Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

RADIOACTIVE CHANGE UNIQUE

115

of simple alternative explanation. Different investigators have obtained entirely opposite results, and there is not that consensus of evidence one finds among those who have investigated radioactive change.

In another direction there has been a tendency to underrate the unique and unparalleled phenomenon of radioactive change, and to connect what is entirely and solely a development of the new experimental science of radioactivity with the somewhat older isolation of the electron and the electronic hypotheses of the constitution of matter to which that discovery has given rise. For example, Sir J. J. Thomson in his Romanes Lecture, 1914, says: “Since the electron can be got from all the chemical elements we may conclude that electrons are a constituent of all the atoms. We have thus made the first step towards a knowledge of the structure of the atom and towards the goal towards which since the time of Prout many chemists have been striving, the proof that the atoms of the chemical elements are all built up of simpler atoms-primordial atoms, as they have been called." The removal of electrons from matter occurs in physical, chemical, and radioactive changes alike, exampled, respectively, by the electrification of a glass rod by friction, the ionisation of an electrolyte by solution, and by the B-ray change of radioactive substances. It is only in the latter case, however, that the electron can be regarded as a primordial constituent and the change as transmutational. Even to-day it is in radioactive phenomena, and in these alone, that the limits reached long ago in the chemical analysis of matter have been overstepped and the Rubicon, which a century ago Prout vaulted over so lightly in imagination, has actually been crossed by science.

But f.

14.

FIRST AND SECOND PHASES OF DEVELOPMENT.

Looking backward to the first recognition of the character of radioactive change in 1902, it is possible to distinguish broadly two phases. The first phase, concerned mainly with the disentanglement of the long and complicated series of successive changes, commencing with the two primary radio-elements uranium and thorium, and including ultimately all the known radio-elements, added little to the conceptions of chemistry beyond the disturbing fact that the radio-elements, although in every other respect analogous to the ordinary elements, are in process of continuous transmutation. But in the second and more recent phase of radioactive change,—the study of the chemical character of the successive products and the law connecting this with the type of ray expelled in the change, the discovery of elements with different radioactive but identical chemical character, the recognition of these as isotopes, or elements occupying the same place in the periodic table, and the interpretation of the significance of the periodic law,-conceptions are arrived at which are not merely novel, but upsetting. In this phase, an aspect of the ultimate constitution of matter has been revealed that, although well within the scope of the conceptions of elements and atoms which we owe to the nineteenth century, nevertheless has totally escaped recognition. I am not much concerned with definitions, but I think the Chemical Society might safely offer a prize of a million pounds to any one of its members who will shortly and satisfactorily define the element and the atom for the benefit of and within the understanding of a first-year student of chemistry at the present time.

RADIOACTIVE CHANGE

117

CHIEF FEATURES OF RADIOACTIVE CHANGE.

The features that distinguish radioactive change from chemical change, and which have made it possible in a few short years to reduce to some degree of finality and completeness the intensely complicated series of successive changes suffered by the elements uranium and thorium in the course of their disintegration, are chiefly two. In the first place, the whole phenomena are inevitable, incapable of being changed or deviated from their allotted course by any means whatever, independent of temperature, concentration, or the accumulation of products of reaction, the presence of catalysts, irreversible and capable of being accurately and quantitatively followed without alteration or disturbance of the changing system. The mathematical theory, although for many successive changes it becomes cumbrous and unwieldy to a degree, involves only the solution of one differential equation by a device quite within the compass of anyone possessing a knowledge of the bare elements of the calculus to employ. The second feature is in the magnitude of the energy evolved, which, weight for weight of matter changing, surpasses that evolved in the most exothermic chemical changes known, from one hundred thousand to a million times. Manifested in the form of rays, by their fluorescent, photographic, or ionising power capable of being put into evidence in almost inconceivably minute amount, changes are capable of being followed, and by the electroscope accurately measured, which would conceivably require to continue for millions of years before they could be experimentally detected by chemical or even by spectroscopic methods. The disintegration of the single atom is ascertainable, for example, in the spinthariscope of Sir William Crookes, where each

R

of the scintillations separately visible is due to the impact of a single a-particle on the zinc sulphide screen. On the same principle, methods have been developed and are in regular use for counting the number of atoms disintegrating per minute, whereas to the spectroscope at least 3.1018 atoms as a minimum must be present, 25,000 times as many atoms as there are human beings alive in the world, before any element can be so detected. By the most curious compensation, almost of the nature of a providential dispensation which some may have found difficult to believe, the quantity of matter of itself is not of importance in investigating radioactive change. The methods depend on the rate of emission of energy, and this is proportional to the quantity of the changing element multiplied by its rate of change. In the disintegration series, the various members accumulate in quantities inversely proportional to the rates of change, and so it comes about that all changes within the series are equally within the scope of the method whether, as in the case of the parent elements, they involve periods surpassing the most liberal estimates of the duration of geological time or, as in the case of the C' members, are estimated to run their course in a time so short that light itself can travel but a very few millimetres, before the next change overtakes the changing atom.

The condition of radioactive equilibrium in which the quantities of the successive products assume the above stationary ratio is of course entirely different from chemical equilibrium, and is the condition in which for each member of the series except the first as much is produced as changes further in the unit of time.

The foregoing applies so long as the changes continue. When they are finished and it is a question of ascertaining the ultimate products, the

PRODUCTION OF HELIUM AND LEAD

119

task may be likened to that of searching for a meteor which a moment before lit up the heavens and now has vanished into the night.

THE ULTIMATE PRODUCTS.

It is a matter for surprise that in all radioactive changes so far studied there appear to be only two ultimate products, helium and lead, the former constituting the a-particles and the latter being produced both by uranium and thorium, withal, as we now know, not the same lead in the two cases. There are sufficient experimental reasons for doubting whether the disintegration of an atom into more nearly equal parts would be within range of detection by any of the known methods. A heavy atom like oxygen, for example, if expelled as a radiant particle, might not attain sufficient velocity to ionise gases, or, even if it did, the range over which the ionisation would extend, as we know from the ionisation produced by the recoil atoms, would be extremely small. It must be a matter for comment, however, that hydrogen never appears in these changes, as, if it were produced, it would almost certainly be as easy to ascertain as helium. It has always seemed to me a possibility that some genetic connection may exist, after all, between thorium and uranium, although I have never been able to frame even a possible mode of so connecting these two elements. With a difference of atomic weight of six units, it is impossible to pass from one to the other by addition or expulsion of helium atoms alone.

Both with regard to helium and lead, the composition of radioactive minerals gave the first clue to the identity of the ultimate products. After the discovery of radioactivity and the elucidation of its nature, the fact that helium was found only

« AnteriorContinuar »