A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter III
Chemistry since the time of Dalton
New weapons - spectroscope and camera
But the atomic weights are not alone in suggesting the compound nature of the alleged elements. Evidence of a totally different kind has contributed to the same end, from a source that could hardly have been imagined when the Proutian hypothesis, was formulated, through the tradition of a novel weapon to the armamentarium of the chemist - the spectroscope. The perfection of this instrument, in the hands of two German scientists, Gustav Robert Kirchhoff and Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, came about through the investigation, towards the middle of the century, of the meaning of the dark lines which had been observed in the solar spectrum by Fraunhofer as early as 1815, and by Wollaston a decade earlier. It was suspected by Stokes and by Fox Talbot in England, but first brought to demonstration by Kirchhoff and Bunsen, that these lines, which were known to occupy definite positions in the spectrum, are really indicative of particular elementary substances. By means of the spectroscope, which is essentially a magnifying lens attached to a prism of glass, it is possible to locate the lines with great accuracy, and it was soon shown that here was a new means of chemical analysis of the most exquisite delicacy. It was found, for example, that the spectroscope could detect the presence of a quantity of sodium so infinitesimal as the one two-hundred-thousandth of a grain. But what was even more important, the spectroscope put no limit upon the distance of location of the substance it tested, provided only that sufficient light came from it. The experiments it recorded might be performed in the sun, or in the most distant stars or nebulae; indeed, one of the earliest feats of the instrument was to wrench from the sun the secret of his chemical constitution.

To render the utility of the spectroscope complete, however, it was necessary to link with it another new chemical agency - namely, photography. This now familiar process is based on the property of light to decompose certain unstable compounds of silver, and thus alter their chemical composition. Davy and Wedgwood barely escaped the discovery of the value of the photographic method early in the nineteenth century. Their successors quite overlooked it until about 1826, when Louis J. M. Daguerre, the French chemist, took the matter in hand, and after many years of experimentation brought it to relative perfection in 1839, in which year the famous daguerreotype first brought the matter to popular attention. In the same year Mr. Fox Talbot read a paper on the subject before the Royal Society, and soon afterwards the efforts of Herschel and numerous other natural philosophers contributed to the advancement of the new method.

In 1843 Dr. John W. Draper, the famous English-American chemist and physiologist, showed that by photography the Fraunhofer lines in the solar spectrum might be mapped with absolute accuracy; also proving that the silvered film revealed many lines invisible to the unaided eye. The value of this method of observation was recognized at once, and, as soon as the spectroscope was perfected, the photographic method, in conjunction with its use, became invaluable to the chemist. By this means comparisons of spectra may be made with a degree of accuracy not otherwise obtainable; and, in case of the stars, whole clusters of spectra may be placed on record at a single observation.

As the examination of the sun and stars proceeded, chemists were amazed or delighted, according to their various preconceptions, to witness the proof that many familiar terrestrial elements are to be found in the celestial bodies. But what perhaps surprised them most was to observe the enormous preponderance in the sidereal bodies of the element hydrogen. Not only are there vast quantities of this element in the sun's atmosphere, but some other suns appeared to show hydrogen lines almost exclusively in their spectra. Presently it appeared that the stars of which this is true are those white stars, such as Sirius, which had been conjectured to be the hottest; whereas stars that are only red-hot, like our sun, show also the vapors of many other elements, including iron and other metals.

In 1878 Professor J. Norman Lockyer, in a paper before the Royal Society, called attention to the possible significance of this series of observations. He urged that the fact of the sun showing fewer elements than are observed here on the cool earth, while stars much hotter than the sun show chiefly one element, and that one hydrogen, the lightest of known elements, seemed to give color to the possibility that our alleged elements are really compounds, which at the temperature of the hottest stars may be decomposed into hydrogen, the latter "element" itself being also doubtless a compound, which might be resolved under yet more trying conditions.

Here, then, was what might be termed direct experimental evidence for the hypothesis of Prout. Unfortunately, however, it is evidence of a kind which only a few experts are competent to discuss - so very delicate a matter is the spectral analysis of the stars. What is still more unfortunate, the experts do not agree among themselves as to the validity of Professor Lockyer's conclusions. Some, like Professor Crookes, have accepted them with acclaim, hailing Lockyer as "the Darwin of the inorganic world," while others have sought a different explanation of the facts he brings forward. As yet it cannot be said that the controversy has been brought to final settlement. Still, it is hardly to be doubted that now, since the periodic law has seemed to join hands with the spectroscope, a belief in the compound nature of the so-called elements is rapidly gaining ground among chemists. More and more general becomes the belief that the Daltonian atom is really a compound radical, and that back of the seeming diversity of the alleged elements is a single form of primordial matter. Indeed, in very recent months, direct experimental evidence for this view has at last come to hand, through the study of radio-active substances. In a later chapter we shall have occasion to inquire how this came about..





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.