Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

It is astonishing how ancient thinkers chanced to anticipate certain developments in our understanding of the nature of the universe. From atoms to swerves to strings, Greeks got there first -- after a fashion.

Ancient Greeks were the first people we know to propose that a single basic stuff lay at the heart of all matter. From the 6th century BC , Thales seems to have suggested it was water; Anaximenes air;

Anaximander 'the infinite' (the equivalent of 'something unlike anything we know, but don't ask me exactly what'). Anaxagoras, a friend of Pericles, was the first to suggest that 'there is an element of everything in everything', which may have been the basis of the huge leap made by Leucippus and Democritus -- the atomic theory of the universe, that the basic stuff was an atomos, so small as to be below the level of perception; and that these immutable, indivisible, everlasting, indestructible atomoi combined in different ways to produce the world about us. The line from Leucippus to Newton and Rutherford is unbroken.

But how do these atoms combine to produce matter? Democritus proposed that they were in a constant state of motion, colliding and rebounding in the 'void' to produce compounds which lasted only so long before breaking up. …

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