It's the basis of our physical world But how did the 'atom' get its name? Howard Markel, a a physician, medical educator, and historian of medicine at the University of Michigan, explains:
Some historians have credited sixth-century B.C. East Indian Jainism philosophers for originating the concept of an atom. Sir Isaac Newton insisted it was the brainstorm of a 13th-century B.C. Phoenician named Moschus, whom Newton believed to be the "Moses" of Ten Commandments fame.
When it comes to coining the actual word atom, however, we must go to Ancient Greece in 400 B.C. There, the philosopher Democritus proposed átomos, which means "uncuttable." All matter, he explained, was eventually reducible into discrete, small, indivisible particles or átomos. Alas, the grand pooh-bahs of the original groves of academe pooh-poohed his work. Aristotle thought the theory was ludicrous; Plato is said to have despised Democritus so intensely that he harbored a wish to burn all of the latter’s books. Aristotle and Plato did far more than "smack- down" a colleague during a symposium; their opinions left the matter of matter erroneously decided—and Democritus' reputation decidedly obscure—for the next 2000 years.
The Oxford English Dictionary cedes primacy to the British poet and alchemist Thomas Norton for introducing the word "attoms" in his 1477 poem, The Ordinal of Alchemy. A close second is Thomas Langley’s 1546 translation of a text by Virgil, which describes both Democritus and the by-then spelled word, "atom."
It was the rise of modern chemistry, beginning in the late 17th century and blossoming in the early 19th century that generated a lasting revolutionary reconsideration of atoms and atomic theory. The greatest natural philosophers of the day, including Robert Boyle, Antoine Lavoisier, and J.B. Priestley obsessed about the composition and nature of matter, which ultimately led them to reconsider the atom.
In 1803, John Dalton published his atomic theory on the indivisible elements comprising all matter. His ideas quickly became a touchstone for modern physics and chemistry, keeping scientists busy for decades.
An even greater flood of knowledge followed Henri Becquerel's and the Curies' seminal work on radioactivity in the late 1890s. Scientific stars, such as J.J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Werner von Heisenberg, tracked down sub-atomic particles called protons, neutrons and electrons and imagined new ways of understanding the physical world. Their work essentially ushered in the "Atomic Age," an era framed by a bulging portfolio of scientific, political, economic, social, cultural, and public health consequences.
More than 24 centuries ago, the renowned Cicero described Democritus as the "laughing philosopher" because of his jovial nature and witty observations of human foibles. With the benefit of 21st century hindsight, Democritus deserves the last laugh. Aristotle and Plato, two of the greatest minds of the ancient world, failed to recognize him as the progenitor of the atom.
In this segment, we'll talk about the origins of the word 'atom' and the history of its meaning.