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