The world of whirling electrons

At the root of all natural phenomena are the electrons, in incessant motion. The powerful electric currents that drive our machines, radio waves, light rays, are at bottom but electronic motions.

Our Electro-Atomic Universe

By WILLIAM GRUNSTEIN, E. E.

We are informed that two German scientists have recently succeeded in the transformation of mercury into gold. The event recalls to us earlier efforts in this direction, and in reviewing the work of the alchemists of the Middle Ages, the marvels of modern alchemy become accentuated.

With all the fantastic visions of their unrestrained imagination, the older alchemists never dared dream of the vast prospects of curious research that have opened with the advent of the electron theory. Today we are on the threshold of the most far-reaching discoveries, and we feel a necessity for acquainting our readers with the nature of these impending revolutions of science.

The atom and its components form today the center of interest in the scientific world. A general agreement has been reached in the essential structure of the atom, that is, on the theory that the atom consists of a positively charged electrons rotate. To take a simple instance, let us consider the atom of hydrogen represented in Fig. 1. As shown in the figure, the electron in its normal state is in continuous motion about the nucleus. The atom itself may be linked with other atoms to form molecules.

The hydrogen molecule, for instance, is made up of two hydrogen atoms, with their nuclei and electrons rearranged as shown in Fig. 2. The accuracy of the arrangement shown in these figures have, of course, never been verified by direct experiment but are based on purely theoretical considerations which, however, are in accord with experimental facts. To return to the atom, suppose that by some means, say a very high temperature, energy is conveyed to the atom. The atom absorbs this energy and in consequence some change must take place within it. According to one reliable theory, the so-called Bohr theory, when the atom receives energy the electron moves from its normal orbit to a newer outer one, where, having acquired more energy, it moves with a greater velocity than in its normal orbit. The more energy the electron receives the further it recedes from the nucleus. Now, of course, the field of attraction of the nucleus is limited and sufficient energy may be imparted to the atom to lift the electron out of this field and thus allow it to shoot out into space.

The loss of an electron does not appreciably alter the weight of the atom, the mass being concentrated in the nucleus. The nucleus itself is of extremely minute size compared with the orbits of the planetary electrons. In the hydrogen nucleus there is but a single positively charged particle, whose mass compared with its volume is enormous. This particle is called a proton. All matter can be analyzed into some configuration of electrons and protons.

The hydrogen atom we have just examined has the simplest of all atomic structures. It is also the lightest known atom. All heavier atoms have more complex structures. For instance, an atom of the gas helium is depicted in Fig. 4. Note that it has two planetary electrons revolving about the central nucleus. The drawing, for want of space, is made somewhat out of proportion, the nucleus being much too large in proportion to the orbits of the electrons. Besides the two electrons revolving about the nucleus, there are two other electrons within the nucleus itself; held there by the attractive forces of the positively charged protons. If enlarged many billions of times, this nucleus would appear as shown in Fig. 5. Here four protons are arranged in an orbit on whose axis the two nuclear electrons are located. It is found that the attractive and repulsive forces of the protons and electrons so situated maintain the nucleus in equilibrium.

Now we find that the helium atom consists of four protons and four electrons (two in the nucleus and two planetary electrons) and we saw that the hydrogen atom comprises one proton and one electron. These numerical relations suggest that the helium atom is formed of four hydrogen atoms. Indeed, scientists, and among them the noted American Dr. P. B. Foote who recently wrote on this subject in The Scientific Monthly, find strong reasons for believing that the helium atom is a rearrangement of four hydrogen atoms, and that once the proper means are perfected helium could be made by the union of hydrogen atoms.

But there is another and more interesting aspect of the question. We find that if we represent the mass of the hydrogen atom according to any scale of weights as 1.0077, the weight of the helium atom on the same scale will be 4. But we find above that the helium atom is made up of four hydrogen atoms, and therefore should weigh 4×1.0077 or 4.0308! In other words if we take four hydrogen atoms and bind them together to form a helium atom 0.0308 weight or about 0.75% of mass are lost in the process!

It is difficult at first glance to fully grasp the significance of these facts. If, further we recall that in school we were taught that matter could neither be created nor destroyed, we find this total loss of mass even more incomprehensible. It starts endless trains of speculation on the future of science, suggesting ultimate success in the annihilation of matter, a process hardly conceivable but which, nevertheless, looms with a weird vividness in the fantasms of the speculative scientist. Is such complete destruction of matter a future possibility? Can Man ever achieve this climax of scientific development, this acme of control over his environment?

If we take a long step to Einstein, we find that this oracle of science has touched upon this question in his far-reaching Theory of Relativity. According to this theory mass and energy are associated according to a definite law. It will suffice for our purposes to understand that when mass is destroyed enormous energies are liberated, and that mass is electrical in nature. Or, loosely speaking, mass is just another manifestation of energy.

Now if matter is electrical in nature, that is if it cannot exist without the electrical charges which are always present in the nuclei of its atoms, is it possible that a neutralization of this charge will destroy the mass with which it is inseparably linked? But how is this neutralization to be effected?

The nucleus carries a positive charge. We would expect that it would tend to draw electrons into itself. This, however, does not happen. Its own planetary electrons never approach nearer than the normal orbit allows, and even at its nearest approach they are at comparatively vast distances from their nucleus.

An electron from some external source may enter an atom. In fact this happens very frequently when electrons move in matter. The result usually is a deflection of the electron due either to the repulsion by other electrons or to attraction by the nucleus. However, the latter was never observed to exert enough force to attract the electron within the nucleus itself, and so the atom remains essentially unaltered by the passage of an electron through it.

But suppose we can produce means for the union of the nucleus with enough electrons to neutralize its charge. Will this be accompanied by the destruction of mass? Of this we can say nothing definite, for no experimental evidence of such complete destruction has been advanced. However, if the neutralization of the positive nuclear charge by the negative charges on electrons results in the destruction of mass, a stupendous amount of energy will be liberated. The magnitude of this energy exceeds the limits of human imagination. Dr. Foote has computed that the destruction of one pound of matter would yield 10,000,000,000 kilowatt-hours of energy. To produce this energy through coal burning, 1,600,000,000 pounds of the best coal would have to be consumed. The volume of coal burned yield an amount of energy equivalent to that given by the annihilation of one pound of lead is shown in Fig. 7.

If the reader has followed us thus far, he will see as we do the gigantic possibilities of modern science. As we contemplate these possibilities we are awed by the strange contrasts of Nature, which make possible the liberation of Titanic forces through the action of these infinitesimal constituents of matter. Modern technology has built machines exceeding in size and power, all dreams of earlier generations. Yet, how they shrink into insignificance before the tremendous spectacle of the future!

Shall these altered views of the future of our electro-atomic Universe light joy, or strike terror in our hearts? We see the boon to human welfare in the future liberation and control of these latent forces of Nature; but we recoil with horror before the spectacle of these forces subservient to the competitive interests of man. What dormant evil will be awakened when he finds at hand the means for the complete annihilation of his enemies? The war of the distant future may be a dreadful war of electrons and protons, conducted in a silence unbroken by the usual noise of battle and where a “fall” means not wounds or death but the complete cessation of existence, a total annihilation of substance and mind with no trace but energy left behind.

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