The history of atoms

By: Donald Pilon (Don Don)

Atom (n)

A unit of matter, the smallest unit of an element, consisting of a dense, central, positively charged nucleus surrounded by a system of electrons, equal in number to the number of nuclear protons, the entire structure having an approximate diameter of 10-8 centimeter and characteristically remaining undivided in chemical reactions except for limited removal, transfer, or exchange of certain electrons.

In the beginning

Actually, the thought about electricity came before atoms. In about 600 B.C. Thales of Miletus discovered that a piece of amber, after rubbing it with fur, attracts bits of hair and feathers and other light objects. He suggested that this mysterious force came from the amber. Thales, however, did not connect this force with any atomic particle.

Not until around 460 B.C., did a Greek philosopher, Democritus, develop the idea of atoms. He asked this question: If you break a piece of matter in half, and then break it in half again, how many breaks will you have to make before you can break it no further? Democritus thought that it ended at some point, a smallest possible bit of matter. He called these basic matter particles, atoms.

Unfortunately, the atomic ideas of Democritus had no lasting effects on other Greek philosophers, including Aristotle. In fact, Aristotle dismissed the atomic idea as worthless. People considered Aristotle's opinions very important and if Aristotle thought the atomic idea had no merit, then most other people thought the same also. (Primates have great mimicking ability.)

For more than 2000 years nobody did anything to continue the explorations that the Greeks had started into the nature of matter. Not until the early 1800's did people begin again to question the structure of matter.

In the 1800's an English chemist, John Dalton performed experiments with various chemicals that showed that matter, indeed, seem to consist of elementary lumpy particles (atoms). Although he did not know about their structure, he knew that the evidence pointed to something fundamental.

Nari & Milani - Atom