What Things Are Actually Made Of

  • What are the things around us actually made of?
  • It seems like the question bubbled up really early on, and independently in a bunch of different places. The earliest records come from . People probably asked this question way before that, but because they didn't write anything down we can only guess what they talked about.
  • In the 5th Century BCE (500 BCE - 401 BCE), someone more or less accidently got pretty close to the truth. While the people of Athens constructed the Parthenon, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, a philosopher named Democritus proposed an idea that changed the relationship between human beings and the universe. His idea went something like this:
  • If you hammer a stone it will break into pieces, which you can smash into a powder. You can hammer the powder, but eventually you must reach a point where the tiny pieces of stone are indivisible, and nothing you can do will divide them further. These indivisible pieces are called "atoms".
  • The shape of atoms determine the properties of the materials they comprise. Water atoms are slippery, iron atoms are rigid and held together with hooks, and salts and spices from how they taste must be sharp and pointy.
  • It was controversial. The world's most famous philosopher of the time was Aristotle, and he didn't like it.
  • Aristotle taught a popular theory that went like this:
  • There are five fundamental properties of the universe. Earth, fire, water, air, and aether, which are called the "classical elements". Everything contains one or more, in different proportions. For instance a log contains all four for when it burns, it emits smoke (air), fire, small bubbles of water, and charcoal (earth).
  • Aristotle's idea was total bullshit, but it was kind of interesting and he was also much more famous. As neither Democritus nor Aristotle could actually prove their theories, Aristotle's classical elements won in intellectual gladatorial hand-to-hand combat and dominated science for over 2,000 years throughout Europe and the Middle East.
  • Let's emphasise that point. Because neither philosopher used evidence in their claims, and instead based them on thought experiments, the wrong idea was accepted for 2,000 years.
  • The thing was, the scientific method wasn't invented yet...
  • Galileo Galilei (known for his fiery idea that the sun was at the center of the solar system rather than the Earth, and subsequent arrest by the Catholic Church) was one of its first people to revive Democritus' idea of atomism. Galileo supported an idea called "Corpuscularianism" an idea that blended medieval alchemy with a mechanistic worldview. It went something like this:
  • Everything is made up of tiny particles called "corpsules". The properties of matter come from their shape, size, motion. Combining different types of matter creates materials with new properties from the interaction of their corpsules.
  • Galileo and his contemporary philosophers found a ton of similiarities between corpuscularianism and ancient atomism. A French physician named Johann Chrysostom Magnenus then took it a step further. He was the first person to make a scientific estimate of the size of the atom.
  • That changed when _ discovered something __. Describe properties. He had discovered the electron.

Say hey to Owlbert Einstein

Curator of the Big Ideas Network

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