Sir Oliver Lodge on Radium

On Tuesday January 5, 1904, Sir Oliver Lodge, the British scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society, was in Birmingham where he delivered two lectures on radium. Reporters from ‘The Engineer’ went to hear what he had to say.

‘Any possible utilisation of the ether, however, by discarnate intelligence must be left as a problem for the future.’ – Sir Oliver Lodge.

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On Tuesday January 5, 1904, Sir Oliver Lodge, the British scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society was in Birmingham where he delivered two lectures on radium.

What follows, for your amusement and edification, is an extract from the January 8, 1904 issue of ‘The Engineer’ newspaper which covered the event commenting quite liberally upon the worth of Sir Oliver’s statements.

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On Tuesday, Sir Oliver Lodge delivered in Birmingham two lectures on radium – the second to working men. The Town Hall was filled, and not nearly enough room was available for all those who desired to attend. Dr. Lodge had, however, very little to tell his audience that was new. There were, however, certain statements made by Sir Oliver Lodge which demand careful consideration.

It is useless to lecture in a language that cannot be understood by anyone save the lecturer and perhaps a select few. The time has come, we think, for stating very plainly that unless the physicist can hit upon language that will convey definite ideas it is well that he should not theorise about facts.

Dr. Lodge told his hearers that electricity exists in small particles; that atoms consist of positive and negative electricity; and nothing else.

Here at one fell swoop we have all existing concepts of ultimate matter cleared away, and in return we get electricity.

No one knows what electricity is, but not very long since it was taught by the physicist that it was an ether vibration akin in its nature to light. It is a suggestive fact that Sir Oliver Lodge did not once mention the ether, and, so far as can be seen, science seems to have dispensed with its services in the future.

If matter is also cleared out, it becomes essential that some definition of electricity should be aimed at. We are told that radium emits particles, and that these particles must be electricity, and as there is nothing but electricity left, it appears that radium is itself electricity.

It will not do to say that electricity consists of particles, and that particles consist of electricity. It will not be easy to persuade a sailor that an armour plate is nothing but electricity, or an engineer that coal, water, steam, and cast iron are the same.

The impression left on the mind by talk like this is that Sir Oliver Lodge has no very definite ideas himself about the constitution of the universe.

At all events, ordinary brains cannot follow him into transcendental regions which are indistinguishable from metaphysics.

As for the great puzzle of all, the source of the energy of radium, Sir Oliver Lodge has nothing to say.

According to Professor Curie, a given weight of radium will give off heat enough to melt its own weight of ice every hour, and it can, so far as is known, go on doing this for a million years; or again, a given weight of radium gives out in eighty hours as much heat as an equal weight of coal would give out if burned in one hour.

It is facts like these that make men question not so much the doctrine of the conservation of energy, as the meaning of the words.

The way in which Sir Oliver Lodge missed the true issue in his Birmingham lecture is very remarkable. ‘The spontaneous breaking up of an atom,’ he said, ‘constitutes a novel source of energy larger than any previously known. The amount of energy of any weighable collection of atoms is enormous, if it could be got at; but in practice only a few atoms are unstable for instant to instant.’

Now how can energy be conserved in an atom? And why does the atom break up?

Using language in its legitimate sense, so far as is known radium creates energy. To say that the energy has first to be stored up in it is simply to play with words.

No dynamic, not to say mechanical, idea can be brought in to explain such a statement. Yet until it can be shown that radium merely stores up energy as water stores up heat, it will be impossible to maintain that the creation of energy is out of the question.

It is quite time that the physicist put his house in order, at all events so far as the meaning of words and the formation of concepts is concerned.