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A Wonderful World
by [?]

I

Science recognizes a more fundamental world than that of matter. This is the electro-magnetic world which underlies the material world and which, as Professor Soddy says, probably completely embraces it, and has no mechanical analogy. To those accustomed only to the grosser ideas of matter and its motions, says the British scientist, this electro-magnetic world is as difficult to conceive of as it would be for us to walk upon air. Yet many times in our lives is this world in overwhelming evidence before us. During a thunderstorm we get an inkling of how fearfully and wonderfully the universe in which we live is made, and what energy and activity its apparent passivity and opacity mark. A flash of lightning out of a storm-cloud seems instantly to transform the whole passive universe into a terrible living power. This slow, opaque, indifferent matter about us and above us, going its silent or noisy round of mechanical and chemical change, ponderable, insensate, obstructive, slumbering in the rocks, quietly active in the soil, gently rustling in the trees, sweetly purling in the brooks, slowly, invisibly building and shaping our bodies–how could we ever dream that it held in leash such a terrible, ubiquitous, spectacular thing as this of the forked lightning? If we were to see and hear it for the first time, should we not think that the Judgment Day had really come? that the great seals of the Book of Fate were being broken?

What an awakening it is! what a revelation! what a fearfully dramatic actor suddenly leaps upon the stage! Had we been permitted to look behind the scenes, we could not have found him; he was not there, except potentially; he was born and equipped in a twinkling. One stride, and one word which shakes the house, and he is gone; gone as quickly as he came. Look behind the curtain and he is not there. He has vanished more completely than any stage ghost ever vanished–he has withdrawn into the innermost recesses of the atomic structure of matter, and is diffused through the clouds, to be called back again, as the elemental drama proceeds, as suddenly as before.

All matter is charged with electricity, either actual or potential; the sun is hot with it, and doubtless our own heart-beats, our own thinking brains, are intimately related to it; yet it is palpable and visible only in this sudden and extraordinary way. It defies our analysis, it defies our definitions; it is inscrutable and incomprehensible, yet it will do our errands, light our houses, cook our dinners, and pull our loads.

How humdrum and constant and prosaic the other forces–gravity, cohesion, chemical affinity, and capillary attraction–seem when compared with this force of forces, electricity! How deep and prolonged it slumbers at one time, how terribly active and threatening at another, bellowing through the heavens like an infuriated god seeking whom he may destroy!

The warring of the elements at such times is no figure of speech. What has so disturbed the peace in the electric equilibrium, as to make possible this sudden outburst, this steep incline in the stream of energy, this ethereal Niagara pouring from heaven to earth? Is a thunderstorm a display of the atomic energy of which the physicists speak, and which, were it available for our use, would do all the work of the world many times over?

How marvelous that the softest summer breeze, or the impalpable currents of the calmest day, can be torn asunder with such suddenness and violence, by the accumulated energy that slumbers in the imaginary atoms, as to give forth a sound like the rending of mountains or the detonations of earthquakes!

Electricity is the soul of matter. If Whitman’s paradox is true, that the soul and body are one, in the same sense the scientific paradox is true: that matter and electricity are one, and both are doubtless a phase of the universal ether–a reality which can be described only in terms of the negation of matter. In a flash of lightning we see pure disembodied energy–probably that which is the main-spring of the universe. Modern science is more and more inclined to find the explanation of all vital phenomena in electrical stress and change. We know that an electric current will bring about chemical changes otherwise impracticable. Nerve force, if not a form of electricity, is probably inseparable from it. Chemical changes equivalent to the combustion of fuel and the corresponding amount of available energy released have not yet been achieved outside of the living body without great loss. The living body makes a short cut from fuel to energy, and this avoids the wasteful process of the engine. What part electricity plays in this process is, of course, only conjectural.