music of law, which thus renders the commonest substance in nature a miracle of beauty. It is the function of science not, as some think, to divest this universe of its wonder and its mystery, but to point out the wonder and the mystery of common things (such as) those fern-like forms which on a frosty morning overspread your window panes. . . . Over a piece of perfectly clean glass I pour a little water in which a crystal has been dissolved. A film of the solution clings to the glass, and this film will now be shown to crystallize before your eyes. By means of a microscope and a lamp, an image of the plate of glass is thrown upon the screen.... A dozen square feet of surface are now covered by these beautiful forms. With another solution we obtain crystalline spears, feathered right and left by other spears. From distant nuclei in the middle of the field of view, the spears shoot with magical rapidity in all directions. The film of water on a window pane on a frosty morning exhibits effects quite as wonderful as these. Latent in this formless solution, latent in every drop of water, lies this marvelous structural power, which only requires the withdrawal of opposing force to bring it into action.
Our next experiment you will probably consider more startling even than these. The clear liquid now held before you is a solution of nitrate of silver, a compound of silver and nitric acid. When an electric current is sent through this liquid, the silver is severed from the acid.... Let us close the circuit and send the current through the liquid. From one of the wires a beautiful silver tree commences immediately to sprout. Branches of the metal are thrown out and umbrageous foliage loads the branches. You have here a growth apparently as wonderful as that of any vegetable perfected before your eyes.... These experiments show that the common mat-ter of our earth,—"brute matter," as Doctor Young is pleased to call it,—when its atoms and molecules are permitted to bring their forces into free play, arranges itself under the operation of these forces into forms which rival in beauty those of the vegetable world. And what is the vegetable world itself but the complex play of these molecular forces ?
Trees grow and so do men and horses, and here we have new power incessantly introduced upon the earth. But its source is the sun. For he it is who separates the carbon from the oxygen of the carbonic acid and thus enables them to recombine. Whether they recombine in the furnace of the steam engine or the animal body, the origin of the power they produce is the same. In this sense, we are all "souls of fire and children of the sun." But, as remarked by Helmholz, we must be content to share our celestial pedigree with the meanest living things.