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[ontolog-forum] History of the Atomic Hypothesis

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sat, 26 Jul 2008 14:16:35 -0400
Message-id: <488B6A03.4090807@xxxxxxxxxxx>
There has been a lot of debate on this list about the relevance
of philosophy to science and the relative importance of science
and common sense for the foundations of ontology.    (01)

As an illustration of the issues, the hypothesis of atoms has
undergone a slow development with many surprising twists and
turns since it was first proposed around 440 BC.  A century ago,
the physicist/philosopher Ernst Mach was still fighting a losing
battle against the hypothesis of "unobservable" atoms.  But the
latest electron microscopes can now produce pictures of atoms
at the picometer scale.    (02)

The attached picture shows four kinds of atoms in a crystal:
lead (white circles), zirconium and titanium (fuzzy white blobs),
and oxygen (smaller fuzzy gray blobs).  For the article see    (03)

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080724150342.htm    (04)

Note that one nanometer would correspond to a line of about
8 zirconium, titanium, and oxygen atoms in this crystal.    (05)

Following is a brief summary of the development of the atomic
hypothesis from Leucippus and Democritus (440 BC) to the middle
ages, the Renaissance, and the early days of modern chemistry:    (06)

http://dbhs.wvusd.k12.ca.us/webdocs/AtomicStructure/Democritus-to-Dalton.html    (07)

The chemists were far ahead of the physicists in adopting the
atomic hypothesis.  Robert Boyle (1661) used the term "corpuscles"
in his influential book _The Sceptical Chymist_.  The modern theory
is based on John Dalton's book of 1803.  For an excerpt, see    (08)

http://web.lemoyne.edu/~giunta/dalton.html    (09)

At the bottom of that excerpt is Dalton's table of atomic weights,
which are systematically skewed by his erroneous assumption that a
molecule of water is composed of one atom of oxygen and one atom
of hydrogen.  For other classic papers in chemistry, see    (010)

http://web.lemoyne.edu/~giunta/papers.html    (011)

William Whewell, who first coined the words 'scientist' and 'physicist',
made important contributions to the history and philosophy of science.
But he also expressed doubts about the atomic hypothesis (1840):    (012)

http://web.lemoyne.edu/~giunta/whewell.html    (013)

Many physicists were highly skeptical about atoms, and Boltzmann
had to fight an uphill battle to get acceptance for his theory of
statistical mechanics.  See    (014)

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/statphys-Boltzmann/    (015)

Following is a more detailed history of atomism from the 17th to
the 20th century:    (016)

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atomism-modern/    (017)

This brief survey suggests several points that are important for
foundational issues in ontology:    (018)

  1. There has never been a consensus about detailed foundational
     issues in philosophy, science, or common sense.    (019)

  2. Developments in one of those three areas have major impacts on
     the others, and what is called common sense is very strongly
     influenced by currently fashionable ideas.    (020)

  3. We should be highly skeptical about any proposed foundation for
     an upper ontology, despite any claims of support from science,
     philosophy, common sense, mathematics, or "mainstream" fashions.    (021)

This cautionary note does not imply that we should *never* have an
upper ontology, but that the detailed axioms are likely to undergo
major revisions over time.  The term 'atom', for example, is still
in use after 2500 years.  But the axioms associated with it have
changed enormously over the centuries, and they are likely to
continue developing over time.    (022)

As I have said many times, a loosely axiomatized terminology
is immensely valuable.  Detailed axioms are essential for many
important applications.  But they are much less likely to be
universally acceptable, and they will inevitably undergo
major revisions when applied to different kinds of problems.    (023)

John Sowa    (024)

JPEG image

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