Book II. Intra-Atomic Energy And The Forces Derived Therefrom

Chapter I: Intra-Atomic Energy — Its Magnitude

(1) The Existence of Intra-Atomic Energy

I have given the name of Intra-atomic Energy to the new force, differing entirely from those hitherto observed, which is produced by the dissociation of matter — that is to say, by the whole series of radioactive phenomena. From the chronological point of view, I ought evidently to commence by describing this dissociation; but as intra-atomic energy governs all the phenomena examined in this work, it seems to me preferable to begin by its study.

I shall therefore suppose an acquaintance with the facts concerning the dissociation of matter which I shall set forth later, and shall confine myself at present to recalling one of the most fundamental of these facts — the emission into space, from bodies undergoing dissociation, of immaterial particles animated by a speed capable of equaling and even of eften exceeding a third of the speed of light. That speed is immensely superior to any we can produce by the aid of the known forces at our disposal. This is a point which must be steadily kept in mind from the first. A few figures will suffice to make this difference evident.

A very simple calculation shows, in fact, that to give a small bullet the speed of dissociation would require a firearm capable of containing 1,340,000 barrels of gunpowder. As soon as the immense speed of the particles emitted was measured by the very simple methods I describe elsewhere, it became evident that an enormous amount of energy is liberated during the dissociation of atoms. Physicists then sought in vain and many are still seeking the external source of this energy. It was understood, in fact, to be a fundamental principle that matter is inert and can only give back, in some form or other, the energy which has first been supplied to it. The source of the energy manifested could therefore only be external.

When I proved that radioactivity is a universal phenomena and not peculiar to a small number of exceptional bodies, the question became still more puzzling. But, as this radioactivity is above all manifested under the influence of external agents — light, heat, chemical forces, etc. — it is comprehensible that we should seek for the origin of this proved energy among these external causes, though there is no comparison between the magnitude of the effects produced and their supposed causes. As to spontaneously radioactive bodies, no explanation of the same order was possible, and this is why the question set forth above remained unanswered and seemed to constitute an inexplicable mystery. Yet, in reality, the solution to the problem is very simple. In order to discover the origin of the forces which produce the phenomena of radioactivity, one has only to lay aside certain classical dogmas. Let us first of all remark that it is proved by experiments that the particles emitted during dissociation possess identical characteristics, whatever the substance in question and the means used to dissociate it. Whether we take the spontaneous emission from radium or from a metal under the action of light, or again from a Crookes’ tube, the particles emitted are similar. The origin of the energy which produces the observed effects seems therefore to be always the same. Not being external to matter, it can only exist within this last.

It is this energy which I have designated by the term intra-atomic energy. What are its fundamental characteristics? It differs from all forces known to us by its very great concentration, by its prodigious power, and by the stability of the equilibria it can form. We shall see that, if instead of succeeding in dissociating thousandths of a milligram of matter, as at present, we could dissociate a few kilograms, we should possess a source of energy compared with which the whole provision of coal contained in our mines would represent an insignificant total. It is by reason of the magnitude of intra-atomic energy tht radioactive phenomena manifest themselves with the intensity we observe. This is it which produces the emission of particles having an immense speed, the penetration of material bodies, the apparition of x-rays, etc., phenomena which we will examine in detail in other chapters. Let us confine ourselves, for the moment, to remarking that effects such as these can be caused by none of the forces previously known. The universality in nature of intra-atomic energy is one of the characteristics most easy to define. We can recognize its existence everywhere, since we now discover radioactivity everywhere. The equilibria it forms are very stable, since matter dissociates so feebly that for a long time one could believe it to be indestructible. It is, besides, the effect produced on our senses by these equilibria that we call matter. Other forms of energy — light, electricity, etc., are characterized by very unstable equilibria.

The origin of intra-atomic energy is not difficult to elucidate, if one supposes, as do the astronomers, that the condensation of our nebula suffices by itself to explain the constitution of our solar system. It is conceivable that an analogous condensation of the ether may have begotten the energies contained in the atom. The latter may be roughly compared to a sphere in which a non-liquifiable gas was compressed to the degree of thousands of atmospheres at the beginning of the world.

If this new force — the most widespread and the mightiest of all those of nature — has remained entirely unknown till now, it is because, in the first place, we lacked the reagents necessary for the proof of its existence, and then, because the atomic edifice erected at the beginning of the ages is so stable, so solidly united, that its dissociation — at all events by our present means — remains extremely slight. Were it otherwise the world would have vanished long ago.

But how is it that a demonstration so simple as that of the existence of intra-atomic energy has not been made since the discovery of radioactivity, and especially since I have demonstrated the generality of this phenomenon? This can only be explained by bearing in mind that it was contrary to all known principles to recognize that matter could by itself produce energy. Now, scientific dogmas inspire the same superstitious fear as did the gods of old, though they have at times all their liability to be broken.

(2) Estimate of the Quantity of Intra-Atomic Energy Contained in Matter

I have said a few words as to the magnitude of intra-atomic energy. Let us now try to measure it.

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… millions of kilograms, figures which correspond to about 6,800,000,000 horsepower if this gram of matter were stopped in a second. This amount of energy, suitably disposed, would be sufficient to work a goods train on a horizontal line equal in length to a little over four times and a quarter the circumference of the earth. To send this same train over this distance by means of coal would take 2,830,000 kilograms.

What determines the greatness of the above figures and makes them at first sight improbable is the enormous speed of the masses in play, a speed which we cannot approach by any known mechanical means. In the factor mv2, the mass of one gram is certainly very small, but the speed being immense the effects produced become equally immense. A rifle-ball falling on the skin from the height of a few centimeters produces no appreciable effect in consequence of its slight speed. As soon as this speed is increased, the effects become more and more deadly, and with the speed of 1000 meters/second given by the powder now employed, the bullet will pass through very resistant obstacles. To reduce the mass of a projectile matters nothing if one arrives at a sufficient increase in speed. This is exactly the tendency of modern musketry, which constantly reduces the caliber of the bullet but endeavors to increase its speed.

Now the speed which we can produce are absolutely nothing compared with those of the particles of dissociated matter. We can barely exceed a kilometer per second by the means at our disposal, while the speed of radioactive particles is 100,000 times greater. Thence the magnitude of the effects produced. These differences become plain when one knows that a body having a velocity of 100,000 kilometers/second would go from the earth to the moon in less than four seconds, while a cannon ball would take about 5 days.

Taking into account a part only of the energy liberated in radioactivity, and by a different method, figures inferior to those given above, but still colossal, have been arrived at. The measurements of Curie prove that one gram of radium emits 100 calorie-grams/hour, which would give 876,000 calories/year. If the life of a gram of radium is 1000 years, as is supposed, by transforming these calories into kilogram-meters at the rate of 1125 kilogram-meters per great calorie, the immensity of the figures obtained will readily appear. Necessarily, these calories, high as is their number, only represent an insignificant part of the intra-atomic energy, since the latter is expended in various radiations.

The fact of the existence of a considerable condensation of energy within the atoms only seems to jar on us because it is outside the range of things formerly taught us by experience; it should, however, be remarked that, even leaving on one side the facts revealed by radioactivity, analogous concentrations are daily observable. Is it not strikingly evident, in fact, that electricity must exist at an enormous degree of accumulation in chemical compounds, since it is found by the electrolysis of water that one gram of hydrogen possesses an electric charge of 96,000 coulombs? One gets an idea of the degree of condensation at which the electricity existed before its liberation, from the fact that the quantity above mentioned is immensely superior to what we are able to maintain on the largest surfaces at our disposal. Elementary treatises have long since pointed out that barely a 20th part of the above quantity would suffice to charge a globe the size of the earth to a potential of 6000 volts. The best static machines in our laboratories hardly give forth 1/10,000 of a coulomb per second. They would have to work unceasingly for a little over 30 years to give the quantity of electricity contained within the atoms of one gram of hydrogen.

As electricity exists in a state of considerable concentration in chemical compounds, it is evident that the atom might have been regarded long since as a veritable condenser of energy. To grasp thereafter the notion that the quantity of this energy. To grasp thereafter the notion that the quantity of this energy must be enormous, it was only necessary to appreciate the magnitude of the attractions and repulsions which are produced by the electric charges before us. It is curious to note that several physicists have touched the fringe of this question without perceiving its consequences. For example, Cornu pointed out that if it were possible to concentrate a charge of one coulomb on a very small sphere,, and to bring it within one centimeter of another sphere likewise having a charge of one coulomb, the force created by this repulsion would equal 918 dynes, or about 9 billion kilograms.

Now, we have seen above that by the dissociation of water we can obtain from one gram of hydrogen an electric charge of 96,000 coulombs. It would be enough — and this is exactly the hypothesis lately enunciated by J.J. Thomson — to dispose the electric particles at suitable distances within the atom, to obtain, through their attractions, repulsions, and rotations, extremely powerful energies in an extremely small space. The difficulty was not, therefore, in conceiving that a great deal of energy could remain within an atom. It is even surprising that a notion so evident was not formulated long since.

Our calculation of radioactive energy has been made within those limits of speed at which experiments show that the inertia of these particles does not sensibly vary, but it is possible that one cannot assimilate their inertia — though this is generally done — to that of material particles, and then the figures might be different. But they would nonetheless be extremely high. Whatever the methods adopted and the elements of calculation employed — velocity of the particles, calories emitted, electric attractions, etc. — one arrives at figures differing from each other indeed, but all extraordinarily high. Thus, for example, Rutherford fixes the energy of the alpha particles of thorium at 600,000,000 times that of a rifle-ball. Other physicists who, since the publication of one of my papers have gone into the subject, have reached figures sometimes very much higher. Assimilating the mass of electrons to that of the material particles, Max Abraham arrives at this conclusion: “That the number of electrons sufficient to weigh one gram carry with them an energy of 6 x 10 13 joules”. Reducing this figure to our ordinary unit, it will be seen to represent about 80 million horsepower per second, about 12 times greater than the figures I found for the energy emitted by one gram of particles with a speed of 100,000 kilometers per second.

J.J. Thomson also has gone into estimates of the magnitude of the energy contained in the atom, starting with the hypothesis that the material atom is solely composed of electric particles. His figures, though also very high, are lower than those just given. He finds that the energy accumulated in one gram of matter represents 1.02 x 1019 ergs, which would be about 100 billion kilogram-meters. These figures only represent, according to him, “an exceedingly small fraction” of that possessed by the atoms at the beginning and gradually lost by radiation.

(3) Forms Under Which Energy Can Be Condensed In Matter

Under what forms can intra-atomic energy exist. And how can such colossal forces have been concentrated in very small particles? The idea of such a concentration seems at first sight inexplicable, because our ordinary experience tells us that the extent of mechanical power is always associated with the dimensions of the apparatus concerned in its production. A 1000 hp engine is of considerable volume. By association of ideas we are therefore led to believe that the extent of mechanical energy implies the extent of the apparatus which produces it. But this is a pure illusion consequent on the weakness of our mechanical systems, and easy to dispel by very simple calculations. One of the most elementary formulas of dynamics teaches us that the energy of a body of constant size can be increased at will simply by increasing its speed. It is therefore possible to imagine a theoretical machine composed of the head of a pin turning round in the bezel of a ring, which, notwithstanding its smallness, should possess, thanks to its rotative force, a mechanical power equal to that of several thousand locomotives.

To fix our ideas, let us suppose a small bronze sphere (density 8.842) with a radius of 3 millimeters and consequently of one gram in weight. Let us suppose that it rotates in space round one of its diameters with an equatorial speed equal to that of the particles of dissociated matter (100,000 kilograms/second), and that, by some process or other, the rigidity of the metal has been made sufficient to resist this rotation. Calculating the vis viva [kinetic energy] of this sphere it will be seen to corresponding to 203,873,000,000 kilogram-=meters. This is nearly the work that 1510 locomotives averaging 500 hp each would supply in an hour. Such is the amount of energy that could be contained in a v ery small sphere animated by a rotary movement of which the speed should be equal to that of the particles of dissociated matter. If the same little ball turned on its own center with the velocity of light (300,00 kilograms/second) which represents about the speed of the beta particles of radium, its kinetic energy would be 9 times greater. It would exceed 1.8 billion kilogram-meters and represent the work of one hour by 13,590 locomotives.

It is precisely these excessively rapid movements of rotation on their axis and round a center that the elements which constitute the atoms seem to possess, and it is their speed which is the origin of the energy they contain. We have been led to suppose the existence of these movements of rotation by various mechanical considerations much anterior to the discoveries of the present day. These last have simply confirmed former ideas and have retransferred to the elements of the atom the motion which was attributed to the atom itself at a time when it was considered indivisible. It is only, no doubt, because they possess such velocities of rotation that the elements which constitute the atoms can, when leaving their orbits under the influence of various causes, be launched at a tangent through space with the velocities observed in the emissions of particles of matter in the course of dissociation.

The rotation of the elements of the atom is moreover the very condition of their stability, as it is for a top or a gyroscope. When under the influence of any cause the speed of rotation falls below a certain critical point, the equilibrium of the particles becomes unstable, their kinetic energy increases and they may be expelled from the system, a phenomenon which is the commencement of the dissociation of the atom.

(4) The Utilization of Intra-Atomic Energy

The last objections of the doctrine of intra-atomic energy are daily disappearing, and it is now hardly contested that matter is a prodigious reservoir of energy; while the search for the means of easily liberating this energy will surely be one of the most important problems of the future. It is important to notice that, although the numbers above arrived at in various ways point out the existence in matter of immense forces — so unforeseen hitherto — they by no means imply that these forces already are at our disposal. In fact the substances which dissociate quickest, like radium, only disengage very minute quantities of energy. All those millions of kilogram-meters which a simple gram of matter contains amount in reality to very little if, to obtain them, we have to wait millions of years. Suppose a strong box containing several thousand millions of gold dust to be closed by a mechanism which only permits the daily extraction of a milligram of the precious metal. The owner of that strong box, notwithstanding his great wealth, would be in reality very poor, and would remain so, so long as his efforts to discover the secret of the mechanism by which he could open it were unsuccessful.

This is our position as regards the forces enclosed in matter. But, to succeed in capturing them, it was first necessary to be acquainted with their existence, and of this one had not the least idea a few years ago. It was even though very certain that they did not exist. But shall we succeed in easily liberating the colossal power which the atoms conceal in their bosom? No one can foresee this. No more could one say in the days of Galvani that the electrical energy which enabled him to move with difficulty the legs of frogs and to attract small scraps of paper would one day set in motion enormous railway trains. It will perhaps always be beyond our power to totally dissociate the atom, because the difficulties must increase as dissociation advances, but it would suffice if we could succeed in easily dissociating a small part of it. Whether the gram of dissociated matter that we have supposed to be taken from a ton of matter or even more, matters nothing. The result would always be the same from the point of view of the energy produced. The researches which I have essayed on these lines, and which will be set forth here, show that it is possible to largely hasten the dissociation of various substances.

The methods of dissociation are, as we shall see, numerous. The most simple is the action of light. It has further the advantage of costing nothing. In so fresh a field, with a new world opening out before us, none of our old theories should stop those who seek. “The secret of all who make discoveries”, says Liebig, “is that they look upon nothing as impossible”. The results that could be obtained in this order of researches are truly immense. The power to dissociate matter freely would place at our disposal an infinite source of energy, and would render unnecessary the extraction of that coal. The scholar who discovers the way to liberate economically the forces which matter contains will almost instantaneously change the face of the world. If an unlimited supply of energy were gratuitously placed at the disposal of man he would no longer have to procure it at the cost of arduous labor. The poor would then be on a level with the rich, and there would be an end to all social questions.

Chapter II: Transformation Of Matter Into Energy

Modern science formerly established a complete separation between matter and energy. The classic ideas on this scission will be found very plainly stated in the following passage of a recent work by Prof. Janet: —

“The work we live in is, in reality, a double work; or rather, it is composed of two distinct worlds: one the world of matter, the other the world of energy. Copper, iron, and coal are forms of matter, mechanical labor and heat are forms of energy. These two worlds are each ruled by one and the same law. Matter and energy can assume various forms without matter ever transforming itself into energy or energy into matter… We can no more conceive energy without matte than we can conceive matter without energy” (Janet, Lecons d’Electricite).

Never, n fact, as says M. Janet, has it been possible till now to transform matter into energy; or, to be more precise, matter has never appeared to manifest any energy save that which had first been supplied to it. Incapable of creating energy, it could only giv e it back. The fundamental principles of thermodynamics taught that a material system isolated from all external action cannot spontaneously generate energy.

All previous scientific observations seemed to confirm this notion that no substance is able to produce energy without having first obtained it from outside. Matter may serve as a support to electricity, as in the case of a condenser; it may radiate heat as in the case of a mass of metal previously heated; it may manifest forces produced by simple changes of equilibrium as in the case of chemical transformation; but in all these circumstances the energy disengaged is but the restitution in quantity exactly equal to that first communicated to the portion of matter or employed in producing the combination. In all the cases just mentioned, as in all others of the same order, matter does no more than give back the energy which had first been given to it in some shape or other. It has created nothing, nothing has gone forth from itself.

The impossibility of transforming matter into energy seemed therefore evident, and it was rightly invoked in the works which have become classic to establish a sharp separation between the world of matter and the world of energy. For this separation to disappear, it was necessary to succeed in transforming matter into energy without external addition. Now, it is exactly this spontaneous transformation of matter into energy which is the result of all the experiments on the dissociation of matter set forth in this work. We shall see from them that matter can vanish without return, leaving behind it only the energy produced by its dissociation. The spontaneous production so contrary to the scientific ideas of the present time, appeared at first entirely inexplicable to physicists busied in seeking outside matter and failing to find it, the origin of energy manifested. We have shown that the explanation becomes very simple so soon as one consents to recognize that matter contains a reservoir of energy which it can lose in part, either spontaneously or by the effect of slight influences.

These slight influences act somewhat like a spark on a quantity of gunpowder — that is to say, by liberating energies far beyond those of the spark. Strictly speaking it might be urged, doubtless, that in that case it is not matter which transforms itself into energy, but simply an intra-atomic energy which is expended; but as this matter cannot be generated without matte vanishing without return, we have a right to say that things happen exactly as if matter were transformed into energy.

Such a transformation becomes, moreover, very comprehensible so soon as one is thoroughly penetrated with the idea that matter is simply that form of energy endowed with stability which we have called intra-atomic energy. It results from this that when we say that matter is transformed into energy, it simply signifies that intra-atomic energy has changed its aspect to assume those divers forms to which we give the names of light, electricity, etc. And if, as we have shown above, a very small quantity of matter can produce, in the course of dissociation, a large amount of energy, it is because one of the most characteristic properties of the intra-atomic forces is their condensation, in immense quantities, within an extremely circumscribed space. For an analogous reason a gas compressed to a very high degree in a very small reservoir can give a considerable volume of gas when the tap is opened which before prevented its escape.

The preceding notions were quite new when I formulated them for the first time. Several physicists are now arriving at them by different ways, but they do not reach them without serious difficulties, because some of these new notions are extremely hard to reconcile with certain classic principles. Many scholars have as much trouble in admitting them as they experienced 50 years ago in acknowledging as exact the principle of the conservation of energy. Nothing is more difficult than to rid oneself of the inherited ideas which unconsciously direct our thoughts.

These difficulties may be appreciated by reading a recent communication from one of the most eminent of living physicists, Lord Kelvin, at a meeting of the British Association, regarding the heat spontaneously given out by radium during its dissociation. Yet this emission is no more surprising than the continuous emission of particles having a speed of the same order as that of light, which can be obtained not only from radium, but from any substance whatever.

“It is utterly impossible”, writes Lord Kelvin, “that the heat produced can proceed from the stored energy of radium. It therefore seems to me absolutely certain that if the emission of heat continues at the same rate, this heat must be supplied from outside” (Philosophical Magazine, February 1904).

And Lord Kelvin falls back upon the commonplace hypothesis formed at the outset on the origin of the energy of radioactive bodies, which were attributable, as it was thought, to certain mysterious forces from the ambient medium. This supposition had no experimental support. It was simply the theoretical consequence of the idea that matter, being entirely unable to create energy, could only give back what had been supplied to it. The fundamental principles of thermodynamics which Lord Kelvin has helped so much to found, tell, in fact, that a material system isolated from all external action cannot spontaneously generate energy. But experiment has ever been superior to principles, and when once it has spoken, those scientific laws which appeared to be the most stable are condemned to rejoin in oblivion, the used-up, outworn dogmas and doctrines past service.

Other and bolder physicists, like Rutherford, after having admitted the principles of intra-atomic energy, remain in doubt. This is what the latter writes in a paper later than his book on radioactivity: —

“It would be desirable to see appear some kind of chemical theory to explain the facts, and to enable us to knows whether the energy is borrowed from the atom itself or from external sources” (Archives des Sciences Physiques a Genieve, 1905,p. 53).

Many physicists, like Lord Kelvin, still keep to the old principles: that is why the phenomena of radioactivity, especially the spontaneous emission of particles animated with great speed and the rise in temperature during radioactivity, seem to the utterly inexplicable, and constitute a scientific enigma, as M. Ascart has recently said. The enigma, however, is very simple with the explanation I have given.

One could not hope, moreover, that ideas so opposed to classic dogmas a s intra-atomic energy and the transforming of matter into energy should spread very rapidly. It is even contrary to the usual evolution of scientific ideas that they should be already widely spread, and should have produced all the discussion of which a summary will be found in the chapter devoted to the examination of objections. One can only explain this relative success by remembering that faith in certain scientific principles had already been greatly shaken by such unforeseen discoveries as those of the x-rays and of radium.

The fact is that the scientific ideas which rule the minds of scholars at various epochs have all the solidarity of religious dogmas. Very slow to be established, they are very slow likewise to disappear. New scientific truths have, assuredly, experience and reason as a basis, but they are only propagated by prestige — that is, when they are enunciated by scholars whose official position gives them prestige in the eyes of the scientific public. Now, it is this very category of scholars which not only does not enunciate them, but employs its authority to combat them. Truths of such capital importance as Ohm’s law, which governs the whole of electricity, and the law of the conservation of energy which governs all physics, were received, on their first appearance, with indifference or contempt, and remained without effect until the day when they were enunciated anew by scholars endowed with influence.

It is only by studying the history of sciences, so little pursued at the present date, that one succeeds in understanding the genesis of beliefs and the laws governing their diffusion.. I have alluded to two discoveries which were among the most important of the past century, and which are summarized in two laws, of which one can say that they ought to have appealed to all minds by their marvelous simplicity and their imposing grandeur. Not only did they strike no one, but the most eminent scholars of the epoch did not concern themselves about them except to try to cover them with ridicule.

That the simple enunciation of such doctrines should have appealed to no one shows with what difficulty a new idea is accepted when it does not fit in with former dogmas. Prestige, I repeat, and to a very slight extent experience are alone the ordinary foundation of our convictions — scientific and otherwise. Experiments — even those most convincing in appearance — have never constituted an immediately demonstrable foundation when they clashed with long since accepted ideas. Galileo learned this to his cost when, having brought together all the philosophers of the celebrated University of Pisa, he thought to prove to them by experiment that, contrary to the then accepted ideas, bodies of different weight fell with the same velocity. Galileo’s demonstration was assuredly very conclusive, since by letting fall at the same moment from the top of a tower a small leaden ball and a cannon shot of the same metal, he showed that both bodies reached the ground together. The professors contented themselves with appealing to the authority of Aristotle, and in nowise modified their opinions.

Many years have passed away since that time, but the degree of receptivity of minds for new things has not sensibly increased.

Chapter III: Forces Derived From Intra-Atomic Energy — Molecular Forces, Electricity, Solar Heat, Etc.

(1) The Origin of Molecular Forces

Although matter was formerly considered inert, and only capable of preserving and restoring the energy which had first been given to it, yet it was necessarily established that there existed within it forces sometimes considerable, such as cohesion, affinity, osmotic attractions and repulsions, which were seemingly independent of all external agents. Other forces, such as radiant heat and electricity, which also issued from matter, might be considered simple restitutions of an energy borrowed from outside.

But if the cohesion which makes a rigid block out of the dust of atoms of which bodies are formed, or if that affinity which draws apart or dashes certain elements one upon the other and creates chemical combinations, or if the osmotic attractions and repulsions which hold in dependency the most important phenomena of life, are visibly force inherent to matter itself, it was altogether impossible with the old ideas to determine their source. The origin of these forces ceases to be mysterious when it is known that matter is a colossal reservoir of energy. Observation having long ago shown that any form of energy whatever lends itself to a large number of transformations, we easily conceive how all the molecular forces may be derived from intra-atomic energy: cohesion, affinity, etc., hitherto so inexplicable. We are far from being acquainted with their character, but at least we see the source from which they spring.

Outside the forces plainly inherent to matter that we have just enumerated, there are two, electricity and solar heat, the origin of which has always remained unknown, and which also, as we shall see, find an easy explanation by the theory of intra-atomic energy.

(2) The Origin of Electricity

When we approach the detailed study of the facts on which are based the theories set forth in this work, we shall find that electricity is one of the most constant manifestations of the dissociation of matter. Matter being nothing else than intra-atomic energy itself, it may be said that to dissociate matter is simply to liberate a little intra-atomic energy and to oblige it to take another form. Electricity is precisely one of these forms.

For a certain number of years the role of electricity has constantly grown in importance. It is at the base of all chemical reactions, which are more and more considered as electrical reactions. It appears now as a universal force, and the tendency is to connect all other forces with it. That a force of which the manifestations have this importance and universality should have been unknown for thousands of years constitutes one of the most striking facts in the history of science, and is one of those facts we must always bear in mind to understand how we may be surrounded with very powerful forces without perceiving them.

For centuries all that was known about electricity could be reduced to this: that certain resinous substances when rubbed attract light bodies. But might not other bodies enjoy the same property? By extending the friction to larger surfaces might not more intense effects still be produced? This no one thought of inquiring. Ages succeeded each other before there arose a mind penetrating enough to verify by experiment whether a body with a large surface when rubbed would not exercise an action superior in energy to that produced by a small fragment of the same body. From this verification which now seems so simple, but which took so many years to accomplish, we saw emerge the frictional electric machine of our laboratories and the phenomena it produces. The most striking of these were the apparition of sparks and violent discharges which revealed to an astonished world a new force and put into the hands of man a power of which he thought the gods alone possessed the secret.

Electricity was then only produced very laboriously and was considered a very exceptional phenomenon. Now we find it everywhere and know that the simple contact of two heterogeneous bodies suffices to generate it. The difficulty now is not how to produce electricity, but how not to give it birth during the production of any phenomenon whatever. The falling of a drop of water, the heating of a gaseous mass by the sun, the raising of the temperature of a twisted wire, and a reaction capable of modifying the nature of a body, are all sources of electricity.

But if all chemical reactions are electrical reactions, as is now said to be the case, if the sun cannot change the temperature of a body without disengaging electricity, if a drop of water cannot fall without producing it, it is evident that its role in the life of all beings must be preponderant, This, in fact, is what we are beginning to admit. Not a single change takes place in the cells of the body, no vital reaction is effected in the tissues, without the interference of electricity. M. Berthelot has recently shown the important role of the electric tensions to which plants are constantly subjected. The variations in the electric potential of the atmosphere are enormous, since they may oscillate between 600 and 800 volts in fine weather, and rise to 15,000 volts at the least fall of rain. This potential increases at the rate of 20 to20 volts per meter in height in fine and from 400to 500 volts in rainy weather for the same elevation. “These figures”, he says, “give an idea of the potential which exists either between the upper point of a rod of which the other extremity is earthed, or between the top of a plant of a tree, and the layer of air in which that point or that top is bathed”. The same scholar has proved that the effluves generated by these differences of tension can provoke numerous chemical reactions: the fixation of nitrogen on hydrates of carbon, the dissociation of carbonic acid into carbonic oxide and oxygen, etc.

After having established the phenomenon of the general dissociation of matter, I asked myself if the universal electricity, the origin of which remained unexplained, was not precisely the consequence of the universal dissociation of matter. My experiments fully verified this hypothesis, and they proved that electricity is one of the most important forms of intra-atomic energy liberated by the dematerialization of matter. I was led to this conclusion after having satisfied myself that the products which escape from a body electrified at sufficient tension are entirely identical with those given out by radioactive substances on the road to dissociation. The various methods employed to obtain electricity, notably friction, only hasten the dissociation of matter. I shall refer, for the details of this demonstration, to the chapter treating of the subject, confining myself at present to pointing out summarily the different generalizations which flow from the doctrine of intra-atomic energy. It is not electricity alone, but also solar heat, which, as we shall see, may be considered one of its manifestations.

(3) Origin of Solar Heat

As we have fathomed the study of the dissociation of matter, so has the importance of this phenomenon proportionately increased. After recognizing that electricity may be considered one of the manifestations of matter, I asked myself whether this dissociation and its result, the liberation of intra-atomic energy, were not also the cause, till now so unknown, of the maintenance of solar heat. The various hypotheses hitherto invoked to explain the maintenance of this heat — the supposed fall of meteorites on the sun, for example — having all seemed extremely inadequate, it was necessary to seek others. Given the enormous quantity of energy accumulated within the atoms, it would be enough, if their dissociation were more rapid than it is on cooled globes, to furnish the amount of heat necessary to keep up the incandescence of the stars. And there would be no need to presume, as was done when radium was supposed to be the only body capable of producing heat while dissociating, the unlikely presence of that substance in the sun, since the atoms of all bodies contain an immense store of energy.

To maintain that stars such as the sun can keep up their own temperature by the heat resulting from the dissociation of their component atoms, seems much like saying that a heated body is capable of maintaining its temperature without any contribution from outside. Now, it is well known that an incandescent body — a heated block of metal, for instance — when left to itself rapidly cools by radiation, though it be the seat of considerable dissociation. But it cools, in fact, simply because the rise in temperature produced by the dissociation of its atoms during incandescence is far too slight to compensate for its loss of heat by radiation. The substances which, like radium, most rapidly dissociate, can hardly maintain their temperature at more than 3 or 4° C. above that of the ambient medium. Suppose, however, that the dissociation of any substance whatever were only one thousand times more rapid than that of radium, then the quantity of energy emitted would more than suffice to keep it in a state of incandescence.

The whole question therefore is whether, at the origin of things — that is to say, a the epoch when atoms were formed by condensations of an unknown nature, they did not possess such a quantity of energy that they have been able ever since to maintain the stars in a state of incandescence, thanks to their slow dissociation. This supposition is supported by the various calculation I have given as to the immense amount of energy contained within the atoms. The figures given are considerable, and yet J.J. Thomson, who has recently taken up the question anew, arrives at the conclusion that the energy now concentrated within the atoms is but an insignificant portion of that which they formerly contained and lost by radiation. Independently and at an earlier date, Prof. Filippo Re arrived at the same conclusion.

If, therefore, atoms formerly contained a quantity of energy far exceeding the still formidable amount they now possess, they may, by dissociation, have expended during long accumulations of ages a part of the gigantic reserve of forces piled up within them at the beginning of things. They may have been able, and consequently may still be able, to maintain at a very high temperature stars like the sun and the heavenly bodies. In the course of time, however, the store of intra-atomic energy within the atoms of certain stars has at length been reduced, and their dissociation has become slower and slower. Finally, they have acquired an increasing stability, have dissociated very slowly, and have become such as one observes them today in the shape of cooled stars like the earth and other planets.

If the theories formulated in this chapter are correct, the intra-atomic energy manifested during the dematerialization of matter constitutes the fundamental element whence most other forces are derived. So that it is not only electricity which is one of its manifestation, but also solar heat, that primary source of life and of the majority of the forces at our disposal. Its study, which reveals to us matter in a totally new aspect, already permits us top throw unforeseen light on the higher mechanics of our universe.

Chapter IV: The Objections To The Doctrine Of Intra-Atomic Energy

The criticisms called forth by my researches on intra-atomic energy prove that they have interested many scholars. As a new theory can only be solidly established by discussion, I thank them for their objections, and shall endeavor to answer them.

The most important has been raised by several members of the Academie des Sciences. This is what M. Poincare, one of the most eminent, wrote to me after the publication of my researches: —

“I have read your memoir with the greatest interest. It raises a number of disturbing questions. One point to which I should like to call your attention is the opposition between your conception of the origin of solar heat and that of Helmholtz and Lord Kelvin.

“When the nebula condenses into a sun its original potential energy is transformed into heat subsequently dissipated by radiation.

“When the sub-atoms unite to form an atom this condensation stores up energy in a potential form, and it is when the atom disaggregates that this energy reappears in the form of heat (disengagement of heat by radium).

“Thus the reaction, ‘nebula to sun’, is exothermic. The reaction ‘isolated sub-atoms to atoms’ is endothermic, but I this ‘combination’ is endothermic how comes it to be so extraordinarily stable?”.

Another member of the Academie des Sciences, M. Paul Painleve, formulates the same objection, as follows:—

“Thermodynamics teaches us the modifications which must be introduced into the celebrated principle of maximum work; we know that in a chemical combination stability and exothermism are not strictly synonymous. None the less there remains the possibility that a combination at the same time extraordinarily stable and extraordinarily endothermic is something contrary, not indeed to the principle of the conservation of energy, but to the whole body of facts which up to recent times have been scientifically established” (Revue Scientifique, 27 January 1906).

M. Naquet, late Professor of Chemistry at the Faculte de Medecine of Paris, who was unacquainted with M. Poincare’s conclusions, expressed the same objection.

“There is one point, however, which I find embarrassing, especially if I adopt the most seductive of all hypotheses, that of Gustave LeBon… If the atoms disengage heat in the process of self-destruction they are endothermic, and, by analogy, should be excessively unstable. Now, on the contrary, they are the most stable things in the universe.

“Here is a troublesome contradiction. We should not, however, attach to this difficulty more importance than it possesses. Every time great systems have arisen difficulties of this kind have occurred. The authors of such systems have paid no attention to them. If Newton and his successors had allowed the perturbations they observed to stop them, the law of universal gravitation would never have been formulated” (Revue d’Italie, March-April 1904).

The objection of M.M. Poincare, Painlee, and Naquet is evidently sound. It would be irrefutable were it applied to ordinary chemical compounds, but the laws applicable to the chemical equilibria do not appear to apply at all to intra-atomic equilibria. The atom alone possesses these two contradictory properties, of being at once very stable and very instable. It is very stable, since chemical reactions leave it sufficiently untouched for our balances to find it always the same weight. It is very instable, since such slight causes as a ray of the sun, or the smallest rise in temperature suffice to begin its dissociation. This dissociation is, no doubt, slight — in relation to the enormous quantity of energy accumulated within the atom, and it no more changes its mass than a shovelful of earth withdrawn from a mountain appreciably changes the weight of the latter, We, therefore, have to do with special phenomena to which none of the customary laws of ordinary chemistry seem to apply. To put in evidence the special laws which regulate these new facts cannot be the work of a day. To interpret a fact is sometimes more difficult than to discover it.

M. Armand Gauthier, Member of the Institut and Professor of Chemistry at the Faculte de Medecine pf Paris, has also taken up the question of intra-atomic energy I an article published by him on the subject of my researches. He recognizes that it is in the form of gyratory movements that intra-atomic energy may exist. I have not wished to enter into too many details on this point here, because it is evidently only hypothetical, and have confined myself to comparing the atom to a solar system, a comparison at which several physicists have arrived by different roads. Without such movements of gyration it would be impossible to conceive a condensation of energy within the atom. With these movements it becomes easy to explain. Find the means, as I have pointed out above, to give a body of any size whatever, were it even less than that of a pin’s head, a sufficient speed of rotation, and you will communicate to it as considerable a provision of energy as you can desire. This is the precise condition which is realized by particles of atoms during their dissociation.

M. Despaux, an engineer, on the contrary, entirely rejects the existence of intra-atomic energy. Here are his reasons:

“It is the dissociation of matter which, according to Gustave LeBon, is the cause of the enormous energy manifested in radioactivity.

“This view is quite a new one, and revolutionary in the highest degree. Science admits the indestructibility of matter, and it is the fundamental dogma of chemistry; it admits the conservation of energy, and has made it the basis of mechanics. Here are two conquests one must then abandon. Matter transforms itself into energy and conversely.

“This conception is assuredly seductive and in the highest degree philosophical. But this transformation, it if takes place, only does so by a slow process of evolution. During any given epoch, all the phenomena studied by science lead to the belief that the quantity of matter and the quantity of energy are invariable.

“Another objection arises, and a formidable one: Is it possible that so trifling an amount of matter carries in its loins so considerable a quantity of energy? Our reason refuses to believe it” (Revue Scientifique, 1 January 1904).

Let us leave on one side the principle of the conservation of energy, which cannot evidently be discussed in a few lines, and remains, moreover, partly intact if it be recognized that the atom, by dissociation, simply gives back the energy it has stored up, at the beginning of the ages, during its transformation. The objections of M. Despaux reduce themselves, then, to this: reason refuses to admit that matter can conceal so considerable a quantity of energy. I simply reply that it is a question of an experimental fact, amply proved by the emission of particles endowed with a speed of the order of that of light, and by the large quantity of calories given forth by radium. The number of things that reason at first refused to recognize and yet had in the end to admit is considerable.

However, I am willing to acknowledge that this conception of the atom as an enormous source of energy, and of such energy that one gram of any substance whatever contains the equivalent of several thousand million kilogram-meters, is too much opposed to received ideas to penetrate rapidly into men’s minds. But this is solely due to the fact that the intellectual moulds fashioned by education do not change easily. M. Duchaud has put this excellently in an article on the same subject (Revue Scientifique, 2 April 1904), of which this is an extract: —

“The consequences of the experiments of Gustave LeBon, which appear to rebel against the scientific dogmas of the conservation of energy and of the indestructibility of matter, have excited numerous objections. It follows that men’s minds hardly lend themselves to the admission that matter can emit spontaneously (that is, by itself and without any external aid) more or less considerable quantities of energy. This arises from that very old conception of the ‘duality of force and matter’ which, by bringing us to consider them two distinct terms, compels us to regard matter as by itself inert… One can regard matter as non-inert, as being ‘a colossal reservoir of forces that it is able to expend without borrowing anything from outside, without on that account attacking the principle of the conservation of energy.

“But the attack which aims at the indestructibility of matter seems more serious. Still, after due reflection, I think we should only see in this a question of words.

“As a matter of fact, Gustave LeBon presents to us four successive stages of matter… while showing that everything returns to ether, he allows also that everything proceeds from it. ‘Worlds are born therein, and go there to die’, he tells us.

“The ponderable issues from the ether, and returns to it under manifold influences. That is to say, the ether is a reservoir, at once the receptacle and the pourer-forth of matter. Now, unless we admit that there is a loss on the part of the ether, a leakage from the reservoir in the course of this perpetual exchange between the ponderable and the imponderable, it is impossible to conclude that there is a disappearance of any quantity of matter. And the idea of a loss on the part of the ether is inadmissible, for it leads to the absurd conclusion that that which is lost must diffuse itself outside space, since, by the hypothesis, the ether fills all space”.

M. Laisant, examiner at the Ecole Polytechnique, expresses similar views in a paper on these researches: —

“A small quantity of matter, for instance, a gram, contains, according to Gustave LeBon’s theory, an amount of energy which, if it were liberated, would represent thousands of millions of kilogram-meters. What becomes, on this conception, of the immaterial ether in which matter is about to lose itself? It is a sort of final nirvana, in the words of the author, an infinite and motionless nothingness, receiving everything and giving back nothing. In the stead of this eternal cemetery of the atoms, I strive to see in the ether rather the perpetual laboratory of nature. I would even do so far as to say that it is to the atom what, in biology, protoplasm is to the cell. Everything goes to and comes forth from it. It is a form of matter, at once its original and the final form” (“L’Enseignement Mathematique”, 15 January 1906).

I have no reason to contradict the two authors last quoted on the fate of matter when it has disappeared. All I wanted to establish, in fact, was that ponderable mater vanishes without return by liberating the enormous forces it contains. Once returned to the ether, matter has irrevocably ceased to exist, so far as we are concerned. It has become something unrecognizable and eliminated from the sphere of the world accessible to our senses. There is assuredly a much greater distance between matter and ether than there is between carbon or nitrogen and the living beings formed from their combinations. Carbon and nitrogen can, in fact, indefinitely recommence their cycle by falling again under the laws of life; while matter returned to the ether can no more become matter again — or at least can only do so by colossal accumulations of energy which demand long successions of ages for their formation, and which we could not produce without the power attributed in the Book of Genesis to the Creator.

It is, generally, mathematicians and engineer who receive my ideas with most favor. But in his inaugural discourse as President of L’Association Francaise pour l’Avancement des Sciences, M. Laisant, quoted above, produced one of my most important conclusions, and showed all the bearing it may have in the future. It is especially abroad, however, that these ideas have found most echo. Prof. Filippo Re detailed the matter length in the Rivista di Fisica, and in a technical review exclusively designed for engineers (Bull. De l’Assoc. des Ing. Ecole Polytech. De Bruxelles, December 1903)

Prof. Somerhausen has devoted to them a memoir from which I will give a few extracts because they show that in many thinking minds the fundamental principles of modern science have not inspired very unshakeable convictions.

…A Revolution in Science – This title is apt, for the facts and hypotheses of which we are about to treat tend to do nothing less than sap two principles we have admitted as the most unshakeable foundations of the scientific edifice… If one frees oneself from the tendency to arrange new facts in already known categories, one will have to admit that the remarkable facts we have examined cannot be explained by the known modes of energy, and they must necessarily be interpreted, with Gustave LeBon, as the manifestation of an energy hitherto unsuspected.

“We have established, on the one hand, the new phenomenon of atomic dissociation, and, on the other, the production of considerable energy without any possible explanation by known means. It is evidently logical to connect the two facts, and attribute to the destruction of the atom the freeing of the new energy — of intra-atomic energy.

“Gustave LeBon supposes that the dissociated atom has acquired properties intermediate between matter and ether, and between the ponderable and the imponderable. But from the point of view of the effects, clearly everything takes place as if by a direct transformation from mater into energy… We therefore see matter here appearing as a direct source of energy. Which vitiates all the applications of the principle of the conservation of energy. And as we have had to admit the possibility of the destruction of matter, we have to admit the possibility of the creation of energy. We now begin to discern the possibility, by combining the terms matter and energy, of arriving at a definitive equation which may be looked upon as the highest symbol of the phenomena of the universe.

“It will certainly be one of the grandest conquests of science if we succeed, after having passed the stage of the unity of matter, in joining the domain of matter with that of energy, and thus clear away the last discontinuity in the structure of the world.”

Among the objections which I ought to mention there is one which must certainly have occurred to the minds of many. It was formulated by Prof. Pio, on one of the four articles he published under the title “Intra-Atomic Energy” in an English scientific review (English Mechanic, 21 January, 4 March, 15 April, 12 May 1904). I will discuss it after reproducing a few passages from these articles.

“All the new phenomena — cathode rays, emanations from radium, etc., have been explained by the doctrine of the dissociation of matter by Gustave LeBon” The phenomenon of the dissociation of matter discovered by the latter is a\s marvelous as it is astounding. It has not, however, excited the same attention as the discovery of radium, because the close link which connects these two discoveries has not been perceived… These experiments open a perspective to inventors which surpasses all dreams. There is in Nature an immense source of force which we do not know,,, Matter s no longer inert, but a prodigious storehouse of energy… The theory of intra-atomic energy leads to an entirely new conception of natural forces… Till no we have only known of forces acting on atoms from without: gravitation, heat, light, affinity, etc. now the atom appears as a generator of energy independent of all external force. All these phenomena will serve as a foundation for a new theory of energy”.

The objection of the author to which I have alluded is this:

“How is it”, he asks, “that particles emitted under the influence of intra-atomic energy with an enormous speed do not render incandescent by the shock the bodies they strike, and where does the energy expended go to?”. The answer is: if the particles are emitted in sufficient numbers, they may in fact render metals incandescent by the shock, as is observed on the anti-cathode of Crookes’ tube. With radium, and still more with ordinary substances infinitely less active, the energy is produced too slowly to generate such important effects. At the most, as is the case with radium, it may raise the temperature of the mass of the body by two or three degrees. Radium releases, according to the measurements of Curie, 100 calorie-grams per hour, and this quantity could only raise the temperature of 100 grams of water by one degree in an hour. It is evidently too slight to raise in any appreciable way the temperature of a metal, especially if one considers that this would cool by radiation nearly as fast as it was heated.

Certainly it would be quite different if radium or any other substance were dissociate rapidly instead of requiring centuries for the purpose. The scholar who discovers the way to dissociate instantaneously one gram of any metal — radium, lead, or silver — will not witness the results of his experiment. The explosion produced would be so formidable that his laboratory and all the neighboring houses would be instantly pulverized. So complete a dissociation will probably never be attained, though M. de Heen attributes to explosions of this kind the sudden disappearance of certain stars. Yet there is hope that the partial dissociation of atoms may be rendered less slow. I assert this, not as the result of theory, but as of experiment, by the means set forth in the sequel, I have been able to render metals almost deprived of radioactivity, like tin, 40 times more radioactive than an equal surface of uranium.

The preceding discussion show that the doctrine of intra-atomic energy has attracted much more notice than that of the universality of the dissociation of matter. Yet the first-named was only the consequence of the second, and it was necessary to establish the facts before looking for the consequences.

It is especially these consequences which have made an impression. One of our most important publication, the Annee Scientifique, has remarked this very clearly in a summary of which I give some extracts: —

“M. Gustave LeBon was the first, as we should not forget, to throw some light into this dark chaos, by sowing that radioactivity is not peculiar to a few rare substances, such as uranium, etc., but is a general property of matter, possessed in varying degrees by all bodies…

“Such is, briefly and in its larger outlines, Gustave LeBon’s doctrine, which upsets all our traditional acquirements as to the conservation of energy and the indestructibility of matter. Radioactivity, a general and essential property of matter, should be the manifestation of a new mode of energy and of a force — the intra-atomic energy — hitherto unknown.

“We do not yet know how to liberate and master this incalculable reserve of force, of which yesterday we did not even suspect the existence. But it is evident that when man shall have found the means to make himself its master, it will be the greatest revolution ever recorded in the annals of the genius of science, a revolution of which our puny brains can hardly grasp all the consequences and the extent”.

The philosophic consequences of these researches have not escaped several scholars. In an analysis of the first edition of this work published in the Revue Philosophique for November 1905, M. Sagaret, an engineer, has fully shown these consequences. Here are some extracts from his article:

“No scientific theory has responded nor can better respond to our yearning for unity than that of Gustave LeBon. It sets up a unity than which it would be impossible to imagine anything more complete, and it focuses our knowledge on the following principle: one substance alone exists which moves and produces all things by its movements. This is not a new conception, it is true, for the philosopher, but it has remained hitherto a purely metaphysical speculation. Today, thanks to Dr Gustave LeBon, it finds a starting point in experiment.

“The scholar has till now stopped at the atom without perceiving any link between it and the ether. The duality of the ponderable and the imponderable seemed irreducible. Now the theory of the dematerialization of matter comes to establish a link between them.

“But it realizes scientific unity in yet another way by making general the law of evolution. This law, hitherto confined to the organic world, now extends to the whole universe. The atom, like the living being, develops and dies, and Dr Gustave LeBon shows us that the chemical species evolves like the organic species”.