Michael Fowler, U. Va. 8/1/08
Introduction: Jiggling Pollen Granules
In 1827 Robert Brown, a well-known botanist, was studying sexual relations of plants, and in
particular was interested in the particles contained in grains of pollen.
He began with a plant
) in which he found the pollen grains were filled with oblong granules about
5 microns long.
He noticed that these granules were in constant motion, and satisfied himself
that this motion was not caused by currents in the fluid or evaporation.
Smaller spherical grains,
which at first he took to be oblongs end-on, but later realized weren’t, had even more vigorous
He thought at first that he was looking at the plant equivalent of sperm—they were
jiggling around because they were alive.
To check this, he did the same experiment with dead
There was just as much jiggling.
Perhaps all organic matter, everything that ever was
alive, still contained some mysterious life force at this microscopic level?
Sure enough, he found
the movement in tiny fragments of fossilized wood!
But then he went on to find it in matter that
never was alive—tiny particles of window glass, and even dust from a stone that had been part of
the Sphinx. The movement evidently had nothing to do with the substance ever being alive or
dead, much to Brown’s surprise.
So what was causing it?
or the incident light energy, or just tiny unnoticed vibrations.
But none of these explanations was
Half a century later, a new possible explanation emerged.
The kinetic theory of heat developed
by Maxwell, Boltzmann and others was gaining credence. If all the molecules in the fluid were
indeed in vigorous motion, maybe these tiny granules were being moved around by this constant
battering from all sides as the fluid molecules bounced off.
But there was a problem with this
explanation: didn’t it violate the second law of thermodynamics?
It had been well established
that energy always degrades, as friction slows movement kinetic energy goes to heat energy.
This seemed to be the other way round—the molecular battering was certainly disorganized heat
energy, but when the granule moved it had evidently gained kinetic energy.
scientists regarded the second law as an absolute truth, they were very skeptical of this
In 1888, French experimentalist Léon Gouy investigated the movement in detail, finding it to be
more lively in low viscosity liquids.
He established that
it was unaffected by intense
illumination or by strong electromagnetic fields.
Despite the second law, Guoy believed—
correctly—the random motion was indeed generated by thermal molecular collisions.