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- Five of Maxwell's Papers - 8/8 -


We shall begin with Thermometry, or the registration of temperatures, and Calorimetry, or the measurement of quantities of heat. We shall then go on to Thermodynamics, which investigates the relations between the thermal properties of bodies and their other dynamical properties, in so far as these relations may be traced without any assumption as to the particular constitution of these bodies.

The principles of Thermodynamics throw great light on all the phenomena of nature, and it is probable that many valuable applications of these principles have yet to be made; but we shall have to point out the limits of this science, and to shew that many problems in nature, especially those in which the Dissipation of Energy comes into play, are not capable of solution by the principles of Thermodynamics alone, but that in order to understand them, we are obliged to form some more definite theory of the constitution of bodies.

Two theories of the constitution of bodies have struggled for victory with various fortunes since the earliest ages of speculation: one is the theory of a universal plenum, the other is that of atoms and void.

The theory of the plenum is associated with the doctrine of mathematical continuity, and its mathematical methods are those of the Differential Calculus, which is the appropriate expression of the relations of continuous quantity.

The theory of atoms and void leads us to attach more importance to the doctrines of integral numbers and definite proportions; but, in applying dynamical principles to the motion of immense numbers of atoms, the limitation of our faculties forces us to abandon the attempt to express the exact history of each atom, and to be content with estimating the average condition of a group of atoms large enough to be visible. This method of dealing with groups of atoms, which I may call the statistical method, and which in the present state of our knowledge is the only available method of studying the properties of real bodies, involves an abandonment of strict dynamical principles, and an adoption of the mathematical methods belonging to the theory of probability. It is probable that important results will be obtained by the application of this method, which is as yet little known and is not familiar to our minds. If the actual history of Science had been different, and if the scientific doctrines most familiar to us had been those which must be expressed in this way, it is possible that we might have considered the existence of a certain kind of contingency a self-evident truth, and treated the doctrine of philosophical necessity as a mere sophism.

About the beginning of this century, the properties of bodies were investigated by several distinguished French mathematicians on the hypothesis that they are systems of molecules in equilibrium. The somewhat unsatisfactory nature of the results of these investigations produced, especially in this country, a reaction in favour of the opposite method of treating bodies as if they were, so far at least as our experiments are concerned, truly continuous. This method, in the hands of Green, Stokes, and others, has led to results, the value of which does not at all depend on what theory we adopt as to the ultimate constitution of bodies.

One very important result of the investigation of the properties of bodies on the hypothesis that they are truly continuous is that it furnishes us with a test by which we can ascertain, by experiments on a real body, to what degree of tenuity it must be reduced before it begins to give evidence that its properties are no longer the same as those of the body in mass. Investigations of this kind, combined with a study of various phenomena of diffusion and of dissipation of energy, have recently added greatly to the evidence in favour of the hypothesis that bodies are systems of molecules in motion.

I hope to be able to lay before you in the course of the term some of the evidence for the existence of molecules, considered as individual bodies having definite properties. The molecule, as it is presented to the scientific imagination, is a very different body from any of those with which experience has hitherto made us acquainted.

In the first place its mass, and the other constants which define its properties, are absolutely invariable; the individual molecule can neither grow nor decay, but remains unchanged amid all the changes of the bodies of which it may form a constituent.

In the second place it is not the only molecule of its kind, for there are innumerable other molecules, whose constants are not approximately, but absolutely identical with those of the first molecule, and this whether they are found on the earth, in the sun, or in the fixed stars.

By what process of evolution the philosophers of the future will attempt to account for this identity in the properties of such a multitude of bodies, each of them unchangeable in magnitude, and some of them separated from others by distances which Astronomy attempts in vain to measure, I cannot conjecture. My mind is limited in its power of speculation, and I am forced to believe that these molecules must have been made as they are from the beginning of their existence.

I also conclude that since none of the processes of nature, during their varied action on different individual molecules, have produced, in the course of ages, the slightest difference between the properties of one molecule and those of another, the history of whose combinations has been different, we cannot ascribe either their existence or the identity of their properties to the operation of any of those causes which we call natural.

Is it true then that our scientific speculations have really penetrated beneath the visible appearance of things, which seem to be subject to generation and corruption, and reached the entrance of that world of order and perfection, which continues this day as it was created, perfect in number and measure and weight?

We may be mistaken. No one has as yet seen or handled an individual molecule, and our molecular hypothesis may, in its turn, be supplanted by some new theory of the constitution of matter; but the idea of the existence of unnumbered individual things, all alike and all unchangeable, is one which cannot enter the human mind and remain without fruit.

But what if these molecules, indestructible as they are, turn out to be not substances themselves, but mere affections of some other substance?

According to Sir W. Thomson's theory of Vortex Atoms, the substance of which the molecule consists is a uniformly dense _plenum_, the properties of which are those of a perfect fluid, the molecule itself being nothing but a certain motion impressed on a portion of this fluid, and this motion is shewn, by a theorem due to Helmholtz, to be as indestructible as we believe a portion of matter to be.

If a theory of this kind is true, or even if it is conceivable, our idea of matter may have been introduced into our minds through our experience of those systems of vortices which we call bodies, but which are not substances, but motions of a substance; and yet the idea which we have thus acquired of matter, as a substance possessing inertia, may be truly applicable to that fluid of which the vortices are the motion, but of whose existence, apart from the vortical motion of some of its parts, our experience gives us no evidence whatever.

It has been asserted that metaphysical speculation is a thing of the past, and that physical science has extirpated it. The discussion of the categories of existence, however, does not appear to be in danger of coming to an end in our time, and the exercise of speculation continues as fascinating to every fresh mind as it was in the days of Thales.


Five of Maxwell's Papers - 8/8

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