Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics

By Edward Teller; Judith L. Shoolery | Go to book overview

7
BRAVE NEW WORLD
1928-1929

IN MY OFFICE at Livermore, I have a small statue of a bearded Democritos. In ancient Greece, the word bearded signified barbaric, an un‐ Greek appearance; and, indeed, Democritos came from Thessaly, the primitive north. My statue comes from Athens, a gift from an atomic energy laboratory named for Democritos.

Plato's seminar stood open even to the wild man from the north, but what Democritos said was too much for Plato. Democritos, it is believed, asserted that all matter consists of indivisible atoms and that many observed changes in materials, such as water turning to ice, are caused simply by a rearrangement of atoms. 1 Plato shipped Democritos off to Hippocrates, the greatest contemporary physician. After the Greek equivalent of a psychiatric evaluation, Hippocrates and Democritos appeared arm in arm, and the analyst announced, "If this man is crazy, then so am I." 2

Even that diagnosis could not lend acceptability to the atomic theory. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the existence of atoms was still occasionally questioned. In chemistry, the theory of atoms worked well; but in physics, the theory was in conflict with well-established laws: Atoms crash into one another at tremendous speeds, but their structure and properties remain unchanged; some parts of atoms and molecules do not obey the laws of statistical mechanics; and according to the laws of electromagnetism, the electrons, assumed to orbit the charged nucleus, should quickly fall into the

____________________
1
Today, the tiny particles that Democritos was discussing are called molecules, which in turn are composed of atoms.
2
The story comes from the partisans at Democritos Laboratory, like the statue, and may not be historically accurate.

-53-

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