Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

ments ruled by lawyers, politicians, financiers and administrators of the modern official type is a prospect as appalling as the handing over of civilisation to the Hun. But in the modern world the community somehow must contrive to rule through its creative elements, rather than to allow the non-creative elements to rule the creative. Everything comes back to the unsolved problem of how to purify and strengthen the moral and ethical standards of the official classes, which have been so sadly perverted by their peculiar system of education, in order to make them conform more nearly to the standards of conduct and honesty entertained by the majority of ordinary respectable and benevolent people.]

THE CONCEPTION OF THE CHEMICAL

ELEMENT AS ENLARGED BY THE
STUDY OF RADIOACTIVE CHANGE'

THE Council of the Chemical Society have honoured me with the invitation to deliver one of three lectures bearing on the ultimate constitution of matter, and I accepted the invitation in my desire to show how greatly I appreciated it rather than with any prospect of being enabled, when the time came, to say any. thing on the subject which has not already been said before. The problem of the ultimate constitution of matter belongs to another world than that through which for the past four years we have been living, and although hostilities have at length ceased, and we may look forward to an opportunity of resuming in the future the thread of our philosophical investigations, philosophy herself is not so easily to be resumed. Novel in one sense as are the ideas introduced into the concepts of physics and chemistry by the study of radioactivity, four years' interruption has made them appear rather as a remote historical accomplishment than as a contemporaneous development. Although no longer new, however, the more as the subject matures does it become apparent that these advances are of fundamental and increasing importance to the chemist.

One would perhaps have expected that on the first and most fundamental conclusion arrived at in the study of radioactive change that the change is of a transmutational character, involving the spontaneous disintegration of the radio-element into others, it would have been the chemists who would have been most deeply interested, and who would have weighed the evidence and pronounced a decision. Yet judgment on the view, which was put forward more than fifteen years ago, on evidence, in my opinion, even then deserving of serious consideration, although accepted and universally adopted by the workers in the subject and by physicists, has gone by default so Ifar as the majority of chemists are concerned. From the first, much of the most important evidence has been of a singularly simple and convincing chemical character.

1 A Lecture delivered before the London Chemical Society on 19th December 1918.

THE TRANSMUTATIONAL CHARACTER OF RADIO

ACTIVE CHANGE.

If a chemist were to purify an element, say lead from silver, and found, on re-examining the lead at a later date, that silver was still present, and, again and again repeating the process, found always that silver, initially absent, reappeared, would he not be forced to conclude that lead was changing into silver and that silver was being produced by lead? It is because of the absence of evidence of this kind that the doctrine of the unchangeability of the elements has grown up. One positive example of the kind in question and that doctrine would be at an end. The conclusion to which, in 1902, Sir Ernest Rutherford and I were forced with regard to the element thorium was based on evidence of this direct and simple nature. By simple purification, by chemical and physical means, constituents responsible for the greater part of the radioactivity of

THORIUM PRODUCTS

113

thorium can be separated, and as often as they are separated they are regenerated at a perfectly definite and regular rate. One of these constituents, the emanation, is gaseous, and it can be separated from the thorium by no more elaborate means than by a puff of air. Certainly the actual quantity of thorium emanation is infinitesimal, but this did not hinder its complete chemical characterisation, for it was found to pass unabsorbed through every reagent tried, one or other of which would have absorbed every known gas with the exception of the gases of the argon family. The conclusion that the thorium emanation was a gas of the argon family produced by thorium, later extended to the similar gaseous products of radium and actinium, was a purely experimental conclusion reached before any theory whatever as to the nature of radioactivity had been advanced.

Another constituent responsible for part of the radioactivity we called thorium-X. It is left in the filtrate when a solution of thorium is precipitated with ammonia, although not when the thorium is precipitated by other reagents, such as sodium carbonate or phosphate. After this removal, however, thorium-X re-forms in the thorium. Moreover, it is thorium-X, not thorium, that produces the emanation. The latter in turn produces the nonvolatile active deposit, in which the successive products, called thorium-A, -B, -C, and -D, are now recognised. The false interpretation of a similar phenomenon in the case of radium, before the radium emanation had been recognised, led to the view that inactive matter could be rendered temporarily radioactive by "induction,” through contact with or association with radioactive matter. In the case of thorium, the discovery of the chemical character of the thorium emanation rendered the nature of the phenomenon clear almost from the first.

This, taken in conjunction with the atomic character of radioactivity, recognised by Mme. Curie from the start, and with the fact that the law of radioactive change proved to be the same as the law of unimolecular reaction, made the conclusion that the radio-elements were undergoing a series of successive changes, in which new elements are produced, of chemical and physical character totally distinct from those of the parent element, the only one capable of explaining the facts.

Novel and unexpected as it was to find transmutation spontaneously in progress among the radioelements, the phenomena this explanation explained were equally novel and transcended what to a generation ago would have appeared to be the limits of the physically possible.

It is to pay chemistry a poor compliment to represent this conclusion as in any way contrary to the established foundations of chemistry. If it had not been for the correct conception of the nature of chemical change, the clear distinction between atoms and molecules, and the conclusion that in all changes in matter hitherto studied the element and the atom of the element remain essentially unchanged, which we owe to the founders of chemistry, the character of radioactivity would not have been arrived at so quickly. On the other hand, if radioactivity had not been almost instantly recognised as a case of spontaneous transmutation, then, if you will, there would have been something radically wrong with chemistry and the training it affords in the elucidation of the metamorphoses of matter.

With regard, however, to the various claims that have been made since, that transmutational changes can be artificially effected by the aid of the electric discharge in gases or the rays from radium, I have always regarded the evidence in this field as capable

« AnteriorContinuar »