Download e-book for iPad: The Material World by Rodney Cotterill

By Rodney Cotterill

ISBN-10: 0521451477

ISBN-13: 9780521451475

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The potential energy of a body depends on its height above the surface of the Earth. Thus a person standing on a chair has a higher potential energy than one of the same mass standing on the ground in the same location. If the person on the chair jumps off, part of the potential energy will be converted into kinetic energy as he or she falls towards the ground. During the descent, the person’sheight above ground level continually decreases, so the potential energy diminishes. A simple illustration of the difference between discrete and continuous changes of potential energy is afforded by the playground slide.

To understand the disparity, we must return to the question of radioactivity, and to the studies of Rutherford and his colleagues in 1919. They fired alpha particles, from a radium source, through a tube containing pure nitrogen gas, and checked for possible emissions with the usual fluorescent screen. Particles were being given off which travelled farther than the alpha variety, and the influence on their trajectories of a magnetic field showed them to be equivalent to the positively charged nuclei of hydrogen, now known as protons.

In Lavoisier’s case, two elements were made to combine to form a compound, while Priestley drove the reaction in the other direction. In both types of experiment it was found that the weight of the compound equalled the weight of its constituent elements, and it was therefore concluded that a chemical reaction leads to no net loss or gain of matter; that matter is in fact indestructible. The significance of weight was first fully appreciated by John Dalton who, in 1808, put forward the idea that the defining characteristic of an element is the weight of one of its atoms.

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The Material World by Rodney Cotterill

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