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Chemistry LibreTexts

2.1: Atoms - Ideas from the Ancient Greeks

  • Page ID
    152140
  • Learning Objectives

    • Give a short history of the concept of the atom.
    • Describe the contributions of Democritus to atomic theory.

    You learned earlier that all matter in the universe is made out of tiny building blocks called atoms; all modern scientists accept the concept of the atom. However, when the concept of the atom was first proposed about 2,500 years ago, ancient philosophers laughed at the idea. It has always been difficult to convince people of the existence of things that are too small to see. We will spend some time considering the evidence (observations) that convince scientists of the existence of atoms.

    Democritus and the Greek Philosophers

    About 2,500 years ago, early Greek philosophers believed the entire universe was a single, huge entity. In other words, "everything was one." They believed that all objects, all matter, and all substances were connected as a single, unchangeable "thing." One of the first people to propose "atoms" was a man known as Democritus. As an alternative to the beliefs of the Greek philosophers, he suggested that atomos, or atomon—tiny, indivisible, solid objects—make up all matter in the universe.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) (Top) Democritus by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1628. Democritus was known as the "laughing philosopher." It was a good thing he liked to laugh, because most other philosophers were laughing at his theories. (Bottom) British physicist and chemist John Dalton (1766-1844). Unlike the Greek philosophers, John Dalton believed in both logical thinking and experimentation.

    Democritus then reasoned that changes occur when the many atomos in an object were reconnected or recombined in different ways. Democritus even extended this theory, suggesting that there were different varieties of atomos with different shapes, sizes, and masses. He thought, however, that shape, size, and mass were the only properties differentiating the different types of atomos. According to Democritus, other characteristics, like color and taste, did not reflect properties of the atomos themselves, but rather, resulted from the different ways in which the atomos were combined and connected to one another.

    The early Greek philosophers tried to understand the nature of the world through reason and logic, but not through experiment and observation. As a result, they had some very interesting ideas, but they felt no need to justify their ideas based on life experiences. In a lot of ways, you can think of the Greek philosophers as being "all thought and no action." It's truly amazing how much they achieved using their minds, but because they never performed any experiments, they missed or rejected a lot of discoveries that they could have made otherwise. Greek philosophers dismissed Democritus' theory entirely. Sadly, it took over two millennia before the theory of atomos (or "atoms," as they're known today) was fully appreciated.

    Summary

    • 2,500 years ago, Democritus suggested that all matter in the universe was made up of tiny, indivisible, solid objects he called "atomos." However, other Greek philosophers disliked Democritus' "atomos" theory because they felt it was illogical.

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