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The idea of the atom--the ultimate essence of physical reality, indivisible and eternal--has been the focus of a quest that has engaged humanity for 2,500 years. That quest is captured in The Atom in the History of Human Thought.
Here is a panoramic intellectual history that begins in ancient Greece, ranges across the entire span of Western philosophy and science, and ends with the first direct visual proof of the atom's existence, just ten years ago. Bernard Pullman deftly captures the richness and depth of this remarkable debate, giving us not only the ideas of philosophers, church leaders, and scientists, but also the historical and social context from which these thoughts evolved. We have marvelous accounts of the work of such thinkers as Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Maimonides, Galileo and Descartes, Newton and Einstein--indeed, virtually every major philosopher of Western civilization, with excursions into the Hindu and Arab world--all presented against the backdrop of history. But perhaps most fascinating is the gradual shift in the book from a philosophical and religious perspective to a scientific perspective, especially in the 19th century, as science begins to dominate how humanity understands the world. Thus a book that begins with pre-Socratic philosophers such as Democritus and Empedocles ends with nuclear physicists such as Werner Heisenberg and Richard Feynman, and with a very different world view.
Ably translated by Axel Reisinger, this is a vibrant look at humanity's search to understand the ultimate nature of physical reality, a quest that has spanned the entire course of Western civilization. What's the matter? This was no trivial question for Democritus, generally considered the father of the atom. Like his fellow philosophers in ancient Greece, he was gravely concerned with discovering the nature of the universe through reason and argument, and hence wanted to understand the basic composition of material things. His postulate, that there are minuscule, indivisible units of matter, was revolutionary and resisted by many scientists until the early 20th century.
The late Dr. Bernard Pullman, former professor of quantum chemistry at the Sorbonne, presents a challenging, broad-ranging history of this seemingly simple idea in The Atom in the History of Human Thought. The language is remarkably clear, thanks in part to the translation of Axel Reisinger; there are no awkward phrasings or unfamiliar idioms to puzzle the reader. Instead we are told the life story of an idea, one so basic to our modern understanding of the world as to seem almost obvious.
But, as Pullman shows us, it was not only resisted but actively suppressed for centuries. From the often-bizarre notions of the ancients (could the universe really be made only of water?) to the equally bizarre concepts of modern atomic theory (is your chair really composed almost entirely of empty space?), with occasional forays into the science of the Islamic and Hindu worlds, he shows many attempts to answer the most fundamental question in science and philosophy. With such a long and controversial history, it's little wonder that we still haven't set matter straight. --Rob Lightner
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