To-day, more than ever, the words of Voltaire are true: science becomes more and more impersonal, and she teaches us that progress is nearly always due to the united efforts of a crowd of workers, and is thus the best school of social solidarity.
THE CONDUCTIVITY OF GASES AND THE IONS
If we were confined to the facts I have set forth above, we might conclude that two classes of phenomena are to-day being interpreted with increasing correctness in spite of the few difficulties which have been pointed out. The hypothesis of the molecular constitution of matter enables us to group together one of these classes, and the hypothesis of the ether leads us to co-ordinate the other.
But these two classes of phenomena cannot be considered independent of each other. Relations evidently exist between matter and the ether, which manifest themselves in many cases accessible to experiment, and the search for these relations appears to be the paramount problem the physicist should set himself. The question has, for a long time, been attacked on various sides, but the recent discoveries in the conductivity of gases, of the radioactive substances, and of the cathode and similar rays, have allowed us of late years to regard it in a new light. Without wishing to set out here in detail facts which for the most part are well known, we will endeavour to group the chief of them round a few essential ideas, and will seek to state precisely the data they afford us for the solution of this grave problem.
It was the study of the conductivity of gases which at the very first furnished the most important information, and allowed us to penetrate more deeply than had till then been possible into the inmost constitution of matter, and thus to, as it were, catch in the act the actions that matter can exercise on the ether, or, reciprocally, those it may receive from it.
It might, perhaps, have been foreseen that such a study would prove remarkably fruitful. The examination of the phenomena of electrolysis had, in fact, led to results of the highest importance on the constitution of liquids, and the gaseous media which presented themselves as particularly simple in all their properties ought, it would seem, to have supplied from the very first a field of investigation easy to work and highly productive.
This, however, was not at all the case. Experimental complications springing up at every step obscured the problem. One generally found one’s self in the presence of violent disruptive discharges with a train of accessory phenomena, due, for instance, to the use of metallic electrodes, and made evident by the complex appearance of aigrettes and effluves; or else one had to deal with heated gases difficult to handle, which were confined in receptacles whose walls played a troublesome part and succeeded in veiling the simplicity of the fundamental facts. Notwithstanding, therefore, the efforts of a great number of seekers, no general idea disengaged itself out of a mass of often contradictory information.