A 19th Century Chemist Reinvigorates the Atom After having sat dormant for more than two thousand years, atomic theory was finally brought into the modern age with the work of John Dalton.
Though the earliest atomic theory may have originated more than two thousand years ago with the Greek philosopher Democritus, the view was effectively killed with the seemingly superior ideas of Aristotle, and surely it seemed as if it would stay dead forever. Other Aristotelian views were questioned during the Renaissance period and beyond by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, but his theory that matter was made up of the “four elements” remained intact through it all.
The Atom Reborn
It was actually not until still another two hundred years after Isaac Newton that Aristotle’s view on the constitution of matter began to be questioned in any sort of a convincing matter, and it was then that the modern atomic theory finally began to gain popular acceptance, long after Democritus’ pre-atom atomic theory had been forgotten by all but the most avid scholars of scientific history (though he is still often referred to as “the father of atomic theory,” though one can argue that others, including the scientist about to be discussed, are more deserving).
English Chemist John Dalton
It was the English Chemist John Dalton (1766-1844) who in the early 19th century graced the world with the first attempt at a fully workable, pragmatic view of atomic theory. It was his clever and remarkable work with the pressures and weights of many different gases which led him to believe that their properties might in fact be dependent on the tiny little particles (atoms) – differing only in their weights – from which they were formed. Dalton went on to deduce that different types of atoms could potentially combine to form all of the various known elements.
Consequently, Dalton was even the first to make an attempt at creating a table of atomic weights (a rough one in 1803, then a better one in 1805) – a task which would be expanded upon to near perfection by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendelev more than sixty years later, resulting in a periodic table very similar to the one we should all be somewhat familiar with today.
In the end, John Dalton developed such important tenants of atomic theory as the fact that all atoms of a given element are identical in every way, that no two elements share any common atoms and that atoms (elements) can bind together to form compounds.
Dalton’s Noble, yet Imperfect Theory
There was one nearly fatal flaw in John Dalton’s logic regarding atomic theory, however.
In his list of atomic rules, Dalton made sure to add that these particles must, by definition, be indivisible – as the name “atom” in its original language suggested (for it means “uncuttable” in Greek). He stated that there could be nothing smaller than an atom, despite the fact that there was not yet (nor would there ever be in the future) any real evidence that this was the case. In his mind, he had found the most basic building blocks of the universe.
Of course Dalton turned out to be quite wrong about this, as most people have learned quite early in school. Of course, a scientist is only as good as the tools we have to work with, and Dalton certainly made great headway with the still rather primitive scientific tools at his disposal (and with a absolutely no previous work in order to compare his own to). Still, the appropriate thing to do from a scientific perspective would have been to make no assertions beyond what was readily evident via experimentation.
Still, perhaps it is the mark of a good scientist that John Dalton was willing to go out on a limb and make such a bold assertion in the first place. After all, he was questioning more than two thousand years of scientific dogma, perhaps he thought that having found the ultimate building blocks would serve him even better in posterity.
Surely, John Dalton couldn’t possibly have known what was in store for atomic theory. While he surely died relatively confident that his atoms did, in fact, exist, he could not possibly have foreseen the discovery of their structure, or their many parts, or the forces that bind them all together. He could never have guessed that the theory he played such an important role in would have led to the Large Hadron Collider – the largest, most expensive, particle accelerator in history which has been designed to probe the depths of atoms and their subatomic constituents. Surely, Mr. Dalton would be proud.