CHAPTER XIV. THE MODERN FORM OF THE ALCHEMICAL QUEST OF THE ONE THING.
The study of the properties of the elements shows that these substances fall into groups, the members of each of which are like one another, and form compounds which are similar. The examination of the properties and compositions of compounds has shown that similarity of properties is always accompanied by similarity of composition. Hence, the fact that certain elements are very closely allied in their properties suggests that these elements may also be allied in their composition. Now, to speak of the composition of an element is to think of the element as formed by the union of at least two different substances; it implies the supposition that some elements at any rate are really compounds.
The fact that there is a very definite connexion between the values of the atomic weights, and the properties, of the elements, lends some support to the hypothesis that the substances we call, and are obliged at present to call, elements, may have been formed from one, or a few, distinct substances, by some process of progressive change. If the elements are considered in the order of increasing atomic weights, from hydrogen, whose atomic weight is taken as unity because it is the lightest substance known, to uranium, an atom of which is 240 times heavier than an atom of hydrogen, it is found that the elements fall into periods, and the properties of those in one period vary from element to element, in a way which is, broadly and on the whole, like the variation of the properties of those in other periods. This fact suggests the supposition - it might be more accurate to say the speculation - that the elements mark the stable points in a process of change, which has not proceeded continuously from a very simple substance to a very complex one, but has repeated itself, with certain variations, again and again. If such a process has occurred, we might reasonably expect to find substances exhibiting only minute differences in their properties, differences so slight as to make it impossible to assign the substances, definitely and certainly, either to the class of elements or to that of compounds. We find exactly such substances among what are called the rare earths. There are earth-like substances which exhibit no differences of chemical properties, and yet show minute differences in the characters of the light which they emit when they are raised to a very high temperature.
The results of analysis by the spectroscope of the light emitted by certain elements at different temperatures may be reasonably interpreted by supposing that these elements are separated into simpler substances by the action on them of very large quantities of thermal energy. The spectrum of the light emitted by glowing iron heated by a Bunsen flame (say, at 1200 deg. C. = about 2200 deg. F.) shows a few lines and flutings; when iron is heated in an electric arc (say, to 3500 deg. C. = about 6300 deg. F.) the spectrum shows some two thousand lines; at the higher temperature produced by the electric spark-discharge, the spectrum shows only a few lines. As a guide to further investigation, we may provisionally infer from these facts that iron is changed at very high temperatures into substances simpler than itself.
Sir Norman Lockyer's study of the spectra of the light from stars has shown that the light from those stars which are presumably the hottest, judging by the general character of their spectra, reveals the presence of a very small number of chemical elements; and that the number of spectral lines, and, therefore, the number of elements, increases as we pass from the hottest to cooler stars. At each stage of the change from the hottest to cooler stars certain substances disappear and certain other substances take their places. It may be supposed, as a suggestive hypothesis, that the lowering of stellar temperature is accompanied by the formation, from simpler forms of matter, of such elements as iron, calcium, manganese, and other metals.
In the year 1896, the French chemist Becquerel discovered the fact that salts of the metal uranium, the atomic weight of which is 240, and is greater than that of any other element, emit rays which cause electrified bodies to lose their electric charges, and act on photographic plates that are wrapped in sheets of black paper, or in thin sheets of other substances which stop rays of light. The radio-activity of salts of uranium was proved not to be increased or diminished when these salts had been shielded for five years from the action of light by keeping them in leaden boxes. Shortly after Becquerel's discovery, experiments proved that salts of the rare metal thorium are radio-active. This discovery was followed by Madame Curie's demonstration of the fact that certain specimens of pitchblende, a mineral which contains compounds of uranium and of many other metals, are extremely radio-active, and by the separation from pitchblende, by Monsieur and Madame Curie, of new substances much more radio-active than compounds of uranium or of thorium. The new substances were proved to be compounds chemically very similar to salts of barium. Their compositions were determined on the supposition that they were salts of an unknown metal closely allied to barium. Because of the great radio-activity of the compounds, the hypothetical metal of them was named Radium. At a later time, radium was isolated by Madame Curie. It is described by her as a white, hard, metal-like solid, which reacts with water at the ordinary temperature, as barium does.