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THE MASQUERADE OF THE ELEMENTS.
BY EDWARD L. YOUMANS, M. D.,
OF NEW YORK, N. Y.
Two hundred years ago, a German chemist spoke of his brethren in the following brief and laconic way: “They are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapor, 'soot and flame, poisons and poverty.” This idea of chemistry still widely prevails ; people still regard it as an affair of deflagrations, distillations, precipitations and explosions, perpetrated by the dingy genius of the laboratory ; or else, a concern of doctors and apothecaries, and associated with blue, yellow, and red globes, standing in the window with a light behind them. Nevertheless, there is another phase to the subject. Our sententious German goes on to say: “ And yet, among all these evils, I seem to myself to live so sweetly, that, may I die if I would change places with the Persian King.”
To those who have surrendered themselves with a true enthusiasm to these subjects, there arises such a loving interest, such an indescribable fascination, as is rarely experienced in other pursuits. And why should it not be so ? To a being gifted with transcendent reason, allied to his Creator by boundless capacities for intelligence, what pleasures can there be so serene, so profound, so satisfying, as to be thus led into the inner and secret chambers of the great temple of God? I shall be only too happy if I can engage your attention for a little time to-day, while I discourse about some of the novel and curious things of our science.
Modern chemistry teaches that nearly all the material objects around us are of a compound nature. It tells us that stones, rocks, soils, water, and air, vegetable and animal products, and all the endless materials of nature are definitely constituted of a few peculiar ingredients, which exist in these bodies in various states of combination. The chemist subjects all these kinds of matter to experiment, he analyzes them ; that is, he separates and breaks them up into simpler forms, and when he can push the operation no further, he calls the last substances produced, elements. The elementary bodies are such as defy all efforts at decomposition. You may combine and separate them a thousand times, or let them remain in combination a thousand years, but they come out at the end with the same powers and qualities as at the beginning; the same unchanged, ultimate, simple, indestructible elements. Whether our present elements may not in future be decomposed into other and fewer kinds of matter, we cannot tell. Possibly! Science is modest, and cautious, but still progressive.
This knowledge of the constitution of matter is the foundation of the science of chemistry, and is comparatively a recent conquest of the human mind. But the special doctrine which I am now to unfold, and which I fancifully designate the “ Masquerade of the Elemerits," is a still later result of chemical inquiry; it is one of the last remarkable issues of research ; and yet, to comprehend it in its full significance, we must go back to early times, and trace the historic course of human thought, in reference to the subject.
That bodies differ among each other in properties, was of course known from the beginning of human experience; and that they are composed, or made up of certain parts, elements, or principles, is a notion as old as the earliest speculative knowledge. The ancient doctrine of the four elements, fire, air, earth, and water, of which all things in the universe were supposed to be constituted, was the first systematic idea of the kind, and may be traced back to the old Egyptians. This was their manner of speculation To our outward senses, the bodies of nature appear with an endless variety of properties; color, lustre, odor, taste. But these properties are variable and changeable, and must depend upon other and profounder qualities. And what are these deeper fundamental and necessary properties upon which the others depend? They are four; namely, heat, cold, moisture, and dryness. These are essential first conditions. All bodies are always either warm or cold, moist or dry. These principles, combined and separated, increased and diminished, give rise to all the
primitive elements. The union of coldness and dryness produces solidity, or earth; coldness and moisture give origin to water; warmth and moisture, to air; and dryness and warmth, to fire. From these four elements, all the substances of the universe, with all their diversified properties, arise. Such was the fanciful genesis of the material world. The important thought which it involved, and which we are to seize upon, was the instability of the properties of matter. The substances of nature could be influenced and changed by the addition and subtraction of elementary qualities. These could be removed or supplied, exalted or diminished. The properties of matter were held to be shifting and communicable things, 6 like colors, with which painters give to white canvass the properties of a picture; or like clothes, which are put on and off, and thus determine the aspect of the person."
Now all this was of course baseless conjecture ; the mere empty riot of fancy; a hasty and superficial explanation of things, made in the infancy of the human mind, before true science had yet come into existence. Do not misconstrue me as censuring or disparaging these old philosophers; they bravely began the work of inquiry; that they should have erred profoundly was inevitable. These notions were perhaps the only possible ones at first; but they were established thousands of years, and had borne no practical and positive fruit. They had resulted in no growth of science or knowledge, for they did not admit of any test or verification. They had not come from examination and study of matter. The
ancients rather neglected and despised matter; they would not condescend to work and experiment with it; they were satisfied to think about it; and the result was only frostwork of the imagination, - castles in the air. Their mode of intellectual proceeding afforded no foothold for a start forward, and therefore admitted of no progress.
And yet, progress was to be inaugurated ; real science was to come into existence. But how? This is a curious and interesting question. All physical science is the result of observation and experiment:patient and careful observation, and laborious, interminable experiment. But how could science come into being while yet nothing was known of the arts, processes, contrivances, methods, and clews, by which it might be created. This was the great difficulty; but the resources were equal to the emergency. What possible incentive could be found powerful enough to start the minds of men in an entirely new direction. What mighty and overmastering motive sufficient to rend them from their settled and ancient courses of thought and occupation, and project them upon a new and strange career of inquiry, with a momentum which should drive them on in blind and headlong desperation for a thousand years ?
It was not the love of truth for its own sake; nor the desire simply to comprehend the secrets of nature, nor any mere intellectual consideration. We go back of the intellect, and find the impelling force among the springs of passion ; and not only that, but we find the most powerful of all human passions summoned to the service. It was the same power that