The Life of Sir William Crookes

His experiments had revealed to him that matter and material aggregates were supported in their very existence by non-inertial form. This what the fourth state of matter represented, and this is precisely why it was so vehemently rejected. Here was the heart of Vitalism yet again revealed! In this revolutionary view, molecules and atoms vibrated about a lattice of “continuous matter.” The mobile particles of inertia were simply associated with these continuous solids, and were not themselves the real forms we knew as matter at all. Platonic solids contaminated by inertia! Collectively, the demonstration was a marvel, a true philosophical argument in the best Victorian tradition. His last display caused quite a commotion.

The younger aristocratic members, those who most sought to maintain their composure, were now shifting ever so slightly in their seats. He noticed this with glee. How tragic! They refused to so much as grant him any facial expression whatsoever, a too common conceit. Noticing the ill-cloaked irritation of his young aristocrats, Sir William chuckled. He did not care so much that they were vexed, as much as he was delighted that his point pierced their defense. For them, his beaming joy was detestable. To this animosity they were entitled. Nevertheless, amor vincit omnia!

Were they aware of their German counterparts, whose industrial complex was about to march across Europe to the very borders of England? Alas, theirs was a sleep of ages, from which they would soon awaken in frightful need. But there would now be no prating command for protection and service. Science and other working class “servants” would now exact their wage, their price. Among the burgeoning scientific class, those who had suffered so much indignity, there was no urgent obligation to the dwindling Empire. The free option to emigrate to North America was now forever their chief tool of threat. And if it was not possible to maintain the common human right in England, there was dignity, honor, and profit to be made over that westward sea horizon. Command would remain among those scientifics, those laboring minds whose experience in life had not known idle advantage.


Sir William had undertaken a thorough research on rare earth elements in 1883, a field of study which would have enormous strategic and industrial importance in the mid-Twentieth Century. His original research in this capacity brought him to a consideration of radioactive phenomena and the possibility of elemental transmutation, yet another term which the proud desperately wished to eradicate from the scientific register.

But Dr. Crookes was the first to observe that elements contain isotopes, noting that pure elements were composed of differing atomic weights (1886). His conception of transmuting the elements was therefore founded on sound reasoning, and clarified observation. Each of these notions were in part realized with the discoveries of Ernest Rutherford.

Sir William began to consider the possibility that all matter, all elements, were “built up” by a primordial aether. Where would such a primordial aether be found? Sir William held out his hand toward his tubes, emphasizing the effects which had just illustrated the heart of his dissertation by wordless example. His glassy globes and bulbs, with their twirling little mica vanes, now sparkled in the eyes of those who watched them almost as much as did his rimmed glasses!

The prevailing “old school” view was indeed here, embodied before them. Sir William was a sprite, a truly “aethereal” character! Cheerful, merry, beaming, brilliant, lighter than air, he appeared to be aglow with the same white light seen in his mineral tubes. Equipped with his collection of unearthly globes and radiant crystals, he glittered a starry message of dreams… without words. Most realized that they had, quite unawares, fallen into one of the delightful little games of the grand old gentleman. Each slowly saw where he was guiding their vision. A few resisted, could not follow. They tuned their hearts away, and were instantly recognized. He was aglow, spying them out as if by magic. Most enjoyed the prospect of allowing him to guide their mind’s eye, and were drawn into his hopeful sphere of influence for a few more moments.

Those who best remembered the melody of his voice and life remembered a sense and mood from another time, from childhood’s forgotten world. The old gentleman spoke, a dark line from Royal Society history. “Faraday pointed out that matter existed in four states.. solid, liquid, gas, and radiant. He stated that as matter ascends in the scale of forms …it does not cease at the gaseous state. But the greater exertions Nature makes at each step of the change becomes greatest in the passage from gaseous to the radiant form…” He was not now averse to making formal statements concerning the luminiferous aether. Besides the fact that they had spent the evening observing effects-in-miniature of this aethereal gas, it was also an air in which he seemed to live and move quite comfortably.

Indeed, “the phenomena in these exhausted tubes reveal to physical science a new world …a world where matter exists in a fourth state, and where the corpuscular theory of light holds good.” He called attention to the strange green light, that which was observed with each manifestation of cathode rays. The green light had peculiar and persistent qualities. “This green phosphorescence is a subject which has occupied my thoughts, and I have striven to ascertain some of the laws governing its appearance.” This statement sent some of their minds reeling with implications.

“The spectrum of the green light is a continuous one …no difference can be detected by spectrum examination in the green light, whether the residual gas be nitrogen, hydrogen, or carbonic acid.” Most physicists had concluded the green light to be a property of the bombarded glassy matter. Its spectral lines were taken as proof of the “excitation” theory. But now Dr. Crookes was highlighting his spectral study, finding the curious constancy of that light regardless of gas or glass. Was this not some indication of the existence of a new “ultragaseous” element?

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