There can be no such thing as a perpetual motion machine right? Yet less than two hundred years ago it seemed possible that there could be. Not just that, the source of this perpetual motion machine was in your coffee cup. How would you explain Brownian motion?
Brownian motion is the random movement of small bits of dust or coffee/tea particles on the surface of your brew. To see it, you may have to use a microscope though you should take care not to confuse Brownian motion with motion caused by convection currents. There will be Brownian movement even a long time after the coffee has got cold. What causes this continuous movement? When he observed it for the first time in 1827, Robert Brown (1773-1858) had thought it was to do with a ‘life force’. He had been observing pollen suspended in water and noticed that the pollen kept moving under his microscope lens. In 1827, this was a very reasonable explanation, after all, weren’t several people looking for a motion, a force, that gave life?
So, he checked if he saw the effect in pollen that was one hundred years old (he did) and then in truly inorganic matter, he looked at the dust from a fragment of the Sphinx. Again he saw the dust fragment move in the water. He had therefore shown that it was not associated with a life force but was something that happened for every small particle suspended in a liquid. What was driving it?
Without knowing what caused it, some people in the nineteenth century had already suggested a device to exploit it, using tiny levers to carry the energy from this continuous motion into devices. Others insisted on finding out what was causing the motion but it was here that the physics of the day hit a philosophical problem. It was proposed that molecules in the water could be hitting the dust on the surface and moving the dust in seemingly random directions. And yet there is a problem with this explanation. At that time there was no way of seeing or measuring molecules. How could physics postulate a theory – or suggest a reality – that could not be tested?
An answer came one hundred years ago in a paper published by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in 1905. In it he made some mathematical predictions that, for the first time, allowed the theory (that it was molecules causing Brownian motion) to be tested by experiment. Jean Perrin (1870-1942) of the Sorbonne, Paris, was the experimentalist who, by careful observation of droplets of water containing a pigment used by water colour artists, provided evidence for Einstein’s theory of Brownian motion. The experiment was so important that Perrin later wrote “.. the molecular kinetic theory of Brownian movement has been verified to such a point in all its consequences that, whatever prepossession may exist against Atomism, it becomes difficult to reject the theory.”
The consequences for our world have been profound. The mathematics that describes Brownian motion is that which we use as the basis to predict the movements of the stock exchange. Extensions of the mathematics have been used to develop new areas of mathematics such as fractals. Even art has grasped the theory of Brownian motion, the Anthony Gormley sculpture “Quantum Cloud” is based on mathematics describing Brownian motion. Everywhere you look there are phenomena described by the movements in your coffee cup. What we have yet to do is find that perpetual motion machine.