Faraday: Electrical Conduction & Nature of Matter

This is a letter written by Michael Faraday to Richard Taylor on January 25, 1844. It is available at Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Vol. XXIV, p. 136

The contents of Faraday’s letter follow. My comments follow the paragraphs in bold color italics.

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To Richard Taylor, Esq., Royal Institution, January 25, 1844

Dear Sir,

LAST Friday I opened the weekly evening-meetings here by a subject of which the above was the title, and had no intention of publishing the matter further, but as it involves the consideration and application of a few of those main elements of natural knowledge, facts, I thought an account of its nature and intention might not be unacceptable to you, and would at the same time serve as the record of my opinion and views, as far as they are at present formed.

The view of the atomic constitution of matter which I think is most prevalent, is that which considers the atom as a something material having a certain volume, upon which those powers were impressed at the creation, which have given it, from that time to the present, the capability of constituting, when many atoms are congregated together into groups, the different substances whose effects and properties we observe. These, though grouped and held together by their powers, do not touch each other, but have intervening space, otherwise pressure or cold could not make a body contract into a smaller bulk, nor heat or tension make it larger; in liquids these atoms or particles are free to move about one another, and in vapours or gases they are also present, but removed very much further apart, though still related to each other by their powers.

The prevalent view of the atomic constitution of matter is as follows. An atom is something material having a certain volume. These atoms congregate together into groups to constitute different substances. Atoms in such groups do not touch each other, but have intervening space.

The atomic doctrine is greatly used one way or another in this, our day, for the interpretation of phenomena, especially those of crystallography and chemistry, and is not so carefully distinguished from the facts, but that it often appears to him who stands in the position of student, as a statement of the facts themselves, though it is at best but an assumption; of the truth of which we can assert nothing, whatever we may say or think of its probability. The word atom, which can never be used without involving much that is purely hypothetical, is often intended to be used to express a simple fact, but, good as the intention is, I have not yet found a mind that did habitually separate it from its accompanying temptations; and there can be no doubt that the words definite proportions, equivalents, primes, &c, which did and do express fully all the facts of what is usually called the atomic theory in chemistry, were dismissed because they were not expressive enough, and did not say all that was in the mind of him who used the word atom in their stead ; they did not express the hypothesis as well as the fact.

This description of atomic constitution is at best a working hypothesis. It cannot be taken as factual.

But it is always safe and philosophic to distinguish, as much as is in our power, fact from theory; the experience of past ages is sufficient to show us the wisdom of such a course; and considering the constant tendency of the mind to rest on an assumption, and, when it answers every present purpose, to forget that it is an assumption, we ought to remember that it, in such cases, becomes a prejudice, and inevitably interferes, more or less, with a clear-sighted judgement. I cannot doubt but that he who, as a mere philosopher, has most power of penetrating the secrets of nature, and guessing by hypothesis at her mode of working, will also be most careful, for his own safe progress and that of others, to distinguish that knowledge which consists of assumption, by which I mean theory and hypothesis, from that which is the knowledge of facts and laws; never raising the former to the dignity or authority of the latter, nor confusing the latter more than is inevitable with the former.

A philosopher must carefully distinguish theory and hypothesis from facts and laws and remain aware of the assumptions.

Light and electricity are two great and searching investigators of the molecular structure of bodies, and it was whilst considering the probable nature of conduction and insulation in bodies not decomposable by the electricity to which they were subject, and the relation of electricity to space contemplated as void of that which by the atomists is called matter, that considerations something like those which follow were presented to my mind.

Both light and electricity are non-material. Why does electricity decompose certain materials and not others? How is electricity conducted and insulated in materials not decomposable? How is electricity related to space considered as void of matter?

If the view of the constitution of matter already referred to be assumed to be correct, and I may be allowed to speak of the particles of matter and of the space between them (in water, or in the vapour of water for instance) as two different things, then space must be taken as the only continuous part, for the particles are considered as separated by space from each other. Space will permeate all masses of matter in every direction like a net, except that in place of meshes it will form cells, isolating each atom from its neighbours, and itself only being continuous.

Particles of matter and space are considered to be two different things. Space is continuous but particles are not because they are separated by space. Space permeates all masses of matter isolating atoms from each other.

Then take the case of a piece of shell-lac, a non-conductor, and it would appear at once from such a view of its atomic constitution that space is an insulator, for if it were a conductor the shell-lac could not insulate, whatever might be the relation as to conducting power of its material atoms; the space would be like a fine metallic web penetrating it in every direction, just as we may imagine of a heap of siliceous sand having all its pores filled with water; or as we may consider of a stick of black wax, which, though it contains an infinity of particles of conducting charcoal diffused through every part of it, cannot conduct, because a non-conducting body (a resin) intervenes and separates them one from another, like the supposed space in the lac.

From that view, space would be the non-conducting part of a non-conductor like shell-lac.

Next take the case of a metal, platinum or potassium, constituted, according to the atomic theory, in the same manner. The metal is a conductor; but how can this be, except space be a conductor? for it is the only continuous part of the metal, and the atoms not only do not touch (by the theory), but as we shall see presently, must be assumed to be a considerable way apart. Space therefore must be a conductor, or else the metals could not conduct, but would be in the situation of the black sealing-wax referred to a little while ago.

From the same view, space would be the conducting part of a conductor like metal because it is continuous.

But if space be a conductor, how then can shell-lac, sulphur, &c. insulate? for space permeates them in every direction. Or if space be an insulator, how can a metal or other similar body conduct?

The atomic constitution as defined above does not explain how conduction takes place.

It would seem, therefore, that in accepting the ordinary atomic theory, space may be proved to be a non-conductor in non-conducting bodies, and a conductor in conducting bodies, but the reasoning ends in this, a subversion of that theory altogether; for if space be an insulator it cannot exist in conducting bodies, and if it be a conductor it cannot exist in insulating bodies. Any ground of reasoning which tends to such conclusions as these must in itself be false.

This makes us look at the assumptions underlying the atomic theory.

In connexion with such conclusions we may consider shortly what are the probabilities that present themselves to the mind, if the extension of the atomic theory which chemists have imagined, be applied in conjunction with the conducting powers of metals. If the specific gravity of the metals be divided by the atomic numbers, it gives us the number of atoms, upon the hypothesis, in equal bulks of the metals. In the following table the first column of figures expresses nearly the number of atoms in, and the second column of figures the conducting power of, equal volumes of the metals named.

Atoms                                                   Conducting power

1.00                        gold                      6.00

1.00                        silver                     4.66

1.12                        lead                       0.52

1.30                        tin                           1.00

2.20                        platinum              1.04

2.27                        zinc                        1.80

2.87                        copper                  6.33

2.90                        Iron                        1.00

This table compares the conducting power of metals to relative number of atoms in equal volumes.

So here iron, which contains the greatest number of atoms in a given bulk, is the worst conductor excepting one. Gold, which contains the fewest, is nearly the best conductor; not that these conditions are in inverse proportions, for copper, which contains nearly as many atoms as iron, conducts better still than gold, and with above six times the power of iron. Lead, which contains more atoms than gold, has only about one-twelfth of its conducting power; lead, which is much heavier than tin and much lighter than platina, has only half the conducting power of either of these metals. And all this happens amongst substances which we are bound to consider, at present, as elementary or simple. Whichever way we consider the particles of matter and the space between them, and examine the assumed constitution of matter by this table, the results are full of perplexity.

There is no correlation between conducting power and the relative number of atoms.

Now let us take the case of potassium, a compact metallic substance with excellent conducting powers, its oxide or hydrate a non-conductor; it will supply us with some facts having very important bearings on the assumed atomic construction of matter.

When potassium is oxidized an atom of it combines with an atom of oxygen to form an atom of potassa, and an atom of potassa combines with an atom of water, consisting of two atoms of oxygen and hydrogen, to form an atom of hydrate of potassa, so that an atom of hydrate of potassa contains four elementary atoms. The specific gravity of potassium is 0.865, and its atomic weight 40; the specific gravity of cast hydrate of potassa, in such state of purity as I could obtain it, I found to be nearly 2, its atomic weight 57. From these, which may be taken as facts, the following strange conclusions flow. A piece of potassium contains less potassium than an equal piece of the potash formed by it and oxygen. We may cast into potassium oxygen atom for atom, and then again both oxygen and hydrogen in a twofold number of atoms, and yet, with all these additions, the matter shall become less and less, until it is not two-thirds of its original volume. If a given bulk of potassium contains 45 atoms, the same bulk of hydrate of potassa contains 70 atoms nearly of the metal potassium, and besides that, 210 atoms more of oxygen and hydrogen. In dealing with assumptions I must assume a little more for the sake of making any kind of statement; let me therefore assume that in the hydrate of potassa the atoms are all of one size and nearly touching each other, and that in a cubic inch of that substance there are 2800 elementary atoms of potassium, oxygen and hydrogen; take away 2100 atoms of oxygen and hydrogen, and the 700 atoms of potassium remaining will swell into more than a cubic inch and a half, and if we diminish the number until only those containable in a cubic inch remain, we shall have 430, or thereabout. So a space which can contain 2800 atoms, and amongst them 700 of potassium itself, is found to be entirely filled by 430 atoms of potassium as they exist in the ordinary state of that metal. Surely then, under the suppositions of the atomic theory, the atoms of potassium must be very far apart in the metal, i.e. there must be much more of space than of matter in that body : yet it is an excellent conductor, and so space must be a conductor; but then what becomes of shell-lac, sulphur, and all the insulators? for space must also by the theory exist in them.

Comparing metal with its compounds, the increased number of atoms in the same volume does not explain the anomaly in conduction.

Again, the volume which will contain 430 atoms of potassium, and nothing else, whilst in the state of metal, will, when that potassium is converted into nitre, contain very nearly the same number of atoms of potassium, i. e. 416, and also then seven times as many, or 2912 atoms of nitrogen and oxygen besides. In carbonate of potassa the space which will contain only the 430 atoms of potassium as metal, being entirely filled by it, will, after the conversion, contain 256 atoms more of potassium, making 686 atoms of that metal, and, in addition, 2744 atoms of oxygen and carbon.

These and similar considerations might be extended through compounds of sodium and other bodies with results equally striking, and indeed still more so, when the relations of one substance, as oxygen or sulphur, with different bodies are brought into comparison.

Atomic constitution cannot be just made up of matter and space. The duality of matter-space produces contradiction from the viewpoint of conduction.

I am not ignorant that the mind is most powerfully drawn by the phenomena of crystallization, chemistry and physics generally, to the acknowledgement of centres of force. I feel myself constrained, for the present hypothetically, to admit them, and cannot do without them, but I feel great difficulty in the conception of atoms of matter which in solids, fluids and vapours are supposed to be more or less apart from each other, with intervening space not occupied by atoms, and perceive great contradictions in the conclusions which flow from such a view.

The atoms may act as centers of force. But the conception of atoms with intervening space leads to great contradictions.

If we must assume at all, as indeed in a branch of knowledge like the present we can hardly help it, then the safest course appears to be to assume as little as possible, and in that respect the atoms of Boscovich appear to me to have a great advantage over the more usual notion. His atoms, if I understand aright, are mere centres of forces or powers, not particles of matter, in which the powers themselves reside. If, in the ordinary view of atoms, we call the particle of matter away from the powers a, and the system of powers or forces in and around it m, then in Boscovich’s theory a disappears, or is a mere mathematical point, whilst in the usual notion it is a little unchangeable, impenetrable piece of matter, and m is an atmosphere of force grouped around it.

Atoms are centers of force. They are considered to be made of impenetrable piece of matter that is surrounded by force. It makes more sense if we consider atoms to be a manifestation of force itself.

NOTE: Here Faraday is suggesting that it is better to replace the “particles in void” perspective by the “continuum of substance” perspective to resolve the contradictions arising from the consideration of electrical conduction. This suggestion of Faraday, first announced in 1844, was never acknowledged by other scientists.

Today the atomic model consists of a nucleus surrounded by electrons. The problem of action at a distance still exists between electrons and the nucleus.

In many of the hypothetical uses made of atoms, as in crystallography, chemistry, magnetism, &c, this difference in the assumption makes little or no alteration in the results, but in other cases, as of electric conduction, the nature of light, the manner in which bodies combine to produce compounds, the effects of forces, as heat or electricity, upon matter, the difference will be very great.

The “continuum of substance” perspective makes a big difference in the understanding of electrical conduction, the nature of light, the manner in which bodies combine to produce compounds, and the effects of forces, as heat or electricity, upon matter.

Newton looked at mass as inertia or “innate force of matter”. Force is the primary characteristic by which we perceive or recognize a substance. Thus mass is same as force. Force determines the substantialness of a substance as well as capacity to do work. Both mass and energy are combined in force. It depicts the continuity of mass as energy and space.

Thus, referring back to potassium, in which as a metal the atoms must, as we have seen, be, according to the usual view, very far apart from each other, how can we for a moment imagine that its conducting property belongs to it, any otherwise than as a consequence of the properties of the space, or as I have called it above, the m? so also its other properties in regard to light or magnetism, or solidity, or hardness, or specific gravity, must belong to it, in consequence of the properties or forces of the m, not those of the a, which, without the forces, is conceived of as having no powers. But then surely the m is the matter of the potassium, for where is there the least ground (except in a gratuitous assumption) for imagining a difference in kind between the nature of that space midway between the centres of two contiguous atoms and any other spot between these centres? a difference in degree, or even in the nature of the power consistent with the law of continuity, I can admit, but the difference between a supposed little hard particle and the powers around it I cannot imagine.

The conducting property of the atom extends as the property of space. Similarly the properties of light, magnetism, solidity, hardness, and specific gravity extend as the properties of space. In other words, there is continuity between two contiguous atoms, and the atmosphere of force constitutes the matter of the atom. There is no hard boundary between matter and space.

To my mind, therefore, the a or nucleus vanishes, and the substance consists of the powers or m; and indeed what notion can we form of the nucleus independent of its powers? all our perception and knowledge of the atom, and even our fancy, is limited to ideas of its powers: what thought remains on which to hang the imagination of an a independent of the acknowledged forces? A mind just entering on the subject may consider it difficult to think of the powers of matter independent of a separate something to be called the matter, but it is certainly far more difficult, and indeed impossible, to think of or imagine that matter independent of the powers. Now the powers we know and recognize in every phaenomena of the creation, the abstract matter in none ; why then assume the existence of that of which we are ignorant, which we cannot conceive, and for which there is no philosophical necessity?

The above writing of Faraday is powerful. The substance is the properties it displays. Without its properties the substance is nothing.

Before concluding these speculations I will refer to a few of the important differences between the assumption of atoms consisting merely of centres of force, like those of Boscovich, and that other assumption of molecules of something specially material, having powers attached in and around them.

With the latter atoms a mass of matter consists of atoms and intervening space, with the former atoms matter is everywhere present, and there is no intervening space unoccupied by it. In gases the atoms touch each other just as truly as in solids. In this respect the atoms of water touch each other whether that substance be in the form of ice, water or steam; no mere intervening space is present. Doubtless the centres of force vary in their distance one from another, but that which is truly the matter of one atom touches the matter of its neighbours.

The properties of a molecule are evenly distributed inside it even when it contains different types of atoms. The matter  is present everywhere within the molecule, and there is no intervening space unoccupied by it. Thus, atoms everywhere touch each other; no mere intervening space is present.

Hence matter will be continuous throughout, and in considering a mass of it we have not to suppose a distinction between its atoms and any intervening space. The powers around the centres give these centres the properties of atoms of matter; and these powers again, when many centres by their conjoint forces are grouped into a mass, give to every part of that mass the properties of matter. In such a view all the contradiction resulting from the consideration of electric insulation and conduction disappears.

Matter is, therefore, continuous throughout with no absolute distinction from space. In such a view all the contradiction resulting from the consideration of electric insulation and conduction disappears… Wow! Faraday is very specific. Maxwell didn’t get this.

The atoms may be conceived of as highly elastic, instead of being supposed excessively hard and unalterable in form; the mere compression of a bladder of air between the hands can alter their size a little; and the experiments of Cagniard de la Tour carry on this change in size until the difference in bulk at one time and another may be made several hundred times. Such is also the case when a solid or a fluid body is converted into vapour.

Thus atoms are highly elastic.

With regard also to the shape of the atoms, and, according to the ordinary assumption, its definite and unalterable character, another view must now be taken of it. An atom by itself might be conceived of as spherical or spheroidal, or where many were touching in all directions, the form might be thought of, as a dodecahedron, for any one would be surrounded by and bear against twelve others, on different sides. But if an atom be conceived to be a centre of power, that which is ordinarily referred to under the term shape would now be referred to the disposition and relative intensity of the forces. The power arranged in and around a centre might be uniform in arrangement and intensity in every direction outwards from that centre, and then a section of equal intensity of force through the radii would be a sphere; or the law of decrease of force from the centre outwards might vary in different directions, and then the section of equal intensity might be an oblate or oblong spheroid, or have other forms; or the forces might be disposed so as to make the atom polar; or they might circulate around it equatorially or otherwise, after the manner of imagined magnetic atoms. In fact nothing can be supposed of the disposition of forces in or about a solid nucleus of matter, which cannot be equally conceived with respect to a centre.

Nothing can be supposed of the disposition of forces in or about a solid nucleus of matter, which cannot be equally conceived with respect to a centre.

In the view of matter now sustained as the lesser assumption, matter and the atoms of matter would be mutually penetrable. As regards the mutual penetrability of matter, one would think that the facts respecting potassium and its compounds, already described, would be enough to prove that point to a mind which accepts a fact for a fact, and is not obstructed in its judgement by preconceived notions. With respect to the mutual penetrability of the atoms, it seems to me to present in many points of view a more beautiful, yet equally probable and philosophic idea of the constitution of bodies than the other hypotheses, especially in the case of chemical combination. If we suppose an atom of oxygen and an atom of potassium about to combine and produce potash, the hypothesis of solid unchangeable impenetrable atoms places these two particles side by side in a position easily, because mechanically, imagined, and not unfrequently represented; but if these two atoms be centres of power they will mutually penetrate to the very centres, thus forming one atom or molecule with powers, either uniformly around it or arranged as the resultant of the powers of the two constituent atoms; and the manner in which two or many centres of force may in this way combine, and afterwards, under the dominion of stronger forces, separate again, may in some degree be illustrated by the beautiful case of the conjunction of two sea waves of different velocities into one, their perfect union for a time, and final separation into the constituent waves, considered, I think, at the meeting of the British Association at Liverpool. It does not of course follow, from this view, that the centres shall always coincide; that will depend upon the relative disposition of the powers of each atom.

Here is the beautiful idea of Faraday of atoms penetrating each other to form a molecule of an identity of its own.

The view now stated of the constitution of matter would seem to involve necessarily the conclusion that matter fills all space, or, at least, all space to which gravitation extends (including the sun and its system); for gravitation is a property of matter dependent on a certain force, and it is this force which constitutes the matter. In that view matter is not merely mutually penetrable, but each atom extends, so to say, throughout the whole of the solar system, yet always retaining its own centre of force. This, at first sight, seems to fall in very harmoniously with Mossotti’s mathematical investigations and reference of the phaenomena of electricity, cohesion, gravitation, &c. to one force in matter; and also again with the old adage, “matter cannot act where it is not.” But it is no part of my intention to enter into such considerations as these, or what the bearings of this hypothesis would be on the theory of light and the supposed aether. My desire has been rather to bring certain facts from electrical conduction and chemical combination to bear strongly upon our views regarding the nature of atoms and matter, and so to assist in distinguishing in natural philosophy our real knowledge, i. e. the knowledge of facts and laws, from that, which, though it has the form of knowledge, may, from its including so much that is mere assumption, be the very reverse.

The substance fills all space and so does gravity because gravitation is a property of substance. This view of Faraday foreshadows an atom-less substance, which is the electromagnetic field. Here Faraday advances a very novel but natural idea about gravity.

I am, my dear Sir,

Yours, &c,

Michael Faraday.

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