Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Strange Story of Atomism: From Blasphemy to Science

Atomism, the concept that things have smallest constituents, was introduced at the time of the ancient Greeks. To us moderns, it makes perfect sense. Yet for almost two millennia, mainstream European philosophers ignored or even shunned the idea. Why did it take so long to catch on?

The reason has perhaps more to do with who ended up trumpeting atomism than it has to do with the notion itself. In the battlefield of ideas, if a leading advocate is tremendously unpopular, opposing armies often see to it that all the notions he bears are equally trampled.

It is to atomism’s misfortune that its standard bearer for a time was Epicurus of Samos, founder of the much-maligned Epicurean school. He advocated atomism along with a set of widely scorned doctrines about the supremacy of pleasure over piety. Also he believed that the gods did not intervene in the lives of men. Thus he was widely condemned as a godless hedonist, discounting his atomist ideas.

Epicurus used atomism as a cleaver to divide the physical and spiritual realms. According to his theory, our bodies are composed of coarse atoms and our souls made of fine atoms. The gods consist of the most delicate atoms of all, floating in the spaces between physical worlds. Only in our thoughts and dreams do the mundane and godly come into contact. They do so in a way that the gods have no influence over people. Earth came into being through the random assembly of its own atoms and will pass away once they scatter into the void. The same with living beings; each must eventually perish due to material causes. Hence, Epicurus concluded, the gods have nothing to do with mortal existence and we need not fear or worship them.

In 56 B.C., a prominent Epicurean of the Roman era, Lucretius, wrote an epic Latin poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) expounding upon atomism, materialism, and mortal life. Although his contemporaries seem to have valued his work, once the Roman Empire became Christian, his writings were denounced for their support of atheism and no longer published. Only a single copy survived the medieval period and was re-published in 1417.

Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, the Church continued to treat Epicurean philosophy as blasphemous. As an indication of Europeans’ disdain toward Epicurean philosophy as late as the 14th century, note Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s description of the sixth circle of his fiery Inferno where Epicurean souls are forced to reside forever with their rotting corpses:

“The private cemetery on this side
serves Epicurus and his followers,
who make the soul die when the body dies.”

For those tormented spirits, it seems, their original sin was atoms not Adam’s. By contrast, according to Dante, non-atomist Aristotle has a relatively cushy spot in Limbo (non-Christians cannot enter Paradise), where he is sad but not tormented. Such was the attitude toward materialism in Dante’s times.

Atomism was resurrected in the 17th century, largely due to the writings of French philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), an avid reader of Lucretius. Gassendi muted theological objections to the subject by speculating that God created atoms as the building blocks of nature. His work coincided with a growing recognition among Christian believers that scientific experimentation provided a way of understanding and appreciating creation. Along with the discoveries of German mathematician Johannes Kepler, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, and others of his day, Gassendi’s sharp observations prodded Europe away from blind belief in Aristotle’s theories and toward an empirical view of nature. Ultimately these trends led to the founding of the modern scientific concept of atoms.

More about the extraordinary quest for the most fundamental components of nature can be found in:

Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles

Friday, July 24, 2009

Happy 96th Birthday to a Pioneering Biochemist

Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing (by phone) the groundbreaking biochemist, Mildred Cohn, who lives in an apartment in Philadelphia. The reason was to gather information for an article I wrote about physics in Philadelphia. I had just found out that Cohn's late husband was the well-known American physicist Henry Primakoff. She was gracious in answering my questions about her husband's career. Only later did I find out that Mildred Cohn is a pioneering scientist in her own right, an expert in enzymes who had worked with nuclear chemist Harold Urey. Throughout her career, she has helped young women chemists get their start. She continues to contribute to the history of chemistry through her recollections archived by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Cohn turned 96 on July 12. Happy 96th Birthday to a pioneering scientist!

Here is a link to more information about her work:
Mildred Cohn Biography

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Twittering Minister

Imagine posting a message on a blog or on the microblogging site Twitter about a government official and having him respond directly back to you within an hour. That's what happened yesterday when writer P D Smith (who reviews for the Guardian and maintains various blogs) posted a "tweet" about Lord Paul Drayson, British Science Minister and race car driver. While Drayson was preparing for a big race in France he saw the tweet, posted back and kept the conversation going. Smith's account of what transpired is posted here: The Man from the Ministry The story has appeared in various news venues including: The Times Online: Science Minister Takes to Twitter

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Physics in Philadelphia

[This is an advanced excerpt of an article I will be publishing in June, called Philadelphia: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Physics (to appear in Physics in Perspective).]

Philadelphia's downtown district, called Center City, is laid out in a grid pattern with four squares. Interestingly, three of these squares, Logan, Franklin and Rittenhouse, have some association with physics.

James Logan was secretary to William Penn when Pennsylvania was founded. He was a lover of books and interested in all manner of scholarly topics, including physics. In 1709 Logan purchased a copy of the first edition of Newton’s Principia, and later he also acquired copies of the second and third editions, thus playing a pivotal role in introducing Newton’s work to the colonies. During a trip to London in 1710, Logan witnessed Newton performing an experiment before an audience at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Benjamin Franklin made monumental contributions to the physics of electricity. In 1746, the London merchant and Fellow of the Royal Society Peter Collinson sent Franklin a package containing a glass tube used in electrostatic experiments and an article by the Swiss naturalist Albrecht von Haller describing current knowledge in the field, which sparked Franklin’s interest and led him to embark upon an intensive investigation of electricity. Franklin went on to define the concept of positive and negative charge, to establish that electrical attraction and repulsion of materials can act over a distance and not only by contact, and to enunciate the idea of conservation of charge. The most famous of Franklin’s experiments, however, was his lightning-kite experiment in 1752 in which he proved that lightning consists of an electrical discharge.

David Rittenhouse, as a child, demonstrated great mathematical and scientific aptitude, studying Newton’s Principia in English translation, building mechanical devices, and establishing his reputation as a maker of clocks and instruments on the family farm in Norriton, about twenty miles north of Philadelphia. His primary scientific field of study was astronomy, and in 1767 he built an orrery (solar system model) using Kepler’s laws as a guide. In 1769 he gained recognition as a leading member of the American Philosophical Society by using a refracting telescope he had made to measure the exact time of the transit of Venus. He also constructed the first diffraction grating.

So we see that three of Philadelphia's squares have a connection with physics. The next time you are in Philadelphia and find yourself passing Logan's Square's fountain, watching Franklin Square's carousel, or enjoying the sculpture in Rittenhouse Square you may wish to think about the accomplishments of their namesakes.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Passing of a Great Historian of Science

I was saddened to read that one of the great historians of science, Martin J. Klein of Yale University, passed away yesterday at the age of 84. He was a very down to earth and generous man, and was gracious in offering advice for one of my books. The first volume (of a planned two volume set) of a biography he wrote about physicist Paul Ehrenfest is a classic. (He never completed the second volume because he it was becoming too depressing for him to dwell on Ehrenfest's tragic final years.) Klein was also instrumental in the Einstein papers project and was the first recipient of the Pais Prize for the History of Physics. I remember him as a kindly, gray-mustached figure who was almost always surrounded by adoring former students.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Essay Contest Results

The results of the "Nature of Time" essay competition have been posted.

There are many luminaries among the winners, including first-place winner Julian Barbour, an independent researcher who lives near Oxford.

If you are interested in reading any of the winning essays, including my own essay "The Garden of Forking Paths" (which I am delighted to announce has won a fourth juried prize) here is a link:

The Nature of Time Essay Competition Results