Mathematical Impressions: Attesting to Atoms

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Attesting to Atoms

For most of recorded history, no one believed in atoms, even though Democritus, Lucretius and other ancient philosophers described them. Aristotle claimed matter was infinitely divisible and his view dominated for 2,000 years.

Imagine you lived 1,000 years ago. What evidence could you provide to attest to the existence of atoms? How could you combine simple observations and mathematical thinking to resolve the question, without any modern equipment?



I want to thank the Hicksville Gregory Museum and the RISD Nature Lab for access to some of the specimens shown.

Richard Feynman’s exact statement:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

From “The Feynman Lectures on Physics,” 1964.



More videos from the Mathematical Impressions series.

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  • It would be interesting if you could come up with a way of estimating Avogadro’s number from looking or measuring crystals.

    As I understand it, chemists believed in atoms since Lavoisier in the 18th century, based on the fixed proportions in which elements combine to form molecules… maybe earlier (Kepler, as you point out), but physicists were only convinced by Perrin’s experiment, around 1910, based on Einstein’s theory of Brownian motion. It was the estimate of Avogadro’s nuber that really did the trick.

  • I am a high school chemistry teacher in Madison WI. I will use this in class next year during the KMT unit.

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