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

Book 4, chapter III
Chemistry since the time of Dalton
Periodicity of atomic weights
These utterly novel studies of molecular architecture may seem at first sight to take from the atom much of its former prestige as the all-important personage of the chemical world. Since so much depends upon the mere position of the atoms, it may appear that comparatively little depends upon the nature of the atoms themselves. But such a view is incorrect, for on closer consideration it will appear that at no time has the atom been seen to renounce its peculiar personality. Within certain limits the character of a molecule may be altered by changing the positions of its atoms (just as different buildings may be constructed of the same bricks), but these limits are sharply defined, and it would be as impossible to exceed them as it would be to build a stone building with bricks. From first to last the brick remains a brick, whatever the style of architecture it helps to construct; it never becomes a stone. And just as closely does each atom retain its own peculiar properties, regardless of its surroundings.

Thus, for example, the carbon atom may take part in the formation at one time of a diamond, again of a piece of coal, and yet again of a particle of sugar, of wood fibre, of animal tissue, or of a gas in the atmosphere; but from first to last - from glass-cutting gem to intangible gas - there is no demonstrable change whatever in any single property of the atom itself. So far as we know, its size, its weight, its capacity for vibration or rotation, and its inherent affinities, remain absolutely unchanged throughout all these varying fortunes of position and association. And the same thing is true of every atom of all of the seventy-odd elementary substances with which the modern chemist is acquainted. Every one appears always to maintain its unique integrity, gaining nothing and losing nothing.

All this being true, it would seem as if the position of the Daltonian atom as a primordial bit of matter, indestructible and non-transmutable, had been put to the test by the chemistry of our century, and not found wanting. Since those early days of the century when the electric battery performed its miracles and seemingly reached its limitations in the hands of Davy, many new elementary substances have been discovered, but no single element has been displaced from its position as an undecomposable body. Rather have the analyses of the chemist seemed to make it more and more certain that all elementary atoms are in truth what John Herschel called them, "manufactured articles" - primordial, changeless, indestructible.

And yet, oddly enough, it has chanced that hand in hand with the experiments leading to such a goal have gone other experiments arid speculations of exactly the opposite tenor. In each generation there have been chemists among the leaders of their science who have refused to admit that the so-called elements are really elements at all in any final sense, and who have sought eagerly for proof which might warrant their scepticism. The first bit of evidence tending to support this view was furnished by an English physician, Dr. William Prout, who in 1815 called attention to a curious relation to be observed between the atomic weight of the various elements. Accepting the figures given by the authorities of the time (notably Thomson and Berzelius), it appeared that a strikingly large proportion of the atomic weights were exact multiples of the weight of hydrogen, and that others differed so slightly that errors of observation might explain the discrepancy. Prout felt that it could not be accidental, and he could think of no tenable explanation, unless it be that the atoms of the various alleged elements are made up of different fixed numbers of hydrogen atoms. Could it be that the one true element - the one primal matter - is hydrogen, and that all other forms of matter are but compounds of this original substance?

Prout advanced this startling idea at first tentatively, in an anonymous publication; but afterwards he espoused it openly and urged its tenability. Coming just after Davy's dissociation of some supposed elements, the idea proved alluring, and for a time gained such popularity that chemists were disposed to round out the observed atomic weights of all elements into whole numbers. But presently renewed determinations of the atomic weights seemed to discountenance this practice, and Prout's alleged law fell into disrepute. It was revived, however, about 1840, by Dumas, whose great authority secured it a respectful hearing, and whose careful redetermination of the weight of carbon, making it exactly twelve times that of hydrogen, aided the cause.

Subsequently Stas, the pupil of Dumas, undertook a long series of determinations of atomic weights, with the expectation of confirming the Proutian hypothesis. But his results seemed to disprove the hypothesis, for the atomic weights of many elements differed from whole numbers by more, it was thought, than the limits of error of the experiments. It was noteworthy, however, that the confidence of Dumas was not shaken, though he was led to modify the hypothesis, and, in accordance with previous suggestions of Clark and of Marignac, to recognize as the primordial element, not hydrogen itself, but an atom half the weight, or even one-fourth the weight, of that of hydrogen, of which primordial atom the hydrogen atom itself is compounded. But even in this modified form the hypothesis found great opposition from experimental observers.

In 1864, however, a novel relation between the weights of the elements and their other characteristics was called to the attention of chemists by Professor John A. R. Newlands, of London, who had noticed that if the elements are arranged serially in the numerical order of their atomic weights, there is a curious recurrence of similar properties at intervals of eight elements This so-called "law of octaves" attracted little immediate attention, but the facts it connotes soon came under the observation of other chemists, notably of Professors Gustav Hinrichs in America, Dmitri Mendeleeff in Russia, and Lothar Meyer in Germany. Mendeleeff gave the discovery fullest expression, explicating it in 1869, under the title of "the periodic law."

Though this early exposition of what has since been admitted to be a most important discovery was very fully outlined, the generality of chemists gave it little heed till a decade or so later, when three new elements, gallium, scandium, and germanium, were discovered, which, on being analyzed, were quite unexpectedly found to fit into three gaps which Mendeleeff had left in his periodic scale. In effect the periodic law had enabled Mendeleeff to predicate the existence of the new elements years before they were discovered. Surely a system that leads to such results is no mere vagary. So very soon the periodic law took its place as one of the most important generalizations of chemical science.

This law of periodicity was put forward as an expression of observed relations independent of hypothesis; but of course the theoretical bearings of these facts could not be overlooked. As Professor J. H. Gladstone has said, it forces upon us "the conviction that the elements are not separate bodies created without reference to one another, but that they have been originally fashioned, or have been built up, from one another, according to some general plan." It is but a short step from that proposition to the Proutian hypothesis.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.