Monday, August 16, 2010

Atoms do exist!

I am working on my public lecture for tomorrow night, "van der Waals: his legacy 100 years later," for the UQ Physics Museum, marking the centenary of his Nobel Prize.
Reading his Prize speech the following quote is particularly interesting:

in all my studies I was quite convinced of the real existence of molecules, that I never regarded them as a figment of my imagination, nor even as mere centres of force effects. I considered them to be the actual bodies.... We do not know the nature of a molecule consisting of a single chemical atom. It would be premature to seek to answer this question but to admit this ignorance in no way impairs the belief in its real existence. When I began my studies I had the feeling that I was almost alone in holding that view. And when, as occurred already in my 1873 treatise, I determined their number in one gram-mol, their size and the nature of their action, I was strengthened in my opinion, yet still there often arose within me the question whether in the final analysis a molecule is a figment of the imagination and the entire molecular theory too. And now I do not think it any exaggeration to state that the real existence of molecules is universally assumed by physicists. Many of those who opposed it most have ultimately been won over, and my theory may have been a contributory factor.

It easy for us to forget (and students to not fully appreciate) that there was a time when the existence of atoms and molecules was a contentious position.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if they'll be saying that about strings one day...