EPICURUS (341 – 270 BCE)

Third Century BCE

“Epicurus’s philosophy combines a physics based on an atomistic materialism with a rational hedonistic ethics that emphasizes moderation of desires and cultivation of friendships.”

Summarized by the Roman author Lucretius, who wrote ‘On the Nature of the Universe’ in 55 BCE – “The light and heat of the Sun; these are composed of minute atoms which, when they are shoved off, lose no time in shooting right across the interspace of air in the direction imparted by the shove”. This may be considered as accurate for the time, when most people thought that sight was associated with something reaching out from the eye (EMPEDOCLES) .

Plato wrote of a marriage between the inner light and the outer light.

Euclid worried about the speed with which sight worked. He pointed out that if you close your eyes, then open them again, even the distant stars reappear immediately in your sight, although the influence of sight has had to travel all the way from your eyes to the stars and back again before you could see them.

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A great deal of what we know about the ancient world and its scientific ideas has come to us from documents which were translated from ancient Greek or other ancient languages into Arabic, and later from Arabic into European languages. The material reached the Arab world in many cases through the Roman empire in the East, Byzantium, which survived until 1453, almost a thousand years after the fall of Rome, during the period known in Europe as the Dark Ages.
During this time the consolidating influence of Islāmic religion saw Arab Muslims begin to build an empire that was to stretch across the Middle East and across North Africa into Spain. At the heart of the Islāmic world the caliphs ruled in Baghdad. Arab scientists sowed the seeds that would later be reaped in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, especially under the Abbasid dynasty during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Mamun, and the Middle East became the intellectual hub of the World.

depiction of early islamic scholars at work at various scientific investigations

In the ninth century, at the House of Wisdom – a mixture of library, research institute and university – scholars worked to translate the great works of the GREEK thinkers. Muslim scholars of this golden age made important and original contributions to mathematics and astronomy, medicine and chemistry. They developed the ASTROLABE, which enabled astronomers to measure the position of the stars with unparalleled accuracy.Astrology & Astronomy in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia: Astrolabe: An ancient astronomical instrument
In medicine they made the first serious studies of drugs and advanced surgery. A number of mathematicians, including Habash al-Hasib (‘he who calculates’), Abul’l-Wafa al-Buzjani, Abu Nasr al-Iraq and Ibn Yunus formulated trigonometry (including all six trig functions [ sin, cosec, cos, sec, tan, and cot ]) at a level far above that introduced by the Greek astronomer-mathematician HIPPARCHUS in the second century BCE.
It is largely through such efforts that Greek ideas were preserved through the DARK AGES.


Eight hundred years before COPERNICUS, a model of the solar system was advanced with the Earth as a planet orbiting the Sun along with other planets.

A few centuries later this idea fell into disfavour with the early Christian Church, which placed mankind at the centre of the universe in a geo-centric model. The alternative teaching would be deemed heresy punishable by death and it would not be until the seventeenth century that the work of GALILEO, KEPLER and NEWTON gave credence to the ideas revitalized by Copernicus in 1543.

It is worth noting that even to-day at least half the named stars in the sky bear Arabic names (Aldebaran and Algol amongst others) and many terms used in astronomy, such as Nadir and Azimuth, are originally Arabic words.

 The Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

The elaborate observatory established by the Ulugh Begg in Samarkand in the fifteenth century appeared to function with a dictum meant to challenge PTOLEMY’s geocentric picture of the universe sanctioned by the Church in Europe. Arabic scholars had access to the early teachings of ARISTARCHUS, the astronomer from Samos of the third century BCE. (referred to by Copernicus in the forward of an early draft of De Revolutionibus, although omitted from the final copy)




Ideas on ‘impetus’ and the motion of the heavenly spheres.

Diversity of opinion on what keeps the heavenly orbs moving.

The recipe literature – craft manuals outlining recipes for manufacture of alchemical materials. For example, glass production had died out in the Latin West, but remained important in the Arab world.

ROGER BACON suggests that alchemical power can surpass nature (human artifice may exceed nature, i.e. technology), compared with Aristotle, who suggests that artifice may only mimic nature, or complete that which nature has failed to finish.

Suma Perfectionis’, Gaber – Latin Franciscan text (passed off as Arabic). Underpinned by the sulfur-mercury theory and by Aristotle’s ‘minima naturalia’ (smallest of natural things)– the idea of a minimum amount of matter to hold a form – hence a smallest particle of any given substance. This differs from atomism but the ideas were not developed by Aristotle.

Thus, in the middle ages came the belief that metals are created by the coalescence of minima of the metals.
Particles may be tightly or lightly packed (density). Matter may be contaminated.
Noble metals (gold) are tightly packed small particles, unaffected by fire or corrosion.
Lead turns to powder (oxidised) in fire as it is composed of larger, less tightly packed particles.
Sublimation is explained by smaller, lighter particles being driven upward by fire, and so on.


Texts become more secret, written in code and disguised. Latin texts are written in such a style so as to appear to be derived from ARABIC.

1317 – The Pope outlaws transmutation.

Moral questions: ‘is alchemical gold as valuable as real gold?’

Quintessences’: the refined essences of metals.

The discovery that lead cannot be turned to gold has important consequences. It is a strong indication that some substances are truly permanent and indestructible.



1640 – Italy

‘Together with VINCENZO VIVIANI (1622-1703) realised that the weight of air pushing on a reservoir of mercury can force the liquid to rise into a tube that contains no air; that is, a vacuüm’

In 1650 OTTO VON GUERICKE (1602-1686) invented an air pump and showed that if you remove the air from the centre of two hemispheres that are resting together, the pressure of the outside air is sufficient to prevent a team of horses from pulling them apart.

1657 – Formed the Accademia del Cimento with eight other Florentines to build their own apparatus and conduct experiments to advance the pursuit of knowledge. Disbanded after ten years as a condition of its patron Leopoldo de Medici’s appointment as cardinal, its dissolution followed Galileo’s trial by the Catholic Church and marked the decline of free scientific research in Italy.

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BLAISE PASCAL (1623- 62)

1647 – France



‘When pressure is applied anywhere to an enclosed fluid, it is transmitted uniformly in all directions’

EVANGELISTA TORICELLI (1608-47) had argued that air pressure falls at higher altitudes.

Using a mercury barometer, Pascal proved this on the summit of the 1200m high Puy de Dome in 1647. His studies in this area led to the development of PASCAL’S PRINCIPLE, the law that has practical applications in devices such as the car jack and hydraulic brakes. This is because the small force created by moving a lever such as the jacking handle in a sizable sweep equates to a large amount of pressure sufficient to move the jack head a few centimetres.
The unit of pressure is now termed the pascal.

‘The study of the likelihood of an event’

Together with PIERRE DE FERMAT, Pascal developed the theory of probabilities (1654) using the now famous PASCAL’S TRIANGLE.

Chance is something that happens in an unpredictable way. Probability is the mathematical concept that deals with the chances of an event happening.

Probability theory can help you understand everything from your chances of winning a lottery to your chances of being struck by lightning. You can find the probability of an event by simply dividing the number of ways the event can happen by the total number of possible outcomes.
The probability of drawing an ace from a full pack of cards is 4/52 or 0.077.

Probability ranges from 1 (100%) – Absolutely certain, through Very Likely 0.9 (90%) and Quite Likely 0.7 (70%), Evens (Equally Likely) 0.5 (50%), Not Likely 0.3 (30%) and Not Very Likely 0.2 (20%), to Never – Probability 0 (0%).

Picture of the 'Pascaline'. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal invented the a mechanical calculation machine. He called it the Pascaline. The Pascaline was made out of clock gears and levers and could solve basic mathematical problems like addition and subtraction.


The computer language Pascal is named in recognition of his invention in 1644 of a mechanical calculating machine that could add and subtract.


Like many of his contemporaries, Pascal did not separate philosophy from science; in his book ‘Pensees’ he applies his mathematical probability theory to the problem of the existence of God. In the absence of evidence for or against God’s existence, says Pascal, the wise man will choose to believe, since if he is correct he will gain his reward, and if he is incorrect he stands to lose nothing.

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ROBERT BOYLE (1627- 91)

1662 – England

‘The volume of a given mass of a gas at constant temperature is inversely proportional to its pressure’

If you double the pressure of a gas, you halve its volume. In equation form: pV = constant; or p1V1 = p2V2 where the subscripts 1 & 2 refer to the values of pressure and volume at any two readings during the experiment.

Born at Lismore Castle, Ireland, Boyle was a son of the first Earl of Cork. After four years at Eton College, Boyle took up studies in Geneva in 1638. In 1654 he moved to Oxford where in 1656, with the philosopher John Locke and the architect Christopher Wren, he formed the experimental Philosophy Club and met ROBERT HOOKE, who became his assistant and with whom he began making the discoveries for which he became famous.

Robert Boyle. New Experiments Physico-Mechanical. Oxford: Thomas Robinson, 1662

New Experiments Physico-Mechanical 1662

In 1659, with Hooke, Boyle made an efficient vacuum pump, which he used to experiment on respiration and combustion, and showed that air is necessary for life as well as for burning. They placed a burning candle in a jar and then pumped the air out. The candle died. Glowing coal ceased to give off light, but would start glowing again if air was let in while the coal was still hot. In addition they placed a bell in the jar and again removed the air. Now they could not hear it ringing and so they found that sound cannot travel through a vacuum.

Boyle proved Galileo’s proposal that all matter falls at equal speed in a vacuum.

He established a direct relationship between air pressure and volumes of gas. By using mercury to trap some air in the short end of a ‘J’ shaped test tube, Boyle was able to observe the effect of increased pressure on its volume by adding more mercury. He found that by doubling the mass of mercury (in effect doubling the pressure), the volume of the air in the end halved; if he tripled it, the volume of air reduced to a third. His law concluded that as long as the mass and temperature of the gas is constant, then the pressure and volume are inversely proportional.

Boyle appealed for chemistry to free itself from its subservience to either medicine or alchemy and is responsible for the establishment of chemistry as a distinct scientific subject. His work promoted an area of thought which influenced the later breakthroughs of ANTOINE LAVOISIER (1743-93) and JOSEPH PRIESTLY (1733-1804) in the development of theories related to chemical elements.

Boyle extended the existing natural philosophy to include chemistry – until this time chemistry had no recognised theories.

The idea that events are component parts of regular and predictable processes precludes the action of magic.
Boyle sought to refute ARISTOTLE and to confirm his atomistic or ‘corpuscular’ theories by experimentation.

In 1661 he published his most famous work, ‘The Skeptical Chymist’, in which he rejected Aristotle’s four elements – earth, water, fire and air – and proposed that an element is a material substance consisting at root of ‘primitive and simple, or perfectly unmingled bodies’, that it can be identified only by experiment and can combine with other elements to form an infinite number of compounds.

The book takes the form of a dialogue between four characters. Boyle represents himself in the form of Carneades, a person who does not fit into any of the existing camps, as he disagrees with alchemists and sees chemists as lazy hobbyists. Another character, Themistius, argues for Aristotle’s four elements; while Philoponus takes the place of the alchemist, Eleutherius stands in as an interested bystander.

In the conclusion he attacks chemists.

page from one of Boyle's publications“I think I may presume that what I have hitherto Discursed will induce you to think, that Chymists have been much more happy finding Experiments than the Causes of them; or in assigning the Principles by which they may be best explain’d”
He pushes the point further: “me thinks the Chymists, in the searches after truth, are not unlike the Navigators of Solomon’s Tarshish Fleet, who brought home Gold and Silver and Ivory, but Apeas and Peacocks too; For so the Writings of several (for I say not, all) of your Hermetick Philosophers present us, together with divers Substantial and noble Experiments, Theories, which either like Peacock’s feathers made a great show, but are neither solid nor useful, or else like Apes, if they have some appearance of being rational, are blemished with some absurdity or other, that when they are Attentively consider’d, makes them appear Ridiculous”

The critical message from the book was that matter consisted of atoms and clusters of atoms. These atoms moved about, and every phenomenon was the result of the collisions of the particles.

He was a founder member of The Royal Society in 1663. Unlike the Accademia del Cimento the Royal Society thrived.

Like FRANCIS BACON he experimented relentlessly, accepting nothing to be true unless he had firm empirical grounds from which to draw his conclusions. He created flame tests in the detection of metals and tests for identifying acidity and alkalinity.

It was his insistence on publishing chemical theories supported by accurate experimental evidence – including details of apparatus and methods used, as well as failed experiments – which had the most impact upon modern chemistry.

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1799 – France


‘Chemical compounds contain elements in definite proportions by mass’

Proust’s law is now referred to as the law of constant composition or the law of definite proportions.

Claude Berthollet (1748-1822), then the recognised leader of science in France, rejected Proust’s law. Berthollet believed that the force of chemical affinity, like gravity, must be proportional to the masses of acting substances. He suggested that the composition of chemical compounds could vary widely. Proust showed that Berthollet’s experiments were not done on pure compounds, but rather on mixtures. Thus for the first time a clear distinction was made between mixtures and compounds.

When Dalton proposed his atomic theory, Proust’s law helped to confirm the hypothesis. According to Dalton, atoms would always combine in simple whole number ratios. For example, all water molecules are alike, consisting of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Therefore, all water has the same composition.

Proust’s law has been confirmed by experiments. For example, water always contains 11.2 percent hydrogen and 88.8 percent oxygen.

In recent years chemists have discovered certain rare compounds in which elements do not combine in simple whole number ratios. These compounds are known as ‘berthollides’.
In contrast, compounds in which elements do combine in simple whole number ratios are sometimes referred to as ‘daltonides’.

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JOHN DALTON (1766-1844)

1801 England

‘The total pressure of a mixture of gases is the sum of the partial pressures exerted by each of the gases in the mixture’

Partial pressures of gases:
Dalton stated that the pressure of a mixture of gases is equal to the sum of the pressures of the gases in the mixture. On heating gases they expand and he realised that each gas acts independently of the other.

Each gas in a mixture of gases exerts a pressure, which is equal to the pressure it would exert if it were present alone in the container; this pressure is called partial pressure.

Dalton’s law of partial pressures contributed to the development of the kinetic theory of gases.

His meteorological observations confirmed the cause of rain to be a fall in temperature, not pressure and he discovered the ‘dew point’ and that the behaviour of water vapour is consistent with that of other gases.

He showed that a gas could dissolve in water or diffuse through solid objects.

Graph demonstrating the varying solubility of gases

The varying solubility of gases

Further to this, his experiments on determining the solubility of gases in water, which, unexpectedly for Dalton, showed that each gas differed in its solubility, led him to speculate that perhaps the gases were composed of different ‘atoms’, or indivisible particles, which each had different masses.
On further examination of his thesis, he realised that not only would it explain the different solubility of gases in water, but would also account for the ‘conservation of mass’ observed during chemical reactions – as well as the combinations into which elements apparently entered when forming compounds – because the atoms were simply ‘rearranging’ themselves and not being created or destroyed.

In his experiments, he observed that pure oxygen will not absorb as much water vapour as pure nitrogen – his conclusion was that oxygen atoms were bigger and heavier than nitrogen atoms.

‘ Why does not water admit its bulk of every kind of gas alike? …. I am nearly persuaded that the circumstance depends on the weight and number of the ultimate particles of the several gases ’

In a paper read to the Manchester Society on 21 October 1803, Dalton went further,

‘ An inquiry into the relative weight of the ultimate particles of bodies is a subject as far as I know, entirely new; I have lately been prosecuting this enquiry with remarkable success ’

Dalton described how he had arrived at different weights for the basic units of each elemental gas – in other words the weight of their atoms, or atomic weight.

Dalton had noticed that when elements combine to make a compound, they always did so in fixed proportions and went on to argue that the atoms of each element combined to make compounds in very simple ratios, and so the weight of each atom could be worked out by the weight of each element involved in a compound – the idea of the Law of Multiple Proportions.

When oxygen and hydrogen combined to make water, 8 grammes of oxygen was used for every 1 gramme of hydrogen. If oxygen consisted of large numbers of identical oxygen atoms and hydrogen large numbers of hydrogen atoms, all identical, and the formation of water from oxygen and hydrogen involved the two kinds of atoms colliding and sticking to make large numbers of particles of water (molecules) – then as water has an identity as distinctive as either hydrogen or oxygen, it followed that water molecules are all identical, made of a fixed number of oxygen atoms and a fixed number of hydrogen atoms.

Dalton realised that hydrogen was the lightest gas, and so he assigned it an atomic weight of 1. Because of the weight of oxygen that combined with hydrogen in water, he first assigned oxygen an atomic weight of 8.

There was a basic flaw in Dalton’s method, because he did not realise that atoms of the same element can combine. He assumed that a compound of atoms, a molecule, had only one atom of each element. It was not until Italian scientist AMADEO AVOGADRO’s idea of using molecular proportions was introduced that he would be able to calculate atomic weights correctly.

In his book of 1808, ‘A New System of Chemical Philosophy’ he summarised his beliefs based on key principles: atoms of the same element are identical; distinct elements have distinct atoms; atoms are neither created nor destroyed; everything is made up of atoms; a chemical change is simply the reshuffling of atoms; and compounds are made up of atoms from the relevant elements. He published a table of known atoms and their weights, (although some of these were slightly wrong), based on hydrogen having a mass of one.

Nevertheless, the basic idea of Dalton’s atomic theory – that each element has its own unique sized atoms – has proved to be resoundingly correct.

If oxygen atoms all had a certain weight which is unique to oxygen and hydrogen atoms all had a certain weight that was unique to hydrogen, then a fixed number of oxygen atoms and a fixed number of hydrogen atoms combined to form a fixed weight of water molecules. Each water molecule must therefore contain the same weight of oxygen atoms relative to hydrogen atoms.

Here then is the reason for the ‘law of fixed proportions’. It is irrelevant how much water is involved – the same factors always hold – the oxygen atoms in a single water molecule weigh 8 times as much as the hydrogen atoms.

Dalton wrongly assumed that elements would combine in one-to-one ratios as a base principle, only converting into ‘multiple proportions’ (for example from carbon monoxide, CO, to carbon dioxide, CO2) under certain conditions. Each water molecule (H2O) actually contains two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. An oxygen atom is actually 16 times as heavy as a hydrogen atom. This does not affect Dalton’s reasoning.

The law of fixed proportions holds because a compound consists of a large number of identical molecules, each made of a fixed number of atoms of each component element.

Although the debate over the validity of Dalton’s thesis continued for decades, the foundation for the study of modern atomic theory had been laid and with ongoing refinement was gradually accepted.

A_New_System_of_Chemical_Philosophy - DALTON's original outline


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1808 – Manchester, England

‘All matter is made up of atoms, which cannot be created, destroyed or divided. Atoms of one element are identical but different from those of other elements. All chemical change is the result of combination or separation of atoms’

Dalton struggled to accept the theory of GAY-LUSSAC because he believed, as a base case, that gases would seek to combine in a one atom to one atom ratio (hence he believed the formula of water to be HO not H2O). Anything else would contradict Dalton’s theory on the indivisibility of the atom, which he was not prepared to accept.

The reason for the confusion was that at the time the idea of the molecule was not understood.
Dalton believed that in nature all elementary gases consisted of indivisible atoms, which is true for example of the inert gases. The other gases, however, exist in their simplest form in combinations of atoms called molecules. In the case of hydrogen and oxygen, for example, their molecules are made up of two atoms, described as H2 and O2 respectively.

Gay-Lussac examined various substances in which two elements form more than one type of compound and concluded that if two elements A and B combine to form more than one compound, the different masses of A that combine with a fixed mass of B are in a simple whole number ratio. This is the law of multiple proportions.

AVOGADRO’s comprehension of molecules helped to reconcile Gay-Lussac’s ratios with Dalton’s theories on the atom.

Gay-Lussac’s ratio for water could be explained by two molecules of hydrogen (four ‘atoms’) combining with one molecule of oxygen (two ‘atoms’) to result in two molecules of water (2H2O).

2H2 + O2 ↔ 2H2O

When Dalton had considered water, he could not understand how one atom of hydrogen could divide itself (thereby undermining his indivisibility of the atom theory) to form two particles of water. The answer proposed by Avogadro was that oxygen existed in molecules of two and therefore the atom did not divide itself at all.

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1811 – Italy

‘Equal volumes of all gases at the same temperature and pressure contain the same number of molecules’

In 1811, when Avogadro proposed his HYPOTHESIS, very little was known about atoms and molecules. Avogadro claimed that the same volume of any gas under identical conditions would always contain the same number of fundamental particles, or molecules. A litre of hydrogen would contain exactly the same number of molecules as a litre of oxygen or a litre of carbon dioxide.

Drawing of AVOGADRO ©

In 1814 ANDRE AMPERE was credited with discovering that if a gas consisted of a single element, its atoms could clump in pairs. The molecules of oxygen consisted of pairs of oxygen atoms, and the molecules of chlorine, pairs of chlorine atoms.
Diatomic gases possess a total of six degrees of simple freedom per molecule that are related to atomic motion.

This provides a way of comparing the weights of different molecules. It was only necessary to weigh equal volumes of different gases and compare them. This would be exactly the same as comparing the weights of the individual molecules of each gas.

Avogadro realised that GAY-LUSSAC‘s law provided a way of proving that an atom and a molecule are not the same. He suggested that the particles (molecules) of which nitrogen gas is composed consist of two atoms, thus the molecule of nitrogen is N2. When one volume (one molecule) of nitrogen combines with three volumes (three molecules) of hydrogen, two volumes (two molecules) of ammonia, NH3, are produced.

N2 + 3H2 ↔ 2NH3

However, the idea of a molecule consisting of two or more atoms bound together was not understood at that time.

Avogadro’s law was forgotten until 1860 when the Italian chemist STANISLAO CANNIZZARO (1826-1910) explained the necessity of distinguishing between atoms and molecules.

Avogadro’s constant
From Avogadro’s law it can be deduced that the same number of molecules of all gases at the same temperature and pressure should have the same volume. This number has been determined experimentally: it’s value is 6.022 1367(36) × 1023AVOGADRO’S NUMBER


That at the same temperature and pressure, equal volumes of all gases have the same number of molecules allows a simple calculation for the combining ratios of all gases – by measuring their percentages by volume in any compound. This in turn facilitates simple calculation of the relative atomic masses of the elements of which it is composed.

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WILLIAM PROUT (1785-1850)

1815 – UK

‘Atoms are not the smallest thing’

After ANTOINE LAVOISIER had compiled his list of the then known elements, another 32 were added in the years following his death. Fifty kinds of fundamental building blocks for matter seemed excessive. In 1815 Prout, using AVOGADRO’s method of comparing the relative densities and weights of gases, proposed that all atoms appeared to have weights that were exact multiples of the weight of the lightest atom, hydrogen, and that the different atomic weights of elements are whole-number multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen (Prout’s hypothesis).

Portreait of William Prout (c) The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


He took this as proof that all atoms were actually made from hydrogen atoms and the idea was adopted as atomic theory and used for later investigations of atomic weights and the classification of the elements.

If all atoms are made from atoms of hydrogen, then it could be possible to transform an atom of one element into an atom of another.
If atoms had been assembled from other things, then they themselves could not be the smallest things in creation.

Apart from the method of weighing atoms being controversial, there are exceptions to the rule. Chlorine is 35.5 times as heavy as hydrogen.

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ROBERT BROWN (1773-1858)

1827 – UK

‘Tiny solid particles suspended in a fluid are in continuous random motion’

This motion is caused by constant collisions between the suspended particles and the fluid molecules.

In 1905 EINSTEIN studied Brownian motion and used it to calculate the approximate mass and size of atoms and molecules.

Robert Brown (1773-1858), British botanist. Brown is most famous for his 1827 observation of erratic motion by pollen grains in water. This was named Brownian motion.In 1877, Desaulx recognised that the motion is caused by the pollen colliding with water molecules. This meant that Brownian motion was the first directly observable evidence for the existence of molecules. Brown spent years working on plant taxonomy, establishing the classification of two major divisions of plants, the gymnosperms and the angiosperms. He also observed an essential part of living cells, which he named the nucleus (1831) &copy:


Brown is also remembered for discovering a small body within cells, which he named the nucleus (from the Latin for ‘little nut’). Plant cells were discovered by HOOKE.

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1860 – Germany

‘Each chemical element, when heated to incandescence, produces its own characteristic lines in the spectrum of light’

For example, sodium produces two bright yellow lines.
Bunsen developed the Bunsen burner in 1855.
In the flame test the Bunsen burner’s non-luminous flame does not interfere with the coloured flame given off by the sample.


Kirchhoff was a professor of physics at Heidelberg. Bunsen and Kirchhoff together developed the first spectroscope, a device used to produce and observe a spectrum. They used their spectroscope to discover two new elements, caesium (1860) and rubidium (1861).

In 1860 Kirchhoff made the discovery that when heated to incandescence, each element produces its own characteristic lines in the spectrum.

This means that each element emits light of a certain wavelength – sodium’s spectrum has two yellow lines (wavelengths about 588 and 589 nanometres). The Sun’s spectrum contains a number of dark lines, some of which correspond to these wavelengths.

The Swedish scientist ANDERS ANGSTROM had, four years earlier, found that a gas always absorbs light at the same wavelength that it emits light. If the gas is hotter than the light source, then more light is emitted by the gas than absorbed, creating a bright line in the spectrum of the light source. If the gas is cooler than the light source the opposite happens; more light is absorbed by the gas than is emitted, creating a dark line.
The dark solar D lines told Kirchhoff that sodium is present in the relatively cool outer atmosphere of the Sun. This could be tested in the laboratory by burning a piece of chalk in a hot oxygen-hydrogen torch. The intensely bright limelight that is produced may be passed through a cooler sodium flame and the light emerging examined through a spectroscope. Crossing the spectrum of the artificial light occur black lines at the same wavelength that a sodium flame emits light. This solved the mystery of the FRAUNHOFER LINES.

Scientists now had a means to determine the presence of elements in stars. By comparing the dark lines in the spectra of light from the stars with the bright lines produced by substances in the laboratory, Kirchhoff had been able to identify the elements that made up a celestial body millions of miles away in space.



In England the astronomer William Huggins recorded the spectra of hundreds of stars and showed the unmistakable fingerprints of familiar elements that are found on the Earth’s surface. The stars are made of exactly the same kind of atoms as the Earth.

In 1868 Norman Lockyer described a spectral line in the yellow region very close to the wavelength of the two ‘D’ spectral lines of sodium. After repeated attempts to discover a substance that produced the same line on Earth, it appeared that the line did not correspond to any hitherto known element. Lockyer gave the element the name ‘helium’, the gas later to be found associated with radioactive decay in ores containing uranium.


Helium had not previously been found on Earth because it is both inert and lighter than air, ironic because after hydrogen, helium is the second most common element in the universe.

In 1904 RUTHERFORD would declare that the presence of helium in the Sun was evidence that sunlight was a product of radioactive processes. The absence of any FRAUNHOFER lines in sunlight that corresponded to radium dealt a blow to this hypothesis. Was there another way of releasing atomic energy than radioactivity?


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1869 – Russia

‘The properties of elements are periodic functions of their atomic weights’

Arrange the atoms in order of their atomic weight (relative atomic mass) and elements are also arranged in order of their properties. This arrangement of the elements is called the periodic table.

In the modern periodic table elements are no longer arranged by their atomic weight but by a more fundamental quantity; ‘atomic number’.

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The atomic number of an element is the number of protons in the nucleus of one of its atoms; the number of neutrons, which contributes to atomic weight, is ignored. The modern periodic law is that ‘The properties of elements are periodic functions of their atomic numbers’.

In 1860 Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev attended a chemistry conference in Karlsruhe where the Italian Stanislao Cannizzaro’s speech announcing his rediscovery of the distinction between atoms and molecules ( originally announced in 1811 by AVOGADRO ) made a profound impression.

The German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner (1780-1849) had recognised mathematical patterns in elements that had similar properties. He found that adding the atomic weights of calcium (40) and barium (137) and dividing the total in two left a value close to the weight of strontium (88). Finding this same pattern repeated for lithium, sodium and potassium, and for chlorine, bromine and iodine confirmed the relationship, which he termed the Law of Triads.

In 1862, French scientist Alexandre Beguyer de Chancourtois developed a way of representing the elements by wrapping a helical list around a cylinder.

A repeating pattern in natural phenomena is a strong indication that there exists a simple, compact description.
The periodic table suggests that the distinct atoms of the elements may be described in terms of significantly fewer building blocks than the number of the individual elements. Atoms, then, were made of significantly fewer subatomic building blocks.

In 1869 the 35-year-old Mendeleev published a table of the 61 elements then known. His list of elements – ‘On the Relation of the Properties to the Atomic Weights of Elements’ – occupied a grid where the atomic weight increased as you went down a column (periods) and the elements in any particular row (groups or families) shared similar properties and valencies (metals and gases, for instance).

Mendeleev had to juggle the order of a few elements, assuming their weights to have been incorrectly measured, and predicted that some undiscovered elements would fill the gaps in the table, based on the properties of the elements surrounding the gaps.
The modern periodic table has been turned sideways.

By 1886, with the discoveries of gallium, scandium and germanium with the properties he had foretold, his prediction was fulfilled. By 1925, chemists had successfully identified all the 92 elements they believed to exist in nature.
The first artificial element, neptunium, was synthesised in 1940. Many more elements have been made since then.

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‘The Genesis of a Law of Nature’ – Mendeleev

JOSEF STEFAN (1835- 93) LUDWIG BOLTZMANN (1844-1906)

1879 – Austria


‘The total energy radiated from a blackbody is proportional to the fourth power of the temperature of the body’

portrait drawing of JOSEPH STEFAN ©


(A blackbody is a hypothetical body that absorbs all the radiation falling on it)

Stefan discovered the law experimentally, but Boltzmann discovered it theoretically soon after.

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‘Heat at the molecular level’

Shortly after JAMES CLERK MAXWELL’s analysis of molecular motion, Ludwig Boltzmann gave a statistical interpretation of CLAUSIUS’s notion of entropy.

Coloured graphic depicting distribution of heat energy according to boltzman's model

Boltzmann’s formula for entropy is

S = k logW

 S  is entropy, k  is now known as Boltzmann’s constant and  W  is a measure of the number of states available to the system whose entropy is being measured.

The notion that heat flows from hot to cold could be phrased in terms of molecular motions. Molecules in a container collide with one another and the faster ones slow down while the slower ones speed up. Thus the hotter part becomes cooler and the colder part becomes hotter – thermal equilibrium is reached.

The Boltzmann constant is a physical constant relating energy at the individual particle level with temperature. It is the gas constant R  divided by the Avogadro constant NA :

k = R/NA

It has the same dimension (energy divided by temperature) as entropy.

(In rolling a dice, a seven may be obtained by throwing a six and a one, a five and a two or a four and a three, while three needs only a two and a one. Seven has greater ‘entropy’ – more states.)





1897 – England

’Not only was matter composed of particles not visible even with the modern microscope, as scientists from DEMOCRITUS to DALTON had surmised, but those particles were themselves composed of even smaller components’

photo of JJ THOMSON at work in the laboratory ©


By the end of the nineteenth century scientists had cleared up much of the confusion surrounding atomic theory. The discovery of the sub-atomic particle was made in April 1897. They believed that they now largely understood the properties and sizes of the atoms of elements; without question, hydrogen was the smallest of all.

When JJ Thomson announced the discovery of a particle one thousandth the mass of the hydrogen atom the particles were named ‘electrons’ and have been a fundamental part of the understanding of atomic science ever since.

Thomson was investigating the properties of cathode rays, now known to be a simple stream of electrons, but at the time the cause of widespread debate. The rays were known to be visible, like normal light, but they were quite clearly not normal light. He devised a series of experiments, which would apply measurements to the cathode rays and clarify their nature. The rays were created by passing an electric charge through an airless or gasless discharge tube.

By improving the vacuüm in the tube, it was demonstrated that the rays could be deflected by electric and magnetic fields. Thomson drilled a hole in the anode of the tube to allow the mysterious rays from the cathode to pass through. In the space after the anode, he arranged that a magnetic force field from a magnet would tug the cathode rays in one direction, and an electric force field between two electrically charged metal plates would tug them in the opposite direction. The rays would eventually strike the glass wall of the tube to create a familiar greenish spot of light on the phosphor-coated tube.

Thomson concluded that the rays were made up of particles, not waves. He saw that the properties of the particles were negative in charge and didn’t seem to be specific to any one element; they were the same regardless of the gas used to transport the electric discharge, or the metal used at the cathode. From his findings he concluded that cathode rays were made up of a jet of ‘corpuscles’ and, more importantly, that these corpuscles were present in all elements. Thomson devised a method of measuring the mass of the particles and found them to be a fraction of the weight of the hydrogen atom.

The position of the spot indicated how much the beam of cathode rays had been deflected. The deflection could be made zero by adjusting the magnetic and electric forces so that they perfectly balanced. In such a situation, Thomson could read off the strength of the electric force. He knew in theory how the magnetic force on a charged particle depends on its speed. By equating the two forces, he was able to deduce the speed of the cathode rays. The deflection was also influenced by the electric charge carried by the cathode ray particles, and their mass. The larger the charge, the greater the force the particles felt and the greater their deflection, the smaller the mass, the easier it was for any force to push the particles about and again, the greater their deflection.

Independent evidence from electrolysis (passing electricity through liquids) that electric charge came in discreet chunks, which he assumed to be carried by individual cathode ray particles, enabled Thomson to calculate their mass.
He arrived at a figure that was a thousand billion billion billionth of a kilogram – a 1000th of the mass of a hydrogen atom.

Knowing the deflection of the dot and the velocity of the particles (the slower the particles, the longer they were exposed to the electric force and the greater the deflection of the glowing dot), Thomson expected to be able to deduce their charge and mass. What he actually deduced was a combination of their charge and mass.

Atoms were made of smaller things, but the fundamental building-blocks were not hydrogen atoms, as had been maintained by PROUT.

Thomson’s particles were christened ‘electrons’ and were the first subatomic entities. Thomson visualized a multitude of tiny electrons embedded ‘like raisins in a plum pudding’ in a diffuse ball of positive charge.

‘The atom is a sphere of positively charged protons in which negatively charged electrons are embedded in just sufficient quantity to neutralise the positive charge’

This was the accepted picture of the atom at the start of the twentieth century until RUTHERFORD found a way to probe inside the atom in 1911.

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1898 – France



‘1903 – Awarded the Nobel-Prize for Physics jointly with Marie and Pierre Curie’

picture of a rock displaying fluorescence under short wavelength radiation

The phenomenon of fluorescence – displayed under short wavelength radiation

Stimulated by WILHELM CONRAD ROENTGEN’s discovery of X-rays in 1895, Becquerel chanced upon the phenomenon that is now known as radioactivity in 1896. The Frenchman believed that Röntgen’s X-rays were responsible for the fluorescence displayed by some substances after being placed in sunlight. Although he was wrong to assume that fluorescence had anything to do with X-rays, he tested large numbers of fluorescent minerals.

He found that uranium, the heaviest element, caused an impression on a covered photographic plate, even after being kept in the dark for several days, and concluded that a phenomenon independent of sunlight induced luminescence.
Investigation isolated the uranium as the source of ‘radioactivity’, a name given to the occurrence by Mme. Curie.

The SI unit of radioactivity, the becquerel is named in his honour.

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NEXT button - MARIE CURIE (1867-1934) PIERRE CURIE (1859-1906)TIMELINE

  • Radioactivity (aps.org)
  • MARIE CURIE (1867-1934) PIERRE CURIE (1859-1906)

    1898-1902 – France

    ‘Pitchblende, the ore from which uranium is extracted, is much more radioactive than pure uranium. The ore must therefore contain unknown radioactive elements’

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    Photograph of pierre_curie ©


    Following the discovery of radioactivity by HENRI BECQUEREL (1852-1908) in 1896, Marie Curie conclusively proved that radioactivity is an intrinsic property of the element in question and is not a condition caused by outside factors.

    She correctly concluded that pitchblende contained other, more radioactive elements than uranium.
    The Curies isolated two new radioactive elements, polonium and radium, from pitchblende. The discovery of new elements by their radioactivity was proof that radioactivity was a property of atoms.

    image of two pages from MarieCurie's notebook, which remains radioactive

    Even today, Marie Curie’s notebooks of her studies remain too radioactive to handle.

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    MAX PLANCK (1856-1947)

    1900 – Germany

    ‘Energy is not a continuous quantity but it is quantised; it flows in discrete packets or quanta. When particles emit energy they do so only in quanta’

    According to Quantum theory, the energy (E) of one quantum (photon) is given by E = hf where f is the frequency of radiation and h is Planck’s constant.
    Its value is 6.63 x 10-34 joules per second

    h is a tiny number, close to zero, but it is has a finite value. This implies energy is released in discrete chunks, a revolutionary notion.

    photo portrait of MAX PLANCK ©


    By the late 1800s the science of thermodynamics was developing to the point that people were beginning to understand the nature of energy.
    The traditional view was that energy was released in a continuous stream and that any amount of energy could be indefinitely divided into smaller and smaller ‘lumps’. Planck’s work on the laws of thermodynamics and black body radiation led him to abandon this classical notion of the dynamic principles of energy and formulate the quantum theory, which assumes that energy changes take place in distinct packages, or quanta, that cannot be subdivided. This successfully accounted for certain phenomena that Newtonian theory could not explain.

    The basic laws of thermodynamics recognised that energy could not be created or destroyed, but was always conserved. The second law was drawn from an understanding that heat would not pass from a colder body to a hotter body.
    The study of thermodynamics was based on the assumption that matter was ultimately composed of particles. LUDWIG BOLTZMAN had proposed an explanation of thermodynamics, saying the energy contained in a system is the collective result of the movements of many tiny particles rattling around. He believed the second law was only valid in a statistical sense; it only worked if you added up all the bits of energy in all the little particles.
    Among his detractors was Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck.

    Planck began his work on the second law of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy. He investigated how materials transform between solid, liquid and gaseous states. In doing so he found explanations for the laws governing the differing freezing and boiling points of various substances.
    He also looked at the conduction of electricity through liquid solutions (electrolysis).

    In the mid 1890s Planck turned his attention to the question of how heated substances radiate energy. Physicists were aware that all bodies radiate heat at all frequencies – although maximum radiation is emitted only at a certain frequency, which depends on the temperature of the body. The hotter the body, the higher the frequency for maximum radiation. (Frequency is the rate per second of a wave of any form of radiation).

    Planck had been considering formulae for the radiation released by a body at high temperature. Using ideas developed by ROBERT KIRCHOFF, he knew it should be expressible as a combination of wavelength frequency and temperature. For a theoretical ‘black body’, physicists could not predict expressions that were in line with the behaviour of hot bodies at high frequencies and were in agreement with other equations showing their nature at low frequencies. Thus no law could be found which fitted all frequencies and obeyed the laws of classical physics simultaneously.
    Plank resolved to find a theoretical formula that would work mathematically, even if it did not reflect known physical laws. His first attempts were partially successful, but did not take into account any notion of particles or quanta of energy, as he was certain of the continuous nature of energy. In an ‘act of despair’ he renounced classical physics and embraced quanta.

    The final straw had been a concept developed by John Rayleigh and James Jeans that became known as the ‘ultraviolet catastrophe’ theory. They had developed a formula that predicted values for radiation distribution and worked at low frequencies, but not at high frequencies. It was at odds with Planck’s formula, which worked for high frequencies but broke down at low frequencies. In June 1900 Rayleigh had pointed out that classical mechanics, when applied to the oscillators of a black-body, leads to an energy distribution that increases in proportion to the square of the frequency. This conflicted with all known data.

    Planck’s answer was to introduce what he called ‘energy elements’ or quanta and to express the energy emitted as a straightforward multiplication of frequency by a constant, which became known as ‘Planck’s constant’ (6.6256 x 10-34 Jsec-1). This only works with whole number multiples which means for the formula to have any practical use one must accept the radical theory that energy is only released in distinct, non-divisible chunks, known as ‘quanta’, or for a single chunk of energy, a ‘quantum’. This completely contradicts classical physics, which assumed that energy is emitted in a continuous stream. The individual quanta of energy were so small that when emitted at the everyday large levels observed, it appears that energy could seem to be flowing in a continuous stream.
    Thus classical physics was cast into doubt and quantum theory was born.

    Planck announced his theory on December 14 1900 in his paper ‘On the Theory of the Law of Energy Distribution in the Continuous Spectrum’. Planck said ‘energy is made up of a completely determinate number of finite equal parts, and for this purpose I use the constant of nature h = 6.55 x 10-27(erg sec)’

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    When ALBERT EINSTEIN was able to explain the ‘photoelectric’ effect in 1905, suggesting that light is emitted in quanta called ‘photons’, by applying Planck’s theory – and likewise NIELS BOHR in his explanation of atomic theory in 1913 – the abstract idea was shown to explain physical phenomena.

    Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.

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    NEXT buttonHEAT


    ALBERT EINSTEIN (1879-1955)

    1905 – Switzerland

    1. ‘the relativity principle: All laws of science are the same in all frames of reference.
    2. constancy of the speed of light: The speed of light in a vacuüm is constant and is independent of the speed of the observer’
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    The laws of physics are identical to different spectators, regardless of their position, as long as they are moving at a constant speed in relation to each other. Above all the speed of light is constant. Classical laws of mechanics seem to be obeyed in our normal lives because the speeds involved are insignificant.

    Newton’s recipe for measuring the speed of a body moving through space involved simply timing it as it passed between two fixed points. This is based on the assumptions that time is flowing at the same rate for everyone – that there is such a thing as ‘absolute’ time, and that two observers would always agree on the distance between any two points in space.
    The implications of this principle if the observers are moving at different speeds are bizarre and normal indicators of velocity such as distance and time become warped. Absolute space and time do not exist. The faster an object is moving the slower time moves. Objects appear to become shorter in the direction of travel. Mass increases as the speed of an object increases. Ultimately nothing may move faster than or equal to the speed of light because at that point it would have infinite mass, no length and time would stand still.

    ‘The energy (E) of a body equals its mass (m) times the speed of light (c) squared’

    This equation shows that mass and energy are mutually convertible under certain conditions.

    The mass-energy equation is a consequence of Einstein’s theory of special relativity and declares that only a small amount of atomic mass could unleash huge amounts of energy.

    Two of his early papers described Brownian motion and the ‘photoelectric’ effect (employing PLANCK’s quantum theory and helping to confirm Planck’s ideas in the process).

    1915 – Germany

    ‘Objects do not attract each other by exerting pull, but the presence of matter in space causes space to curve in such a manner that a gravitational field is set up. Gravity is the property of space itself’

    From 1907 to 1915 Einstein developed his special theory into a general theory that included equating accelerating forces and gravitational forces. This implies light rays would be bent by gravitational attraction and electromagnetic radiation wavelengths would be increased under gravity. Moreover, mass and the resultant gravity, warps space and time, which would otherwise be ‘flat’, into curved paths that other masses (e.g. the moons of planets) caught within the field of the distortion follow. The predictions from special and general relativity were gradually proven by experimental evidence.

    Einstein spent much of the rest of his life trying to devise a unified theory of electromagnetic, gravitational and nuclear fields.

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    ROBERT MILLIKAN (1868-1953)

    1909 – USA

    The charge on the electron’



    Millikan measured the charge on the electron.

    His experiment showed that the electron is the fundamental unit of electricity; that is, electricity is the flow of electrons.
    From his experiment Millikan calculated the basic charge on an electron to be 1.6 × 10-19 coulomb.
    This charge cannot be subdivided – by convention this charge is called unit negative, -1, charge.

    Millikan also determined that the electron has only about 1/1837 the mass of a proton, or 9.1 × 10-31 kilogram.

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