Friday, March 5, 2010

Unbelievable prescience - the Atomists

I remember vaguely hearing about the Atomist school of thought in Ancient Greece, either in college or high school, I don't remember. I do remember that whoever was teaching breezed past these guys to get to the Greek heavy weights, Aristotle and Plato, who rejected atomism. So, recently when I read the following passage by Edward Humes in his book, Monkey Girl, I was stopped in my tracks:

Atomists...theorized that all living things and all matter were made of
invisibly small particles they called atoms. In their view, the universe
was born through the random and purposeless combination, interaction, and
crashing together of these atoms, a cyclic and eternal process that did not
require divine intervention...undergoing continuous cycles of change, the
atomists dispensed with the need for a creator. The gods were dismissed as
the products of superstition and the all-too-human desire to blame others for
misfortune; the atomists preached that personal responsibility, not appeasing
false gods, was of ultimate importance.

Now, this was all more than 2500 years ago. Before the microscope, before the telescope, basically before almost all of science. Humes goes on:

The atomist point of view would turn out to be eerily prescient
anticipation of modern chemistry, particle physics, and the big bang theory,
complete with a suggestion that stars and planets condensed from swirling
clouds of cosmic dust.

I couldn't help but pause in wonder at these incredible seers - how they came to these conclusions with virtually none of the knowledge that would lead physicists to reach similar conclusions 2500 years later is baffling. and quite wondrous.

I should note that this observation is simply an aside in Humes' brilliant book, which is actually about the (so far unsuccessful) efforts to bar the teaching of evolutionary theory in high schools in America.

No comments: