IS ELECTRICITY MATTER OR FORCE?*
BY A THEOSOPHIST
[The Theosophist, Vol. III, No. 12, September, 1882, pp. 318-319]
In a very interesting and able address on “The Common Foundation of all Religions,” delivered at Madras, on April 26, 1882, by Colonel H. S. Olcott, President-Founder of the Theosophical Society, the learned President, while speaking of matter, has asserted that electricity is matter, like the air and water.
I will quote his own words here:
“Well then, to return, is it matter, or something else? I say matter plus something else. And here stop a moment to think what matter is. Loose thinkers—among whom we must class raw lads fresh from College, though they be ever so much titled—are apt to associate the idea of matter with the properties of density, visibility, and tangibility. But this is very inexcusable. The air we breathe is invisible, yet matter—its equivalents of oxygen, hydrogen (?), nitrogen, and carbonic acid, are each atomic, ponderable and demonstrable by analysis. Electricity cannot, except under prepared conditions, be seen, yet it is matter. The universal ether of science no one ever saw, yet it is matter in a state of extreme tenuity. Take the familiar example of forms of water, and see how they rapidly run up the scale of tenuity until they elude the clutch of science: stone-hard ice, melted ice, condensed steam, superheated and invisible steam, electricity(?) and—it is gone out of the world of effects into the world of causes!
* [This article is reprinted here as it is directly related to the one which follows.–––Compiler.]
The familiar examples of air, water, and the universal ether given by the learned Colonel to illustrate matter, are well known and cannot be disputed for a moment, but how he reconciles the idea of electricity, being also an example of matter, cannot be conceived. Taking his own definition of matter, “atomic, ponderable, and demonstrable,” I cannot understand how his material electricity will stand these tests. I will explain this further on when showing the difference between force and matter.
According to the latest theories, electricity is regarded as a force, and not matter. The best thinkers and best writers on physical science, as taught in Europe, are agreed on this point. Professor Tyndall, one of the best materialistic philosophers of the present century, while writing on “Matter and Force,” says:
“Long-thinking and experimenting has led philosophers to conclude that matter is composed of atoms, from which whether separate or in combination, the whole material world is built up. The air we breathe, for example, is mainly a mechanical mixture of the atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. The water we drink is also composed of oxygen and hydrogen. But it differs from the air in this particular, that in water the oxygen and hydrogen are not mechanically mixed, but chemically combined. The atoms of oxygen and those of hydrogen exert enormous attraction over each other; so that, when brought into sufficient proximity, they rush together with an almost incredible force to form a chemical compound. But powerful as is the force with which these atoms lock themselves together, we have the means of tearing them asunder, and the agent by which we accomplish this may here receive a few moments’ attention.”
Then he goes on describing the development of this force which he calls electricity. Here Professor Tyndall clearly shows that matter is different from force.
Again, in the chapter on Scientific Materialism, Professor Tyndall says:
“The forms of the minerals resulting from this play of polar forces are various, and exhibit different degrees of complexity. Men of science avail themselves of all means of exploring their molecular structure. For this purpose they employ in turn as agents of exploration, light, heat, magnetism, electricity, and sound.”
According to the latest researches of modern physical science, philosophers have recognized the existence of some agency, which they either call a force or energy, and they regard the several physical forces, viz., light, sound, heat, magnetism, and electricity as but different manifestations of the same.
Professor Balfour Stewart regards electricity as a manifestation of energy.
Professor Ganot defines electricity as a physical agent.
Professor Miller calls it a compound force.
Force, energy, and physical agent are simply different words to express the same idea. It will thus be seen that the modern men of science are agreed upon this point, that electricity is a force. Let us proceed a step farther, and see whether matter and force are interchangeable terms. That is whether matter is force, or force is matter.
From the quotations given above, it will be seen that Professor Tyndall says that matter is composed of atoms, and that which keeps these atoms together or tears them asunder is force. That is, matter is different from force. As matter is composed of atoms it must be ponderable; Colonel Olcott admits this. It can be proved by experiment that the air we breathe, and the water we drink, have each of them some weight. The universal ether of science, which exists in extreme tenuity, can be proved to possess some weight.*
Is this test applicable to force? In whatever form it may be manifest, as light, sound, heat, magnetism, or electricity, it can be experimentally proved that it has no weight.
Light, according to the latest theories in science, is the result of undulations or vibrations of an elastic medium or ether of inconceivable tenuity, filling all space. By any scientific apparatus, yet known, it is not practicable to weigh a ray of light. If we pass several rays of light through a lens or prism, it does not in any way gain in weight.
Heat is the vibration of the atom of a body. Can we weigh heat? I don’t think we can. The ball experiment is well known even to the beginners of science.
Magnetism or electricity are called polar forces.
A soft iron bar, after it is permanently magnetized, does not gain in weight.† So, also, a Leyden jar charged with electricity does not gain in weight; or a platinum wire attached to the two poles of a galvanic battery which will be red hot while electricity is passing through it, will not gain in weight. It may be urged by some that the present science has not the means to weigh these. The simple reply to this would be that if the chemical balance is now capable of weighing minute bodies, there is no reason why these agents, which are both demonstrable and appreciable, should not be weighed by it, if they had any weight.
It would seem that such an argument may be brought forward simply with a view to evading the point in question.
* Science would feel thankful to our correspondent, we should say, if he could but prove his assertion. [H.P.B.]
† “Soft iron cannot be “permanently” magnetised. Our correspondent confounds it probably with steel. [H.P.B.]
Hence we may conclude that these several manifestations of force are imponderable. As matter is ponderable, they cannot be matter: that is, force is not matter. Electricity has been described above as a force; therefore, it is not matter. How is it then that electricity is called matter, and is mentioned as an illustration of matter along with air and water?
As a question of science, discussion on this subject seems desirable, and The Theosophist would assist the cause of science by giving publicity to this letter, and inviting replies to it from those including Colonel Olcott, who maintain that electricity is matter and not a force.
Baroda, July 19, 1882.