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The Orgins of Atomic Theory

There is an eternal human compulsion to unlock the mysteries of our lives and
our world. This search for knowledge has guided us to many beneficial new
understandings. It has lead us into this new age where information is its own
reward, an age where enlightenment is an end, not simply a means to an end.
Enlightenment has been the aim of many great people. It has inspired many
scientists and artists to construct articles of infinite beauty and value.

At times this quest for understanding has been embraced by entire civilizations,
and when an entire society commits to one noble cause only good can come from it.
In Ancient Greece there was such a civilization, and even today we use their
theories to initiate our scientific and artistic endeavors. All western thought
can find its roots in the philosophy and science of the Greeks, even the way we
see the world is influenced by the ideologies of Ancient Greece. The Greeks were
the first to seek a greater understanding of the world, to know “why” we are not
just “what” we are.

The Greeks invented science and explored it in its truest form, philosophy.
Through the years we have developed tools that we hope can prove or disprove
various hypothesizes, to further our understanding of any number of things. We
divide science into categories and then sub-divide it even farther, until we can
hide the connections and pretend that they really are separate. The difference
between psychology and physics is not as extreme as one would believe if they
were to read their definitions. Though the means are different the goal is the
same for all science: to increase our understanding of our earthly domain, and
to improve ourselves. The Greeks created this guiding principle more than two
thousand years ago.

Greek atomic theory was not the work of a single person, in fact it was a
product of many great minds. There were many fundamental ideas that formed the
basis for their theory on the make up of the universe. One-hundred and forty
years before Socrates there was a lesser-known scholar named Thales, and he was
the Father of Philosophy.

Thales was from a part of Greece called Miletus, and it was for his skill as an
engineer, not as a philosopher, that he was recognized during his life. Before
his time, the Greeks had no clear concept of matter, and did not use science to
broaden their understanding of the universe. Because of the focus on the
practical that was prevalent during that time, it was not until years later that
Thales’ scientific genius was recognized by the scholars of Greece.

Thales re-invented science, changing it into what we see today. Without Thales
there would have been no Einstein or Bohr, there would have been no Apollo and
no penicillin. But Thales’ influence was not confined to the more technical
sciences, such as chemistry. He was the first scholar to explore the idea of the
human soul, that a body is more than a machine. He was the first to see that,
for most people at least, life is more than a physical condition, it is also
involves spiritual fulfillment and growth. From this theory sprung social-
scientific disciplines like psychology and anthropology.

Thales is most famous for his statement that “all things are water,” water
meaning “liquid” rather than “H20”. Through the years we have found the literal
meaning to be untrue, but at the time it’s meaning was earth-shattering. Before
Thales’ statement it was believed that things were unchanging, and that which
could not be immediately or adequately explained was supernatural. Thales felt
that all things were in a state of constant flux, and that all things were
uniform in their make-up but different in their order and number. This would be
proven thousands of years later and become the basis for modern Chemistry.

Roughly one hundred years passed before any of the great thinkers of Athens
looked further into Thales’ theories on matter. They focused on the
philosophical aspects of the world, the hidden meaning of life and other
timeless questions. Socrates and his cohorts formulated grand theories about the
human soul and psyche, the search for knowledge of self consumed their thoughts
and their writings. Their focus was on the building rather than the bricks.

Democritus was different. Born in the city of Abdera, he traveled to Athens when
he was a young man hoping to speak with Anaxagoras, a well-known scientist. When
he arrived in Athens he was unable talk with Anaxagoras, who thought his time
far too valuable to be wasted on a man with no reputation. His statement “I came
to Athens, and no one knew me” has been an anthem for many unrecognized geniuses.

The years past slowly as Democritus lived and worked in obscurity. He referred
back to other scientists, hoping to glean a bit of inspiration from their work.
As he read he became intrigued by a concept first envisioned by Empedocles, a
philosopher from the island of Sicily who believed that all things are composed
of smaller particles. Democritus took this idea and ran with it, developing the
first atomic theory. Democritus’ theory contained four basic ideas: matter is
made up of indivisible particles of the smallest possible size; empty space
exists between these particles in which they move; the atoms differ in size and
shape but not content;  and all change is the result of atoms bumping in to
other atoms.

Democritus came to the first conclusion because he saw that nothing could be
divided past a certain point. An example would be a block of stone. It could be
ground into a fine sand, and ground again even more finely, but eventually one
would reach a point where it could no longer be broken down. He believed that
this lowest form of a substance was the basic matter, and that matter in that
state was attoma or “indivisible”.

With the passage of time we have built instruments that can see deep into the
heart of matter, much farther that the naked eye that was the Greeks’ only tool.
We have divided the atom into electrons, protons, and neutrons, we know of its
power and promise. We may think that Democritus was wrong, for he believed that
the atom was the beginning of the universe. In a sense he was also right,
because today we believe that the atom’s components are indivisible. We think
that they are the beginning of the universe, but who is to say that in two
thousand years people will not be writing about how short-sighted we were in our
assumption that because we could not see any division in the proton we assumed
there was not one. Would it make the work of Rutherford or Bohr any less

Democritus’ second principle, that there is space between atoms, has been proven
nearly universally correct. Electrons glide through empty space orbiting the
nucleus, and between atoms there exists a gap where nothing exists at all.

Is must be remembered that although Democritus was a scientist he was also a
philosopher, and as a philosopher he always endeavored to find a new cosmic
truth. From his observations of atoms he drew the following conclusion about the
universe, “Nothing exists but atoms and the void.”

The third atomic principle that Democritus developed has been proven correct
through modern chemistry. We have found that atoms have the same ingredients,
and that it is the order and number of these ingredients that gives an element
its characteristics. Democritus did not know of, or even suspect the existence
of, any thing smaller than an atom, therefore he believed that it was the atom’s
shape that gives it its’ qualities.

He also believed that the human senses only picked up the interactions between
atoms, and not the atoms themselves. One must remember that at this time the
concept of energy was not yet developed, and would not be for quite some time.
Democritus believed that there were “fire atoms” and other such things.
Scientifically speaking such thinking was a giant step forward from the days
before Thales when it was believed that fire was magical. It is an interesting
example of how genius and foolishness can fit together so well.

Democritus’ final theory was a reflection of his background in philosophy. He
was attempting to answer one of the prevailing questions of philosophy: Why does
change exist? He believed that change was the result of an atomic version of
bumper cars, with atoms slamming into each other and rebounding from each
collision only to strike another atom. He felt the bouncing atoms were physical
reflections of the changes in one’s soul, or a model of life. Only through
interaction was there change, and since interaction cannot be abolished, change
cannot be completely stopped. Thus, Democritus believed, the world is and will
always be in a state of constant flux, with nothing remaining constant aside
from the fact of constant change.

Two millennia later his ideas would be proven in many different ways. In this
instance we see, as we have seen before, that Democritus’ idea is not true in
the literal sense, but if we look at it more abstractly we begin to see the
genius of Democritus. In our search for a greater understanding of our world we
look to find limits. When we attempt to reach absolute zero, the point when
electrons stop moving and change stops, we find that it takes more energy to do
less the closer we get to zero. Calculus shows us that there are lines that
cannot be crossed, that one can spend an infinite amount of energy and still not
be able to break through the barrier. This illustrates the Greek’s belief that
change was unceasing.

In the end it is the simplicity of Democritus’ theories that has let them stand
the test of time. In actuality all science is simple. The aim is understanding
and that is simple. Science must be examined as a painting is examined, one must
not spend so much time looking at the brush strokes that one fails to see the
masterpiece. Democritus’ and Thales’ science was not technical, and their
theories were full of holes. In many instances they were wrong, but when it
really counted, they were correct. Atoms are divisible and all change is not
caused by the rubbing of atoms, but the theories were sound.

We are on the verge of a great new era, with a future free of any kind of limits.
We could explode into a brave new age, an age when knowledge is its own reward.
The scientific successes we realize today are the result of many civilizations’
hard work and commitment to knowledge. We have an undeniable debt to the
scientists and philosophers of Ancient Greece, for their thoughts have shaped
those of our greatest thinkers. We can only hope that in two thousand more years
our achievement will be so influential in the course science takes.

Works Cited

Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. Routledge, New York, NY, 1989.
Pages 217-222, 342-377, 594.

Cahn, Steven M. Classics of Western Philosophy. Hacket, Indianapolis, IN, 1977.
Pages 115-129.

Brumbaug, Robert S. The Philosophers of Greece. SUNY, Albany, NY, 1981. Pages
11-17, 78-92.

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