Microcosmology: Atom In Jain Philosophy & Modern Science: [1.1.3] Atom in Modern Science - Ancient Development - Western Science - Cartesian Division

Published: 30.05.2007
Updated: 06.08.2008

Further development of Western science came after renaissance, when the influence of the church was greatly diminished. In the late 15th century, experiments were undertaken to test speculative ideas. Later on, with the development of mathematics, proper scientific theories were formed and expressed in mathematical formulae. Galileo was the first to combine empirical knowledge with mathematics and is considered as the father of modern science.

In the 17th century, Rene Descartes' views led to an extreme formulation of the spirit/matter dualism, and are known as 'Cartesian division of matter and mind'. This resulted in viewing the material world as a huge machine and Sir Isaac Newton's 'Laws of Mechanics' formed the foundation of classical physics. The mechanistic Newtonian model of the universe dominated all scientific thought for nearly three centuries. Thus, the Cartesian division and the mechanistic world-view were extremely successful in the development of classical physics and technology.

After this short survey of development of theory of atom, let us compare our modern views on the atom with the ancient development. Historically the word 'atom' in modern physics and chemistry was referred to the wrong object, during the revival of science in the seventeenth century, since the smallest particles belonging to what is called a chemical element are still rather complicated systems of smaller units. These smaller units are now-a-days called elementary particles and it is obvious that if anything in modern physics should be compared with the atoms of Democritus, it should be the elementary particles like proton, neutron, electron, meson, etc.

Metaphysically, the atom of Democritus is rather an abstract piece of matter, since it is deprived of the qualities of colour, smell, taste, etc. which are explained by the motion and arrangement of atoms. But his atom has the primary quality of "Being" and of extension in space, shape and motion. It would have been difficult to speak about the atom, if latter qualities had also been taken away from it.

Elementary particle of modern science has also no colour, no smell, no taste, and in this respect resembles the atom of the Greek philosophy. Moreover, elementary particles of modern physics are as much abstract as the atom of Greeks. All atoms of Democritus consist of the same substance. The atoms of Democritus are eternal, indestructible units of matter. The elementary particles of modern physics are certainly not eternal and indestructible units of matter, and they can actually be transformed into each other. All particles are made of same substance: energy.

Carrying the comparison from metaphysical point of view to familiar objects, we now know that air is not a simple element as the ancients thought it to be but is a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, water vapour and other gases. Let us take another example illustrating differences between ancient and modern views on chemical transformations. We know that different metals are obtained by processing corresponding ores in furnaces at high temperatures. The ancient scientists believed that ores were made from the earth substance as other rocks. So, when they obtained strong shining substance from these ores, they explained the transformation by saying that a union of earth and fire formed the metal. The different qualities of different metals were accounted by saying that different proportions of earth and fire atoms went into their formation. Thus, gold contained more fire than iron.

Reasoning that if fire atoms were added to iron or copper, it would turn into gold, the alchemists of middle ages spent much time to make synthetic gold from cheaper metals. The fallacy of their theory and practice lay in their belief that metals were composite rather than elementary substances. The transformation of iron ore into metallic iron in the blast furnace is not due to a union of atoms as ancients believed, but quite the reverse. Most metallic ores are oxides and the process of making metal is the separation of oxygen atoms from the molecules of the oxide, leaving the atoms of pure metal. On the other hand the rust, which appears on the surface of iron objects due to moisture is not earth substance left behind after the escape of fire atoms from the iron substance but the formation of iron oxide resulting from the union of iron atoms and oxygen atoms from the water or air.

  • Thus, whereas, an ancient scientist would express the processing of iron ore by the formula:
    • Earth atom + fire atom-Iron atom and the rusting of iron by:
    • Iron-Earth (rust) + Fire
  • The modern chemist would express the same by:
    • Fe02 - Fe + 02
    • Fe + 02 - Fe02 (Fe-Ferrum (iron), O-Oxygen).

From the above discussion it is obvious that ancient concepts of the structure of matter and the nature of chemical transformations were basically correct. Their error lay in the misconception of what was composite and what was the elementary substance. In fact, none of the four elements listed by Empedocles is really elementary. Air is a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases; water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen; earth has a very complex composition and fire atoms do not exist at all. (As we have remarked earlier, the word fire can be replaced by energy but the idea of fire atoms itself was also partially revived in Quantum Theory of Light.)

There exist in nature 92 different chemical elements i.e. 92 different kinds of atoms. While some of these elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, etc., are rather abundant, some others such as lanthanum, cerium, etc. are very rare. In addition to 92 natural elements, modern science has succeeded in making several entirely new elements artificially. (The following elements have been artificially made.) Combining among themselves in various proportions, the atoms of these basic elements form the unlimited number of various substances, some simple and common such as water; others complex chemical materials such as sugar, starch, cellulose.

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  • Jain Vishva Barati Institute, Ladnun, India
  • Edited by Muni Mahendra Kumar
  • 3rd Edition 1995

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