Victor Nuovo: The Greek Atomists


6th in a series

The atomic theory was first conceived by two Greek philosophers, Leucippus and Democritus, who flourished during the first half of the 5th century BCE. Leucippus was the elder and was Democritus’s teacher. So, credit as creator of the theory should go to him. But Democritus, who was a prolific author, became its chief proponent, and like an evangelist, he travelled about ancient Greece teaching and advocating their doctrine. He was the same age as Plato, and visited Athens, yet Plato makes no mention of him in any of his works.

According to Leucippus and Democritus, the physical world, which for them is the only reality, is made up of two elements: infinite space, a.k.a. “the Void,” and an infinitude of indivisible particles (the Greek word atomos means “indivisible”) moving about within it. This state of the world is without beginning or end. But within it, there is constant change. The atoms move about in space, colliding, combining and separating, and through this process the Cosmos and everything in it takes shape. Nothing that is produced by this process is indestructible. Sun, moon and earth with its flora and fauna, are the chance products of the random motion of atoms in the Void. 

As they travelled about teaching their doctrine, Leucippus and Democritus were asked to explain how various kinds of things ever emerged? To which they responded that like was drawn to like, so that a random process gave rise to the natural order of things. As the saying goes: “Birds of a feather flock together.” It was not intended that they should, it just happened that they did, and having done so, they cohabited together and became a species, which, in retrospect, seems natural. Or as Walter Cronkite used to sum up the daily news, “That’s the way it is,” or as David Frost used to say: “That was the week that was.” In a world governed by chance and necessity, the perception of order is always retrospective.

The philosopher Epicurus (340–270 BCE) better known for his advocacy of a life of pleasure, also wrote a book which he entitled “On Nature.” He made atomic theory the centerpiece of his theory of the Cosmos. The book was lost, but not before a Roman poet, Titus Lucretius Carus, a.k.a. Lucretius (d. 50 BCE) set it to verse. His philosophical poem “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things) also would have been lost if Italian scholar Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459 CE) searching for manuscripts of classical works discovered (in 1417) the manuscript of “De Rerum Natura” in a monastery in Germany. Copies were made, and in 1473 a printed edition appeared. To use a common expression: “De Rerum Natura” went viral.

 Among its avid readers were three men who would play a major role in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century: Robert Boyle (1627–91), John Locke (1632–1704) and Isaac Newton (1643–1727). Boyle, who was Locke’s mentor, invented thermodynamics and modern chemistry along with it; Locke wrote what became the standard textbook about empirical knowledge; Newton, who was Locke’s friend and frequent houseguest, invented classical mechanics and used it to explain gravitation. 

A central problem of the atomic theory was to explain how the “dance” of atoms began. For it was supposed that the natural motion of atoms is to fall rectilinearly downward. If so, they would never collide, and never interact. The solution was the doctrine of the swerve. As they fell like raindrops, some atoms would swerve out of their rectilinear path ever so slightly (infinitesimally), and bounce into their neighbors. And the dance would begin. The same notion was used to explain the free choice of the will. It all fits very well in a universe shaped by atoms bouncing around in infinite space. One might call it the mechanics of randomness. 

I should point out that Boyle, Locke and Newton were also theists, and were hard pressed to reconcile the mechanics of randomness with divine providence; they were also moralists for whom moral actions could not be reduced to the randomness of events.

But, since I have already wandered out very far from the time frame of this series. I shall conclude this essay by noting that from the beginning until the 19th century of this era, the atom was not only believed to be the basic element of the material world, it was also believed to be indivisible — until April 14, 1932, when it was divided. How this was accomplished is another story which is beyond my competence to tell. Suffice it to say, the upshot was the release into the world of a terrible power, greater than the world had ever known and only a few were capable of imagining. And this power became weaponized. And the world is chronically at war. Leucippus and Democritus never imagined this. How will it end?

Postscript: Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura” is the classic statement of ancient atomism. It is also a wonderful poem, a perfect harmony of beauty and intelligence. It has been many times translated, I recommend the translation made by Ronald Melville, “On the Nature of the Universe,” Oxford World Classics. Visit your local bookshop.

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