ARISTOTLE (c.384 – c.322 BCE)

335 BCE – Athens



384 BCE – Born in the Greek colony of Stagira. The son of Nicomachus, court physician to the king of Macedonia
367 BCE – Enters Plato’s Academy in Athens
347 BCE – On Plato’s death Speusippus succeeds Plato as head of the Academy. Aristotle leaves the Academy for Lesbos
342 BCE – Becomes tutor to the young Alexander (the Great), son of Phillip of Macedon
335 BCE – Returns to Athens and founds the Lyceum
321 BCE – Accused of impiety, returns to Chalcis where he dies a year later

Aristotle reinforced the view espoused by PYTHAGORAS that the earth is spherical. The arc shaped shadow of the earth cast upon the moon during a lunar eclipse is consistent with this view. He also noted that when traveling north or south, stars ‘move’ on the horizon until some gradually disappear from view.

Proposing that there was no infinity and no void he accepted the notion of the earth at the centre of the universe, with the moon, planets, sun and stars all orbiting around it in perfect circles.
The universe existed as beautiful spheres surrounding the Earth, placed at the centre of the cosmos. This system was later refined by the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy and become the dominant philosophy in the Western world.

Explaining why the heavens rotate in perfect, uniform order, with none of the disturbances associated with earthly elements; he described the fifth element added to the traditional four, ‘Aether‘, as having a naturally circular motion. Everything beyond the moon was regulated by aether, explaining both its perfect movement and stability, while everything below it was subject to the laws of the four other elements.

Aristotle rejected the ideas of zero and infinity, hence he had explained away Zeno’s paradoxes – Achilles runs smoothly past the tortoise because the infinite points are simply a figment of Zeno’s imagination; infinity was just a construct of the human mind.
By rejecting zero and infinity, Aristotle denied the atomists’ idea of matter existing in an infinite vacuum, infinity and zero wrapped into one.
In contrast to the theory of atoms, like Plato, Aristotle believed that matter is composed of four elements ( Ignis, Aqua, Aer and Terra ) with differing qualities ( hot, wet, cold, dry )

[ Fire – hot + dry ; Water – cold + wet ; Air – hot + wet ; Earth – cold + dry ]

He believed that the qualities of heat, cold, wetness and dryness were the keys to transformation, each element being converted into another by changing one of these two qualities to its opposite.

Agreeing that things were composed of a single, primal substance (prote hyle) that was too remote and unknowable, he accepted EMPEDOCLES elements as intermediaries between the imponderable and the tangible world, concealing the complications behind a philosophy of matter.

The four elements always sought to return to their ‘natural place’. Thus a rock, for example, would drop to the earth as soon as any obstacles preventing it from doing so were removed – because ‘earth’ elements, being denser and heavier, would naturally seek to move downwards towards the centre of the planet. Water elements would float around the surface, air would rise above that and fire would seek to rise above them all, explaining the leaping, upward direction of flames.

Although the Aristotelian view of matter has been undermined as experiments proved that neither air nor water are indivisible; today, scientists define matter as existing in four phases, solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

MATTER (hyle); FORM (morphe); CAUSE; PURPOSE;

The place where his ideas converge with Plato’s is that for Aristotle, the pinnacle of the tower of superiority is the Good. According to Aristotle, all aims eventually lead to the Good, not necessarily of the individual but of humankind. Humans by nature are social and moral and everyone is part of a group, a family, village, town or city-state. There is no place for individualism or freethinkers, as without the happiness of the group then the individual cannot be happy.
The consequence of this emphasis on the community as opposed to the individual is hierarchy and subordination and as a result slavery was a very normal part of a well-ordered society.

  • Matter is itself only one component of the world – others being form and spirit. There are different sorts of living being in the world.
    Human beings possess immortal souls.
    He believed that there is in living creatures a fundamental vital principle, a ‘life force’, which distinguishes them from non-living material. The gods breathed this vital principle into living things, and thereby gave them their life – ( nous – spontaneous generation ).

The soul is governed by reason, spirit and appetite.
‘All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion, and desire’ ( source )

  • Forms are incorporated in individual particulars as potentiality.
    All particular acorns possess the form of the potential oak tree.

Although Aristotle was a pupil at Plato’s Academy for almost twenty years, the two great thinkers were diametrically opposed on a number of subjects; he criticised Platonic forms for being impossibly transcendent and mystical.

Aristotle pursued his ideas unrestricted by Socratic theories that non-physical forms such as Truth and Beauty were the keys to understanding.

  • Four Causes – efficient, formal, material, final – (agent, form, matter, goal). – The ‘Timaeus’ – ( Plato’s work in which the chief speaker is encouraged to provide his account of the origins of the universe.)

  • ‘Action exists not in the agent but in the patient’
    To study a situation, or an action, Aristotle would categorise it into a series of subordinate and superior aims.



  • Motion of Place – A to B

  • Motion of Quantity – change in amount

  • Motion of Quality – green apples turning red or from sour to sweet


Aristotle could explain why a rock, when thrown, would travel upwards through the air first before heading downwards, rather than straight down towards the earth. This was because the air, seeking to close the gap made by the invasion of the rock, would propel it along until it lost its horizontal speed and it tumbled to the ground.

Such notions made a lasting impact for the next two thousand years, if only by slowing down progress due to their unchallenged acceptance.

Some of Aristotle’s biology was faulty, such as defining the heart, not the brain as the seat of the mind.


Aristotle’s model of ‘the hydrologic cycle’ is uncannily close to the ideas we have today. The Sun’s heat changes water into air ( as defined as ‘elements’ by EMPEDOCLES ). Heat rises, so the heat in this air pulls the air up to the skies ( modern explanations of the nature of heat give a fuller understanding of the mechanisms involved ). The heat then leaves the vapour, which thus becomes progressively more watery again, and this process is marked by the formation of a cloud. The positive feedback of the increased ‘wateriness’ of the mixture in the cloud driving away its opposite ( the ‘heat’ ) and causing the cloud to become colder and shrink results in restoration of the true wateriness of the water, which falls as rain or, if the cloud is now cold enough, as hail or snow.

Aristotle was one of the first to attempt a methodical classification of animals; in ‘Generation of Animals’ he used means of reproduction to differentiate between those animals which give birth to live young and those which lay eggs, a system which is the forerunner of modern taxonomy. He noted that dolphins give birth to live young who were attached to their mothers by umbilical cords and so he classified dolphins as mammals.

Based on the Pythagorean universe, the Aristotelian cosmos had the planets moving in crystalline orbs.
Since there is no infinity, there cannot be an endless number of spheres; there must be a last one. There was no such thing as ‘beyond’ the final sphere and the universe ended with the outermost layer.
With no infinite and no void, the universe was contained within the sphere of fixed stars. The cosmos was finite in extent and entirely filled with matter.
The consequence of this line of reasoning, accounting for Aristotle’s philosophy enduring for two millennia was that this system proved the existence of God.

The heavenly spheres are slowly spinning in their places, making a divine music that suffuses the cosmos. The stationary earth cannot be the cause of that motion, so the innermost sphere must be moved by the next sphere out, which, in its turn must be moved by by its larger neighbour, and on and on. With a finite number of spheres, something must be the ultimate cause of motion of the final sphere of fixed stars. This is the Prime Mover.
Christianity came to rely on Aristotle’s view of the universe and this proof of God’s existence.
Atomism became associated with atheism.

The ideas of Aristotle were picked up by the twelfth century Andalusian philosopher Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmed ibn Rushd (AVERROES) and were later adopted by the medieval philosopher THOMAS AQUINAS in the thirteenth century; whose concept of Natural Law is the basis of much thinking in the Christian world.

Aristotle had greater influence on medieval scholastic thought than Plato, whose rediscovery in the Italian renaissance influenced Petrarch, Erasmus, Thomas More and other scholars to question the dogmas of scholasticism.

Aristotle’s work in physics and cosmology dominated Western thought until the time of GALILEO and NEWTON, when much of it was subsequently refuted, though his work still underpins both Christian and Islāmic philosophy. His importance lies as much in his analytical method as in the conclusions he reached.


Aristotle expanded Plato’s concept of ‘virtue’ by dividing virtues into two groups, the 12 ‘moral’ and 9 ‘intellectual’ virtues, believing that each lay between the non-virtuous extremes of excess and deficiency.

Deficiency Virtue Excess
Cowardice Courage Rashness
Licentiousness (disregarding convention, unrestrained) Temperance (restraint or moderation) Insensibility (indifference)
Illiberality (meanness) Liberality (generosity) Prodigality (wasteful, extravagant)
Pettiness Magnificence Vulgarity
Humble-mindedness High-mindedness Vanity
Lack of ambition Proper ambition Over ambition
Irascibility (easily angered) Patience Lack of spirit
Understatement Truthfulness Boastfulness
Boorishness Wittiness Buffoonery
Cantankerousness Friendliness Obsequiousness
Shamelessness Modesty Shyness
Malicious enjoyment Righteous indignation Envy/spitefulness

His intellectual virtues consisted of :

art    scientific knowledge    prudence    intelligence    wisdom    resourcefulness    understanding    judgment    cleverness

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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)


J’BIR IHBIN AYAM (722-804)

Around two thousand texts are attributed to this name; the founder of a Shi’ite sect. They were written over a hundred and fifty year period either side of the year 1000.

‘Sulfur and Mercury hypothesis’ (the idea that the glisten of mercury and the yellow of sulphur may somehow be combined in the form of gold).

An Alchemical theory: Accepting the Aristotelian ‘fundamental qualities’ of hot, cold, dry and moist, all metals are composed of two principles. Under the ground two fumes – one dry and smoky (sulfur), one wet and vaporous (mercury) – arising from the centre of the Earth, condense and combine to form metals.

This is said to explain the similarity of all metals; different metals contain different proportions of these two substances. In base metals the combination is impure, in silver and gold they co-exist in a higher state of purity.

The idea underpins the theory of transmutation, as all metals are composed of the same substances in differing proportions, and became the cornerstone of all chemical theory for the next eight hundred years.

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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.



bust said to depict a likeness of Socrates

The speculative Greek philosophers, considering the great overarching principles that controlled the Cosmos, were handicapped by a reluctance to test their speculations by experimentation.
At the other end of the spectrum were the craftsmen who fired and glazed pottery, who forged weapons out of bronze and iron. They in turn were hindered by their reluctance to speculate about the principles that governed their craft.

WESTERN SCIENCE is often credited with discoveries and inventions that have been observed in other cultures in earlier centuries.
This can be due to a lack of reliable records, difficulty in discerning fact from legend, problems in pinning down a finding to an individual or group or simple ignorance.

The Romans were technologists and made little contribution to pure science and then from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance science regressed. Through this time, science and technology evolved independently and to a large extent one could have science without technology and technology without science.

Later, there developed a movement to ‘Christianise Platonism’ (Thierry of Chartres).

Platonism at its simplest is the study and debate of the various arguments put forward by the Greek philosopher PLATO (428/7-348/7 BCE).
The philosopher Plotinus is attributed with having founded neo-Platonism, linking Christian and Gnostic beliefs to debate various arguments within their doctrines. One strand of thought linked together three intellectual states of being: the Good (or the One), the Intelligence and the Soul. The neo-Platonic Academy in Greece was closed by the Emperor Justinian (CE 483-565) in CE 529.
During the early years of the Renaissance, texts on neo-platonism began to be reconsidered, translated and discoursed.

Aristotle’s four causes from the ‘Timaeus’ were attributed to the Christian God, who works through secondary causes (such as angels).

Efficient Cause – Creator – God the Father

Formal Cause – Secondary agent – God the Son

Material Cause – The four elements: earth, air, fire & water.
Because these four are only fundamental forms of the single type of matter, they cannot be related to any idea of ‘elements’ as understood by modern science – they could be transmuted into each other. Different substances, although composed of matter would have different properties due to the differing amounts of the qualities of form and spirit. Thus a lump of lead is made of the same type of matter (fundamental form) as a lump of gold, but has a different aggregation of constituents. Neither lead nor gold would contain much spirit – not as much as air, say, and certainly not as much as God, who is purely spiritual. ( ALCHEMY )

Final Cause – Holy Spirit

All other is ‘natural’ – underwritten by God in maintaining the laws of nature without recourse to the supernatural.
Science was the method for investigating the world. It involved carrying out careful experiments, with nature as the ultimate arbiter of which theories were right and which were wrong.

Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253) Bishop of Lincoln (Robert ‘Bighead’) – neo-platonic reading of Genesis – emanation of God’s goodness, like light, begins creation. Light is thus a vehicle of creation and likewise knowledge (hence ‘illumination’), a dimensionless point of matter with a dimensionless point of light superimposed upon it (dimensions are created by God). Spherical radiation of light carries matter with it until it is dissipated. Led to studies of optical phenomena (rainbow, refraction, reflection).

stained glass window depicting Robert Grosseteste (created 1896)

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PARACELSUS (1493-1541)

Europe – early sixteenth century

‘Added salt to the mercury/sulfur diad, making a trinity to match the holy trinity’

picture of philippus aureolus theophrastus_paracelsus


Elaborating his writings with occult mystery, Theophrastus von Hohenheim renamed himself Paracelsus and helped to reform medicine by making it chemical.
Many of his ideas were erroneous and his writings were deliberately obscure; he insisted that the ‘doctrine of signatures’ could reveal efficacious drugs for different organs. Proclaiming that specific therapies could counter a particular disease was a radically different approach to the Aristotelian attempts to rebalance an individual’s internal humors.

Paracelsus extended the ‘fundamental qualities’ of the four Aristotelian elements by adding a third ‘hydrostatic principle’ to the diad of J’BIR IHBIN AYAM – saying the material manifestation of the ancient elements ( ‘…everything that lies in the four elements’ ) may be reduced to mercury, sulfur and salt.

The first distillate of an organic substance would be the thin, volatile ‘mercury’, which acted in favour of youth and life while next came the ‘sulfur’, acting in favour of growth and increase. Finally, the dry mass left behind was the ‘salt’. The concept of these three principles was considered a slight advance upon that of the four elements.

These are not the same things as we recognize today, nor elements in their own right; the first two were components of metals, salt was a principle common to all living things.

The Royal physicians of Elizabeth I of England and Henry IV of France assimilated and adapted Paracelsus’s ideas and although his theories lost credibility, his chemical remedies entered mainstream medicine.

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1621 – Brussels, Belgium



‘There are gases other than air’

Van Helmont coined the term ‘gas’.

He hypothesised that the proof that matter is made entirely of water was provided by his experiment of growing a tree-shoot in a weighed quantity of soil and finding that the weight of the tree increased by over a thousand fold whilst that of the soil decreased only slightly. He failed to consider the contribution of the air.

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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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1789 – France

‘In a chemical reaction, the total mass of the reacting substances is equal to the total mass of the products formed’

Mass is neither created nor destroyed in a chemical change.

Lavoisier’s Table of Elements

Lavoisier’s Table of Elements

Antoine Lavoisier made the first list of the elements, established the idea of conservation of mass and discovered the true nature of burning and the role of oxygen. Lavoisier continued the work of ROBERT BOYLE. He radically reformed the concept of chemistry and killed off the ARISTOTLEIAN concepts of elemental matter. Lavoisier realised that every substance can exist in three phases – solid, liquid and gas – and proved that water and air are not elements, as had been believed for centuries, but chemical compounds. He thus helped to provide a foundation for DALTON’s atomic theory. He opened the way to the idea that air not only had mass but may be a mixture of gases.

Lavoisier was instrumental in disproving the phlogiston theory, a widely held view that when substances burn they give off ‘phlogiston’, a weightless substance. The phlogiston debate owed much to ALCHEMY and said that anything burnable contained a special ‘active’ substance called phlogiston that dissolved into the air when it burned. Therefore, anything that burned must become lighter because it loses phlogiston. This had become the scientific orthodoxy.

By carefully weighing substances before and after burning, Lavoisier showed that combustion was a chemical reaction in which a fuel combined with oxygen.

He burned a piece of tin inside a sealed container and showed that it became heavier after burning, while the air became lighter.
While the overall weight of the vessel remained the same during Lavoisier’s experiments – for example when burning tin, phosphorus or sulphur in a sealed container – the solids being heated could in fact gain mass. There was no change in total mass as substances were simply changing places.
It became apparent that rather than losing something (phlogiston) to the air, the tin was taking something from it. The explanation was that the weight gain was caused by combination of the solid with the air trapped in the container.

Full length picture of LAVOISIER


After meeting JOSEPH PRIESTLY in Paris, Lavoisier realised that Priestley’s ‘dephlogisticated air’ was not only the gas from the atmosphere that was combining with the matter but, moreover, it was actually essential for combustion. He renamed it ‘oxygen’ (‘acid producer’ in Greek) from the mistaken belief that the element was evident in the make up of all acids. He also noted the existence of the other main component of air, the inert gas nitrogen that he named ‘azote’.

Lavoisier’s wife Marie-Anne Pierrette assisted him in much of his experimental work and illustrated his book, Traite Elementaire de Chimie (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry). The text defined a chemical element, saying that it was any substance that could not be analysed further. With this definition he compiled a list of the then known elements, which founded the naming process for chemical compounds. Lavoisier’s list contained 23 ‘elements’. Many turned out not to be elements at all, but the list included sulphur, mercury, iron and zinc, silver and gold. Lavoisier’s name is still used in the title of the modern chemical naming system.
It took John Dalton to connect the concept of elements with the concept of atoms. Dalton noticed that when elements combined to make a compound, they always did so in fixed proportions.

During the French revolution, Lavoisier was guillotined.

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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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1823 – Germany

‘The spectroscope’

A significant improvement on the apparatus used by Newton. Sunlight, instead of passing through a pinhole before striking a prism, is passed through a long thin slit in a metal plate. This creates a long ribbon-like spectrum, which may be scanned from end to end with a microscope.

image of the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum showing a series of dark fraunhofer lines

Cutting across the ribbon of rainbow colours are thin black lines. The lines are present even when a diffraction grating is used instead of a prism, proving that the lines are not produced by the material of a prism, but are inherent in sunlight.

An equivalent way of describing colours is as light waves of different sizes.
The wavelength of light is fantastically small, on average about a thousandth of a millimeter, with the wavelength of red light being about twice as long as that of blue light.

Fraunhofer’s black lines correspond to missing wavelengths of light.

By 1823 Fraunhofer had measured the positions of 574 spectral lines, labeling the most prominent ones with the letters of the alphabet. The lines labeled with the letters ‘H’ and ‘K’ correspond to light at a wavelength of 0.3968 thousandths of a millimeter and 0.3933 thousandths of a millimeter, respectively. The lines are present in the spectrum of light from stars, usually in different combinations.

Fraunhofer died early at the age of 39 and it was left to the German GUSTAV KIRCHOFF to make the breakthrough that explained their significance.

Astronomers today know the wavelengths of more than 25,000 ‘Fraunhofer lines’.

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1840 – Sweden

‘An element can exist in two or more forms with different properties’

The various forms are known as allotropes. Graphite, diamond and buckyballs are three crystalline allotropes of carbon.

Berzelius contributed more than just allotropes to chemistry. When DALTON revived the idea of the atom as the unit of matter, he used circular symbols to represent atoms. Berzelius discarded Dalton’s cumbersome system and in its place introduced a rational system of chemical shorthand.

He declared ‘I shall take as the chemical sign the initial letter of the Latin name of each element. If the first two letters be common to two elements I shall use both the initial letter and the first letter they have not in common’.

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1852 – England

‘The capacity of a given element to combine with other elements to form compounds is determined by the number of chemical bonds that element can form with other elements’

This ‘combining power’ is now termed valency or valence.

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Valency is the number of electrons an atom of an element must lose or gain, either completely or by sharing, in order to form a compound. This leaves the atom with the stable electronic configuration of a noble gas (that is a completely full outer shell).
For example, in H2O, hydrogen has a valency of +1 (H+) and Oxygen -2 (O-2). Two hydrogen atoms lose one electron each; one oxygen atom gains these two electrons.

Every atom has a fixed number of bonds that it can form, and to be stable all of these must be employed. If a hydrogen atom bonds to another hydrogen atom, then the bonds on each atom will be fully used in forming H2, a molecule of hydrogen. The same can occur between two atoms of oxygen.
Alternatively, the two bonds on oxygen could be occupied by the bonds on two hydrogen atoms, forming water, H2O.
Frankland understood that only molecules in which atoms had all of their bonds occupied were stable. Most elements have a fixed valency, although some have more than one. The numerical values of valences represent the charge on the ion.

Lone pair shapes

Lone pair shapes

The concept of valence was further developed by FRIEDRICH AUGUST KEKULE who decided that the valence of carbon must be four which allowed carbon to form into chains of atoms or link into closed, six-atom rings. In the simplest such molecule, three of each carbon’s bonds are used to keep the ring together and the remaining bond on each carbon binds to a hydrogen atom. The resulting molecule of benzene contains six atoms of carbon and six atoms of hydrogen.

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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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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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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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1914 – Manchester, England

‘Moseley’s law – the principle outlining the link between the X-ray frequency of an element and its atomic number’

ca. 1910s --- Physicist Henry Gwyn Jeffreys MOSELEY --- Library Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS


Working with ERNEST RUTHERFORD’s team in Manchester trying to better understand radiation, particularly of radium, Moseley became interested in X-rays and learning new techniques to measure their frequencies.
A technique had been devised using crystals to diffract the emitted radiation, which had a wavelength specific to the element being experimented upon.

In 1913, Moseley recorded the frequencies of the X-ray spectra of over thirty metallic elements and deduced that the frequencies of the radiation emitted were related to the squares of certain incremental whole numbers. These integers were indicative of the atomic number of the element, and its position in the periodic table. This number was the same as the positive charge of the nucleus of the atom (and by implication also the number of electrons with corresponding negative charge).

By uniting the charge in the nucleus with an atomic number, a vital link had been found between the physical atomic make up of an element and its chemical properties, as indicated by where it sits in the periodic table.
This meant that the properties of an element could now be considered in terms of atomic number rather than atomic weight, as had previously been the case – certain inconsistencies in the MENDELEEV version of the periodic table could be ironed out. In addition, the atomic numbers and weights of several missing elements could be predicted and other properties deduced from their expected position in the table.

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1934 – UK

‘Hydrogen has three isotopes: hydrogen-1 (ordinary hydrogen: one proton), hydrogen-2 (deuterium: one proton, one neutron) and hydrogen-3 (tritium: one proton, two neutrons)’

They each have one single proton (z = 1), but differ in the number of their neutrons. Hydrogen has no neutron, deuterium has one, and tritium has two neutrons. The isotopes of hydrogen have, respectively, mass numbers of one, two, and three. Their nuclear symbols are therefore 1H, 2H, and 3H. The atoms of these isotopes have one electron to balance the charge of the one proton. Since chemistry depends on the interactions of protons with electrons, the chemical properties of the isotopes are nearly the same.


The lightest rare gas, helium, exists in nature in two forms – two isotopes

The usual form is represented as 4He, where the figure 4 stands for the number of nucleons in the atomic nucleus (two protons and two neutrons). In the unusual form, 3He, the atomic nucleus has only one neutron, so it is lighter. In helium that occurs naturally the heavier isotope is more frequent than the lighter one by a factor of about 10 million. That is why it is only in the last 50 years that it has been possible to produce large amounts of 3He, at nuclear power stations, for example. At normal temperatures the gases of the two isotopes differ only in their atomic weights.

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OTTO HAHN (Germany 1879-1968) LEIS MEITNER (Austria 1878-1968) FRITZ STRASSMANN (Germany 1902-1980)

1938 – Germany

‘Nuclear Fission. The breaking up of the nucleus of a heavy atom into two or more lighter atoms. Energy is released during the process’

A reinterpretation of the results of the mid 1930s neutron-bombarding experiments of ENRICO FERMI with uranium offered an alternative explanation to Fermi’s own idea that the uranium had transmuted into new heavier elements. The three German scientists offered the explanation that the uranium nucleus had in fact been broken down into a number of smaller nuclei

with the release of potentially huge amounts of energy under the rules of Einstein’s formula E = mc2.


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HANS BETHE (1906-2005)

1938 – USA

‘Energy in stars is produced by hydrogen fusion reactions’

In nuclear fusion the nuclei of light atoms combine at very high temperatures and release enormous amounts of energy that is radiated from the surface of the star as heat and light.

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An ordinary star is one of the simplest entities in nature; it is a sphere of gas that is by mass 73 percent hydrogen, 25 percent helium and 2 percent other elements. The temperature in the centre is high enough to fuse four nuclei of hydrogen together to form one helium nucleus.

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EDWIN McMILLAN (1907- 90) GLENN SEABORG (1912- 99)

1940 – USA

‘Elements heavier than uranium in the periodic table (transuranium elements) are made artificially. Uranium (U, atomic number 92) is the heaviest element known to exist naturally in detectable amounts on the Earth’

In 1933 ENRICO FERMI showed that the nucleus of most elements would absorb a neutron.
In 1940 McMillan, a nuclear physicist, produced and identified the first artificial element, neptunium (Np, 93). In 1943 Seaborg, a chemist, succeeded in creating plutonium (Pu, 94).

So far more than 20 synthetic elements have been created. All are unstable, decaying with half-lives ranging from a year to a few milliseconds.
At least thirteen transuranium elements have been named after scientists:-
curium (Cm, 96: Marie and Pierre Curie [1944]), einsteinium (Es, 99: Albert Einstein [1952]), fermium (Fm, 100: Enrico Fermi [1952]), mendelevium (Md, 101: Dmitri Mendeleev [1955]), nobelium (No, 102: Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel (1833-96), known for his bequest for the foundation of the Nobel Prizes [1956]), lawrencium (Lr, 103: Ernest O. Lawrence, a physicist best known for development of the cyclotron [1961]), rutherfordium (Rf, 104: Ernest Rutherford [1968]), seaborgium (Sg, 106: Glenn Seaborg [1974]), bohrium (Bh, 107: Niels Bohr [1981]), meitnerium (Mt, 109: Lise Meitner [1982]); roentgenium (Rg, 111: named after Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was first created in 1994 by the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research near Darmstadt, Germany [1994]), copernicium (Cn, 112: named after astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus [1996]), flerovium (Fl, 114: named after Soviet physicist Georgy Flyorov [2012]).

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