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An essay by John Burroughs

The Journeying Atoms

Title:     The Journeying Atoms
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]


Emerson confessed in his "Journal" that he could not read the physicists; their works did not appeal to him. He was probably repelled by their formulas and their mathematics. But add a touch of chemistry, and he was interested. Chemistry leads up to life. He said he did not think he would feel threatened or insulted if a chemist should take his protoplasm, or mix his hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, and make an animalcule incontestably swimming and jumping before his eyes. It would be only evidence of a new degree of power over matter which man had attained to. It would all finally redound to the glory of matter itself, which, it appears, "is impregnated with thought and heaven, and is really of God, and not of the Devil, as we had too hastily believed." This conception of matter underlies the new materialism of such men as Huxley and Tyndall. But there is much in the new physics apart from its chemical aspects that ought to appeal to the Emersonian type of mind. Did not Emerson in his first poem, "The Sphinx," sing of

Journeying atoms,
Primordial wholes?

In those ever-moving and indivisible atoms he touches the very corner-stone of the modern scientific conception of matter. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in this conception we are brought into contact with a kind of transcendental physics. A new world for the imagination is open--a world where the laws and necessities of ponderable bodies do not apply. The world of gross matter disappears, and in its place we see matter dematerialized, and escaping from the bondage of the world of tangible bodies; we see a world where friction is abolished, where perpetual motion is no longer impossible; where two bodies may occupy the same space at the same time; where collisions and disruptions take place without loss of energy; where subtraction often means more--as when the poison of a substance is rendered more virulent by the removal of one or more atoms of one of the elements; and where addition often means less--as when three parts of the gases of oxygen and hydrogen unite and form only two parts of watery vapor; where mass and form, centre and circumference, size and structure, exist without any of the qualities ordinarily associated with these things through our experience in a three-dimension world. We see, or contemplate, bodies which are indivisible; if we divide them, their nature changes; if we divide a molecule of water, we get atoms of hydrogen and oxygen gas; if we divide a molecule of salt, we get atoms of chlorine gas and atoms of the metal sodium, which means that we have reached a point where matter is no longer divisible in a mechanical sense, but only in a chemical sense; which again means that great and small, place and time, inside and outside, dimensions and spatial relations, have lost their ordinary meanings. Two bodies get inside of each other. To the physicist, heat and motion are one; light is only a mechanical vibration in the ether; sound is only a vibration in the air, which the ear interprets as sound. The world is as still as death till the living ear comes to receive the vibrations in the air; motion, or the energy which it implies, is the life of the universe.

Physics proves to us the impossibility of perpetual motion among visible, tangible bodies, at the same time that it reveals to us a world where perpetual motion is the rule--the world of molecules and atoms. In the world of gross matter, or of ponderable bodies, perpetual motion is impossible because here it takes energy, or its equivalent, to beget energy. Friction very soon turns the kinetic energy of motion into the potential energy of heat, which quickly disappears in that great sea of energy, the low uniform temperature of the earth. But when we reach the interior world of matter, the world of molecules, atoms, and electrons, we have reached a world where perpetual motion _is_ the rule; we have reached the fountain-head of energy, and the motion of one body is not at the expense of the motion of some other body, but is a part of the spontaneous struggling and jostling and vibration that go on forever in all the matter of the universe. What is called the Brunonian movement (first discovered by the botanist Robert Brown in 1827) is within reach of the eye armed with a high-power microscope. Look into any liquid that holds in suspension very small particles of solid matter, such as dust particles in the air, or the granules of ordinary water-color paints dissolved in water: not a single one of the particles is at rest; they are all mysteriously agitated; they jump hither and thither; it is a wild chaotic whirl and dance of minute particles. Brown at first thought they were alive, but they were only non-living particles dancing to the same tune which probably sets suns and systems whirling in the heavens. Ramsay says that tobacco smoke confined in the small flat chamber formed in the slide of a microscope, shows this movement, in appearance like the flight of minute butterflies. The Brunonian movement is now believed to be due to the bombardment of the particles by the molecules of the liquid or gas in which they are suspended. The smaller the particles, the livelier they are. These particles themselves are made up of a vast number of molecules, among which the same movement or agitation, much more intense, is supposed to be taking place; the atoms which compose the molecules are dancing and frisking about like gnats in the air, and the electrons inside the atoms are still more rapidly changing places.

We meet with the same staggering figures in the science of the infinitely little that we do in the science of the infinitely vast. Thus the physicist deals with a quantity of matter a million million times smaller than can be detected in the most delicate chemical balance. Molecules inconceivably small rush about in molecular space inconceivably small. Ramsay calculates how many collisions the molecules of gas make with other molecules every second, which is four and one half quintillions. This staggers the mind like the tremendous revelations of astronomy. Mathematics has no trouble to compute the figures, but our slow, clumsy minds feel helpless before them. In every drop of water we drink, and in every mouthful of air we breathe, there is a movement and collision of particles so rapid in every second of time that it can only be expressed by four with eighteen naughts. If the movement of these particles were attended by friction, or if the energy of their impact were translated into heat, what hot mouthfuls we should have! But the heat, as well as the particles, is infinitesimal, and is not perceptible.


The molecules and atoms and electrons into which science resolves matter are hypothetical bodies which no human eye has ever seen, or ever can see, but they build up the solid frame of the universe. The air and the rocks are not so far apart in their constituents as they might seem to our senses. The invisible and indivisible molecules of oxygen which we breathe, and which keep our life-currents going, form about half the crust of the earth. The soft breeze that fans and refreshes us, and the rocks that crush us, are at least half-brothers. And herein we get a glimpse of the magic of chemical combinations. That mysterious property in matter which we call chemical affinity, a property beside which human affinities and passions are tame and inconstant affairs, is the architect of the universe. Certain elements attract certain other elements with a fierce and unalterable attraction, and when they unite, the resultant compound is a body totally unlike either of the constituents. Both substances have disappeared, and a new one has taken their place. This is the magic of chemical change. A physical change, as of water into ice, or into steam, is a simple matter; it is merely a matter of more or less heat; but the change of oxygen and hydrogen into water, or of chlorine gas and the mineral sodium into common salt, is a chemical change. In nature, chlorine and sodium are not found in a free or separate state; they hunted each other up long ago, and united to produce the enormous quantities of rock salt that the earth holds. One can give his imagination free range in trying to picture what takes place when two or more elements unite chemically, but probably there is no physical image that can afford even a hint of it. A snake trying to swallow himself, or two fishes swallowing each other, or two bullets meeting in the air and each going through the centre of the other, or the fourth dimension, or almost any other impossible thing, from the point of view of tangible bodies, will serve as well as anything. The atoms seem to get inside of one another, to jump down one another's throats, and to suffer a complete transformation. Yet we know that they do not; oxygen is still oxygen, and carbon still carbon, amid all the strange partnerships entered into, and all the disguises assumed. We can easily evoke hydrogen and oxygen from water, but just how their molecules unite, how they interpenetrate and are lost in one another, it is impossible for us to conceive.

We cannot visualize a chemical combination because we have no experience upon which to found it. It is so fundamentally unlike a mechanical mixture that even our imagination can give us no clew to it. It is thinkable that the particles of two or more substances however fine, mechanically mixed, could be seen and recognized if sufficiently magnified; but in a chemical combination, say like iron sulphide, no amount of magnification could reveal the two elements of iron and sulphur. They no longer exist. A third substance unlike either has taken their place.

We extract aluminum from clay, but no conceivable power of vision could reveal to us that metal in the clay. It is there only potentially. In a chemical combination the different substances interpenetrate and are lost in one another: they are not mechanically separable nor individually distinguishable. The iron in the red corpuscles of the blood is not the metal we know, but one of its many chemical disguises. Indeed it seems as if what we call the ultimate particles of matter did not belong to the visible order and hence were incapable of magnification.

That mysterious force, chemical affinity, is the true and original magic. That two substances should cleave to each other and absorb each other and produce a third totally unlike either is one of the profound mysteries of science. Of the nature of the change that takes place, I say, we can form no image. Chemical force is selective; it is not promiscuous and indiscriminate like gravity, but specific and individual. Nearly all the elements have their preferences and they will choose no other. Oxygen comes the nearest to being a free lover among the elements, but its power of choice is limited.

Science conceives of all matter as grained or discrete, like a bag of shot, or a pile of sand. Matter does not occupy space continuously, not even in the hardest substances, such as the diamond; there is space, molecular space, between the particles. A rifle bullet whizzing past is no more a continuous body than is a flock of birds wheeling and swooping in the air. Air spaces separate the birds, and molecular spaces separate the molecules of the bullet. Of course it is unthinkable that indivisible particles of matter can occupy space and have dimensions. But science goes upon this hypothesis, and the hypothesis proves itself.

After we have reached the point of the utmost divisibility of matter in the atom, we are called upon to go still further and divide the indivisible. The electrons, of which the atom is composed, are one hundred thousand times smaller, and two thousand times lighter than the smallest particle hitherto recognized, namely, the hydrogen atom. A French physicist conceives of the electrons as rushing about in the interior of the atom like swarms of gnats whirling about in the dome of a cathedral. The smallest particle of dust that we can recognize in the air is millions of times larger than the atom, and millions of millions of times larger than the electron. Yet science avers that the manifestations of energy which we call light, radiant heat, magnetism, and electricity, all come from the activities of the electrons. Sir J. J. Thomson conceives of a free electron as dashing about from one atom to another at a speed so great as to change its location forty million times a second. In the electron we have matter dematerialized; the electron is not a material particle. Hence the step to the electric constitution of matter is an easy one. In the last analysis we have pure disembodied energy. "With many of the feelings of an air-man," says Soddy, "who has left behind for the first time the solid ground beneath him," we make this plunge into the demonstrable verities of the newest physics; matter in the old sense--gross matter--fades away. To the three states in which we have always known it, the solid, the liquid, and the gaseous, we must add a fourth, the ethereal--the state of matter which Sir Oliver Lodge thinks borders on, or is identical with, what we call the spiritual, and which affords the key to all the occult phenomena of life and mind.

As we have said, no human eye has ever seen, or will see, an atom; only the mind's eye, or the imagination, sees atoms and molecules, yet the atomic theory of matter rests upon the sure foundation of experimental science. Both the chemist and the physicist are as convinced of the existence of these atoms as they are of the objects we see and touch. The theory "is a necessity to explain the experimental facts of chemical composition." "Through metaphysics first," says Soddy, "then through alchemy and chemistry, through physical and astronomical spectroscopy, lastly through radio-activity, science has slowly groped its way to the atom." The physicists make definite statements about these hypothetical bodies all based upon definite chemical phenomena. Thus Clerk Maxwell assumes that they are spherical, that the spheres are hard and elastic like billiard-balls, that they collide and glance off from one another in the same way, that is, that they collide at their surfaces and not at their centres.

Only two of our senses make us acquainted with matter in a state which may be said to approach the atomic--smell and taste. Odors are material emanations, and represent a division of matter into inconceivably small particles. What are the perfumes we smell but emanations, flying atoms or electrons, radiating in all directions, and continuing for a shorter or longer time without any appreciable diminution in bulk or weight of the substances that give them off? How many millions or trillions of times does the rose divide its heart in the perfume it sheds so freely upon the air? The odor of the musk of certain animals lingers under certain conditions for years. The imagination is baffled in trying to conceive of the number and minuteness of the particles which the fox leaves of itself in the snow where its foot was imprinted--so palpable that the scent of a hound can seize upon them hours after the fox has passed! The all but infinite divisibility of matter is proved by every odor that the breeze brings us from field and wood, and by the delicate flavors that the tongue detects in the food we eat and drink. But these emanations and solutions that affect our senses probably do not represent a chemical division of matter; when we smell an apple or a flower, we probably get a real fragment of the apple, or of the flower, and not one or more of its chemical constituents represented by atoms or electrons. A chemical analysis of odors, if it were possible, would probably show the elements in the same state of combination as the substances from which the odors emanated.

The physicists herd these ultimate particles of matter about; they have a regular circus with them; they make them go through films and screens; they guide them through openings; they count them as their tiny flash is seen on a sensitized plate; they weigh them; they reckon their velocity. The alpha-rays from radio-active substances are swarms of tiny meteors flying at the incredible speed of twelve thousand miles a second, while the meteors of the midnight sky fly at the speed of only forty miles a second. Those alpha particles are helium atoms. They are much larger than beta particles, and have less penetrative power. Sir J. J. Thomson has devised a method by which he has been able to photograph the atoms. The photographic plate upon which their flight is recorded suggests a shower of shooting stars. Oxygen is found to be made up of atoms of several different forms.


The "free path" of molecules, both in liquids and in gases, is so minute as to be beyond the reach of the most powerful microscope. This free path in liquids is a zigzag course, owing to the perpetual collisions with other molecules. The molecular behavior of liquids differs from that of gases only in what is called surface tension. Liquids have a skin, a peculiar stress of the surface molecules; gases do not, but tend to dissipate and fill all space. A drop of water remains intact till vaporization sets in; then it too becomes more and more diffused.

When two substances combine chemically, more or less heat is evolved. When the combination is effected slowly, as in an animal's body, heat is slowly evolved. When the combustion is rapid, as in actual fire, heat is rapidly evolved. The same phenomenon may reach the eye as light, and the hand as heat, though different senses get two different impressions of the same thing. So a mechanical disturbance may reach the ear as sound, and be so interpreted, and reach the hand as motion in matter. In combustion, the oxygen combines rapidly with the carbon, giving out heat and light and carbon dioxide, but why it does so admits of no explanation. Herein again is where life differs from fire; we can describe combustion in terms of chemistry, but after we have described life in the same terms something--and this something is the main thing--remains untouched.

The facts of radio-activity alone demonstrate the truth of the atomic theory. The beta rays, or emanations from radium, penetrating one foot of solid iron are very convincing. And this may go on for hundreds of years without any appreciable diminution of size or weight of the radio-active substance. "A gram of such substance," says Sir Oliver Lodge, "might lose a few thousand of atoms a second, and yet we could not detect the loss if we continued to weigh it for a century." The volatile essences of organic bodies which we detect in odors and flavors, are not potent like the radium emanations. We can confine them and control them, but we cannot control the rays of radio-active matter any more than we can confine a spirit. We can separate the three different kinds of rays--the alpha, the beta, and the gamma--by magnetic devices, but we cannot cork them up and isolate them, as we can musk and the attar of roses.

And these emanations are taking place more or less continuously all about us and we know it not. In fact, we are at all times subjected to a molecular bombardment of which we never dream; minute projectiles, indivisible points of matter, are shot out at us in the form of electrons from glowing metals, from lighted candles, and from other noiseless and unsuspected batteries at a speed of tens of thousands of miles a second, and we are none the wiser for it. Indeed, if we could see or feel or be made aware of it, in what a different world we should find ourselves! How many million-or billion-fold our sense of sight and touch would have to be increased to bring this about! We live in a world of collisions, disruptions, and hurtling missiles of which our senses give us not the slightest evidence, and it is well that they do not. There is a tremendous activity in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the food we eat, and in the soil we walk upon, which, if magnified till our senses could take it in, would probably drive us mad. It is in this interior world of molecular activity, this world of electric vibrations and oscillations, that the many transformations of energy take place. This is the hiding-place of the lightning, of the electrons which moulded together make the thunderbolt. What an underworld of mystery and power it is! In it slumbers all the might and menace of the storm, the power that rends the earth and shakes the heavens. With the mind's eye one can see the indivisible atoms giving up their electrons, see the invisible hosts, in numbers beyond the power of mathematics to compute, being summoned and marshalled by some mysterious commander and hurled in terrible fiery phalanxes across the battlefield of the storm.

The physicist describes the atom and talks about it as if it were "a tangible body which one could hold in his hand like a baseball." "An atom," Sir Oliver Lodge says, "consists of a globular mass of positive electricity with minute negative electrons embedded in it." He speaks of the spherical form of the atom, and of its outer surface, of its centre, and of its passing through other atoms, and of the electrons that revolve around its centre as planets around a sun. The electron, one hundred thousand times smaller than an atom, yet has surface, and that surface is a dimpled and corrugated sheet--like the cover of a mattress. What a flight of the scientific imagination is that!

The disproportion between the size of an atom and the size of an electron is vastly greater than that between the sun and the earth. Represent an atom, says Sir Oliver Lodge, by a church one hundred and sixty feet long, eighty feet broad, and forty feet high; the electrons are like gnats inside it. Yet on the electric theory of matter, electrons are all of the atom there is; there is no church, but only the gnats rushing about. We know of nothing so empty and hollow, so near a vacuum, as matter in this conception of it. Indeed, in the new physics, matter is only a hole in the ether. Hence the newspaper joke about the bank sliding down and leaving the woodchuck-hole sticking out, looks like pretty good physics. The electrons give matter its inertia, and give it the force we call cohesion, give it its toughness, its strength, and all its other properties. They make water wet, and the diamond hard. They are the fountain-head of the immense stores of the inter-atomic energy, which, if it could be tapped and controlled, would so easily do all the work of the world. But this we cannot do. "We are no more competent," says Professor Soddy, "to make use of these supplies of atomic energy than a savage, ignorant of how to kindle a fire, could make use of a steam-engine." The natural rate of flow of this energy from its atomic sources we get as heat, and it suffices to keep life going upon this planet. It is the source of all the activity we see upon the globe. Its results, in the geologic ages, are stored up for us in coal and oil and natural gas, and, in our day, are available in the winds, the tides, and the waterfalls, and in electricity.


The electric constitution of matter is quite beyond anything we can imagine. The atoms are little worlds by themselves, and the whole mystery of life and death is in their keeping. The whole difference in the types of mind and character among men is supposed to be in their keeping. The different qualities and properties of bodies are in their keeping. Whether an object is hot or cold to our senses, depends upon the character of their vibrations; whether it be sweet or sour, poisonous or innocuous to us, depends upon how the atoms select their partners in the whirl and dance of their activities. The hardness and brilliancy of the diamond is supposed to depend upon how the atoms of carbon unite and join hands.

I have heard the view expressed that all matter, as such, is dead matter, that the molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, iron, phosphorus, calcium, and so on, in a living body, are themselves no more alive than the same molecules in inorganic matter. Nearly nine tenths of a living body is water; is not this water the same as the water we get at the spring or the brook? is it any more alive? does water undergo any chemical change in the body? is it anything more than a solvent, than a current that carries the other elements to all parts of the body? There are any number of chemical changes or reactions in a living body, but are the atoms and molecules that are involved in such changes radically changed? Can oxygen be anything but oxygen, or carbon anything but carbon? Is what we call life the result of their various new combinations? Many modern biologists hold to this view. In this conception merely a change in the order of arrangement of the molecules of a substance--which follows which or which is joined to which--is fraught with consequences as great as the order in which the letters of the alphabet are arranged in words, or the words themselves are arranged in sentences. The change of one letter in a word often utterly changes the meaning of that word, and the changing of a word in the sentence may give expression to an entirely different idea. Reverse the letters in the word "God," and you get the name of our faithful friend the dog. Huxley and Tyndall both taught that it was the way that the ultimate particles of matter are compounded that makes the whole difference between a cabbage and an oak, or between a frog and a man. It is a hard proposition. We know with scientific certainty that the difference between a diamond and a piece of charcoal, or between a pearl and an oyster-shell, is the way that the particles of carbon in the one case, and of calcium carbide in the other, are arranged. We know with equal certainty that the difference between certain chemical bodies, like alcohol and ether, is the arrangement of their ultimate particles, since both have the same chemical formula. We do not spell acetic acid, alcohol, sugar, starch, animal fat, vegetable oils, glycerine, and the like, with the same letters; yet nature compounds them all of the same atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, but in different proportions and in different orders.

Chemistry is all-potent. A mechanical mixture of two or more elements is a simple affair, but a chemical mixture introduces an element of magic. No conjurer's trick can approach such a transformation as that of oxygen and hydrogen gases into water. The miracle of turning water into wine is tame by comparison. Dip plain cotton into a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acids and let it dry, and we have that terrible explosive, guncotton. Or, take the cellulose of which cotton is composed, and add two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, and we have sugar. But we are to remember that the difference here indicated is not a quantitative, but a qualitative one, not one affecting bulk, but affecting structure. Truly chemistry works wonders. Take ethyl alcohol, or ordinary spirits of wine, and add four more atoms of carbon to the carbon molecule, and we have the poison carbolic acid. Pure alcohol can be turned into a deadly poison, not by adding to, but simply by taking from it; take out one atom of carbon and two of hydrogen from the alcohol molecule, and we have the poison methyl alcohol. But we are to remember that the difference here indicated is not a quantitative, but a qualitative one, not one affecting bulk, but affecting structure.

In our atmosphere we have a mechanical mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, four parts of nitrogen to one of oxygen. By uniting the nitrogen and oxygen chemically (N_{2}O) we have nitrous oxide, laughing-gas. Ordinary starch is made up of three different elements--six parts of carbon, ten parts of hydrogen, and five parts of oxygen (C_{6}H_{10}O_{5}). Now if we add water to this compound, we have a simple mixture of starch and water, but if we bring about a chemical union with the elements of water (hydrogen and oxygen), we have grape sugar. This sugar is formed in green leaves by the agency of sunlight, and is the basis of all plant and animal food, and hence one of the most important things in nature.

Carbon is a solid, and is seen in its pure state in the diamond, the hardest body in nature and the most valued of all precious stones, but it enters largely into all living bodies and is an important constituent of all the food we eat. As a gas, united with the oxygen of the air, forming carbon dioxide, it was present at the beginning of life, and probably helped kindle the first vital spark. In the shape of wood and coal, it now warms us and makes the wheels of our material civilization go round. Diamond stuff, through the magic of chemistry, plays one of the principle roles in our physical life; we eat it, and are warmed and propelled by it, and cheered by it. Taken as carbonic acid gas into our lungs, it poisons us; taken into our stomachs, it stimulates us; dissolved in water, it disintegrates the rocks, eating out the carbonate of lime which they contain. It is one of the principal actors in the drama of organized matter.


We have a good illustration of the power of chemistry, and how closely it is dogging the footsteps of life, in the many organic compounds it has built up out of the elements, such as sugar, starch, indigo, camphor, rubber, and so forth, all of which used to be looked upon as impossible aside from life-processes. It is such progress as this that leads some men of science to believe that the creation of life itself is within the reach of chemistry. I do not believe that any occult or transcendental principle bars the way, but that some unknown and perhaps unknowable condition does, as mysterious and unrepeatable as that which separates our mental life from our physical. The transmutation of the physical into the psychical takes place, but the secret of it we do not know. It does not seem to fall within the law of the correlation and the conservation of energy.

Free or single atoms are very rare; they all quickly find their mates or partners. This eagerness of the elements to combine is one of the mysteries. If the world of visible matter were at one stroke resolved into its constituent atoms, it would practically disappear; we might smell it, or taste it, if we were left, but we could not see it, or feel it; the water would vanish, the solid ground would vanish--more than half of it into oxygen atoms, and the rest mainly into silicon atoms.

The atoms of different bodies are all alike, and presumably each holds the same amount of electric energy. One wonders, then, how the order in which they are arranged can affect them so widely as to produce bodies so unlike as, say, alcohol and ether. This brings before us again the mystery of chemical arrangement or combination, so different from anything we know among tangible bodies. It seems to imply that each atom has its own individuality. Mix up a lot of pebbles together, and the result would be hardly affected by the order of the arrangement, but mix up a lot of people, and the result would be greatly affected by the fact of who is elbowing who. It seems the same among the mysterious atoms, as if some complemented or stimulated those next them, or had an opposite effect. But can we think of the atoms in a chemical compound as being next one another, or merely in juxtaposition? Do we not rather have to think of them as identified with one another to an extent that has no parallel in the world of ponderable bodies? A kind of sympathy or affinity makes them one in a sense that we only see realized among living beings.

Chemical activity is the first step from physical activity to vital activity, but the last step is taken rarely--the other two are universal. Chemical changes involve the atom. What do vital changes involve? We do not know. We can easily bring about the chemical changes, but not so the vital changes. A chemical change destroys one or more substances and produces others totally unlike them; a vital change breaks up substances and builds up other bodies out of them; it results in new compounds that finally cover the earth with myriads of new and strange forms.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Journeying Atoms