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Fall 2010

The Worlds Within Our World: Margaret Cavendish and James Clerk Maxwell
Scott Borger

The seventeenth-century English writer Margaret Cavendishs poetic inspiration stemmed from her fascination with science. Being an atomist she believed every tangible object consisted of four uniquely shaped atoms. Different alignments of these four composed the structure for any object. These ideas lead her to write the poem Of Many Worlds in This World in 1653. The poem followed her atomistic beliefs and foreshadowed the coming change in science. Cavendishs thoughts in the poem reflected a developing conceptual acceptance of atomic and molecular interaction. By todays standards, those educated in science know approximately 115 elements can be found. Atoms contain three basic components: Neutrons, Protons, and Electrons. Quarks align to generate protons and neutrons. The electron, as far as science knows, exists as a fundamental particle. In Cavendishs time, these ideas would have been a far stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, she and several others began the abstract thoughts of how something as simple as a gem (a ruby in her poem) may contain an entire world. From a gem sitting in the palm of her hand, Cavendish imagined how she may be holding a tiny universe full of life and interesting happenings. Travel forward about two hundred years and north of England; there lived a Scotsman named James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Best known for his self-titled Maxwells Equations, he described the basic understanding of electromagnetic theory. The theory explained the world of electric fields and charge interactions. Outside this work, Maxwell remained curiously intrigued by molecules. Since Cavendishs time, there had been several major advancements in science. The modern concept of elements remained a relatively new idea. The periodic table of elements would be defined and finally given to the world of science in 1870 (Pasachoff). Chemists revealed components that could not be broken down to a smaller chemical compound, for example sulfur. Sulfur could be refined to a dry powder, with a distinct odor. Beyond this idea of elements laid the open field of particle interactions. Many different atomic ideas circulated within the scientific community; on the surface some of Maxwells stayed. These ideas begin to develop in history from various origins, but several forthcoming thoughts are, in fact, seen in Cavendishs poem Of Many Worlds in This World. Cavendishs poem opens with a statement about the multiple worlds within worlds, an early statement about atomic structure:

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Fall 2010

Just like unto a Nest of Boxes round, Degrees of sizes within each Boxe are found, So in this World, may many Worlds more be, Thinner, and lesse, and lesse still by degree; (1-4) These lines exemplify how her 1653 poem relates to the more modern views that Maxwell shared in the nineteenth century. Cavendish conveys what would happen if one would begin to break down an object; the discovery of many layers of structure would likely occur. The nest of boxes provides a metaphor for the multiple levels of composer. If you take an apple, peel away the skin, remove the core, slice it into pieces, dice it into bits, take slivers of the bits, and put it under a microscope, one will see plant cells. With each degree of size or the smaller the chunk one takes, the thinner or narrower view of that individual world. Each increase in depth provides smaller, more refined details of the atom. This refinement of the details became apparent with the modernization of the sciences. The success of deeper probing confirmed the theories of atoms and elements. Within their nested boxes, objects divide to a finite point. The end of this division procures the atom. Poems and other papers similar to Margaret Cavendishs reflect the belief in atomism and the conviction, at the time, that there are smaller worlds beyond our senses. This is why James Clerk Maxwell references some of the earlier Atomism teachings in the beginning of his lecture Molecules. He uses the origins of the idea as an introduction to the modern perspective of atomic and molecular activity. Cavendish describes the size of these worlds in the following four lines. She creates visualizations in the comparison with the term two-pence or a coin during the following: Although they are not subject to our sense, A world may be no bigger than two-pence. Nature is curious, and such worke may make, That our dull sense can never finde, but scape. (5-8) People may find the concept of a coin-sized world strikingly odd in Cavendishs era. As a new tool, the microscopes utility remained unknown. Robert Hooke reported on the structure of cork cells using a microscope in 1665 (Robert Hooke), several years after her poem. Considering the lack of a microscope, Cavendishs lines although they are not subject to our sense and That our dull sense can never finde, but scape are easily understood. These small worlds evaded the unaided eye. The human body and mind remained detached from the miniature worlds. Again, the poem preceded the modern theory. This evasiveness from the eye caused

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scientific advances that led to Hookes microscope, and eventually to further advances that allowed scientists centuries later to examine the atomic worlds directly to see what may be hidden. The microscope did show cells, although the atom still resided much deeper. Maxwell did develop two clever methods for our senses to grasp, one some level, the nature of this atomic world. In a published 1873 lecture entitled Molecules, he demonstrated to the audience the two experiments. The first example utilized ammonia. Ammonia emanates a distinct smell, and this property turned out to be essential to his example. As he took a jar containing a gaseous form of ammonia, he opened the lid. Placing the open vessel down in the lecture hall, he began to explain. The ammonia sat before him and the crowd. Without agitation, the smell infiltrated every corner of the room in a short period of time. Maxwell had demonstrated the motion of particles which could not be seen. This concept overlaps with Cavendishs idea of worlds within worlds. Obviously, there had been some interaction between the gas in the jar and the air. The small, invisible particles bounced about the room, and the gas diffused into the air. With the exception of the smell, the ammonia particles had gone about their business undetected by the crowd. The evasive attribute of the particles parallels the exact idea Cavendish wrote about in her poem. Within our world atoms and molecules interact, while our senses remain dull to such phenomenon the entire time. Again during the lecture Molecules, Maxwells second demonstration employed ammonia. In the second round he combined ammonia with hydrochloric acid. Maxwell described the process in the following way: I shall exhibit gaseous diffusion to you by means of two gases, ammonia and hydrochloric acid, which, when they meet, form a sold product. The ammonia, being the lighter gas, is placed above the hydrochloric acid, with a stratum of air between, but you will soon see that the gases can diffuse through this stratum of air, and produce a cloud of white smoke when they meet. During the whole of this process no currents or any other visible motion can be detected. Every part of the vessel appears as calm as a jar of undisturbed air. With the second reaction, two separate molecules interacted and became visible. The resulting cloud showed the existence of the world which we cannot feel or see. There exists a nested box of an atomic world all around us. Likewise, Cavendishs poem suggests an idea of creatures interacting within these worlds. Depending on how deep one digs, small creatures do exist. Within cells, mobile flanges and small organisms can move about. Two lines of the poem read, For Creatures, small as Atomes, may be there, / If every Atome A Creatures Figure Beare. (Lines 9-10). While in modern day, scientists have not found atomic creatures, single-cell organisms do exist. In fact, Cavendishs

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idea can be used to create the imagery to explain how atoms may interact; in this way, her poem presents a similar concept to Maxwells second demonstration. In his lecture Molecules, Maxwell used another example to describe the diffusion of ammonia to the crowd. In this example, flour had been thrown onto a swarm of bees. The flour toss resulted in a white, powder-covered bee, which became identifiable next to an un-floured bee. When the bee swarm returns to the hive, a large divide of floured and un-floured bees developed. As the bees mingle and go about their business, the floured bees will begin to diffuse into the un-floured. The bees buzzing about back and forth in the hive represent the behavior related to the molecules. The floured bees are the ammonia gas molecules pinging about inside the jar and diffusing out in the lecture room. While Cavendishs literal idea about atomic creatures remains incorrect, the larger idea of what may occur on the atomic and subatomic levels came close to the reality. Atoms and molecules can be envisioned metaphorically as small creatures going about their daily activities. The study of molecules and atoms has long been a quest for humanity. It has spanned many generations with one influencing the next. Each subsequent generation leads the way to solve part of the puzzle. The achievement stands as a feat; one accomplished only by those willing to be inspired. Whether it had been through poetry by Margaret Cavendish or by Maxwells scientific labors, unique and ground breaking thoughts will carry on and contribute to our understanding of the worlds within our world.

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Works Cited Cavendish, Margaret. Of Many Worlds in This World. 1653. Poets.org: From the Academy of American Poets. October 2009. <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/ 19742> Maxwell, James Clerk. Molecules. 1873. The Scientific Papers of James Maxwell Clerk. Vol. 2. Ed. Sir William Davidson Nevin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1890. Internet Archive. October 2009. http://www.archive.org/details/scientificpapers02maxwuoft Pasachoff, Naomi. The Periodic Table of Elements. Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity. Ed. Spencer R. Weart. American Institute of Physics. 11 October 2009 <http://www.aip.org/history/exhibits/curie/periodic.htm>. Robert Hooke. Ed. Ben Waggoner. 20 January 2001. Welcome to the Evolution Wing. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 10 October 2009 <http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/hooke.html>.

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