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What does it mean to be human?

 

Kevin Loughran

 

 

(see Main article)

Postscript: the power of imagination and atoms

 

Humans can imagine possibilities. Humans can imagine objects and materials being brought into existence that had not existed before. Humans can imagine a possible state of existence, a state of matter, beyond what they can see or touch.

 

At the beginning of the 18th Century the English chemist John Dalton presented an atomic theory. Drawing on previous research he concluded, firstly, that all gases consisted of tiny particles; and then that all matter consisted of such tiny particles, which he referred to as atoms (meaning 'indivisible'). He became convinced that each element was made up of different kinds of atom; and that it was the weight of their atoms that distinguished one element from the other.1

 

It took over fifty years for his ideas to become a standard part of thinking about the elements.2 It was not until the early part of the 20th Century that definite proof of the existence of atoms was found. By the latter part of the 20th Century Richard Feynman could assert that "everything is made of atoms".3

 

Richard Feynman asked how we know that there are atoms. He answered that we know firstly by developing a hypothesis that there are atoms and then by conducting experiments that produce results, one after the other, that confirm the existence of atoms.4

 

The process of enquiry that leads to experiment and research is likely to have originated with a "What if ...?"; a speculation about how things / the world might be.

 

Atomism originated in antiquity as a way of explaining the world. People looked at the world in which they lived and asked: of what is it composed?

 

The Greek philosopher Parmenides (5th century) looked at the world and saw Oneness. He believed that Being is, and is One; that non-being is not; and that change and plurality are illusions.

 

However, other people looked at the world in which they lived and perceived matter changing into different kinds of matter; and concluded that matter was composed of different elements and was subject to change.5

 

Atomism was a response to this conflict of interpretation. In the 5th Century B.C. Leucippus and later Democritus put forward the idea that matter was composed of tiny particles moving around in the void.

 

Atomism arose also in India. Thomas McEvilley in his book The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002) argued that atomism had been a regular part of Indian thought since antiquity. He drew parallels between the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus and the Ajivika school of thought in India. He asked: could Indian thinkers have influenced Leucippus and Democritus?6 But he acknowledged also that there was no certain proof of the existance of atomism in any Indian philosophy until after 325 B.C.7

 

The theory of the atom as developed by Leucippus and Democritus has been dismissed as pure speculation not supported by experimental research: it was seen as representing simple intuition.8 But it was revived in the 17th Century by Pierre Gassendi. Gassendi and others could accept the idea of the void in which (he argued) atoms moved around because by the time experimental evidence for the existence of the void had been identified.9

 

John Dalton recognised the similarity between his theory and that of Leucippus and Democritus, so he used Democritus' term 'atom' (meaning indivisible). Although later research highlighted a complex inner structure for the atom, it didn't change the reality of the atom as the fundamental unit of matter and the elements, as Leucippus and Democritus had proposed.10

 

Although Leucippus and Democritus did not have the tools to explore the idea and gather data as later experimental scientists did, they could think about the world which they encountered. They could speculate about why it was the way it was, and imagine different states of existence from those which they could first see and touch. Was that not how later scientists began their exploration of the world which they encountered?

 

Kevin Loughran

 

January 2017

Rev. July 2020

Rev. Sept. 2020

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1 John Gribben. Science: a history. London: Penguin, 2003. p. 368

 

2 ibid, p. 369

 

3 Richard Feynman. Six Easy Pieces. Penguin, 1988. p. 20

 

4 ibid. p. 18

 

5 Frederick Copleston S.J. A History of Philosophy. Vol. 1: Greece and Rome. New York: Image Books, 1962. pp. 64-65

 

6 Thomas McEvilley. The Shape of Ancient Thought. New York: Allworth, 2002. pp. 318-319

 

7 ibid. p. 520

 

8 e.g. Peter Atkins. Physical Chemistry: a very short introduction. OUP, 2014. p. 1

 

9 John Gribben. Science: a history. Penguin, 2009. pp. 116-117

 

10 Isaac Asimov. Asimov's Biographical Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology. London: Pan, 1975. p. 232

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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