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Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution
Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution
William R. Newman
University of Chicago Press, 2006
235 pp., $46.00

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Mary Ellen Bowden and Neil Gussman


How alchemy contributed to the emergence of modern science.

In the two millennia after Democritus first proposed that matter could be divided only until one reached a smallest defined particle, natural philosophers debated what the smallest unit of matter could be. With the flowering of the Scientific Revolution, the concept that atoms are the basic unit of matter was gradually established beyond dispute. And in the latter half of the century just past, several leading historians of science thought they had pinned down more or less exactly who knew what about atoms and when.

Schoolchildren in the 1950s and '60s were taught that each atom was a miniature solar system of sorts: a tiny, dense lump of protons and neutrons (the sun) ringed by a cloud of electrons orbiting in rapid circles (the planets). The number of negatively charged electrons exactly balanced the positive charge of the protons in the nucleus. We knew these electrons were in fixed orbits in a complex ladder based on each electron's energy level and the number of electrons orbiting the atom. And this knowledge was given currency on magazine covers and billboards and even television, depicting both good in the form of nuclear energy and evil in the form of bombs and fallout. These images reminded us that although atoms are unimaginably small, splitting an atom's nucleus released energy that made nuclear weapons not merely the most powerful bombs in history but something more, something difficult to grasp: real doomsday weapons.

While schoolchildren practiced hiding under their desks in "Duck and Cover" drills, historians of science were codifying a view of how and when atoms came to be seen as the basic unit of matter. Briefly, the idea that atoms are the smallest unit of any element was a minority opinion in Western science from its beginnings with Democritus all the way up through the late 1600s. Then—so the story went—the Scientific Revolution occurred. Reason reigned, superstition was superseded.

Readers who follow developments in physics and chemistry ...

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