Atomic theory in antiquity, Science

Atomic theory in antiquity:

The oldest of  Indian philosophical systems was Samkhya. The system envisaged that everything except consciousness evolved out of primaeval matter. According to this philosophy, consciousness, inert mass and energy were three forms of  interdependent and inter-related existence. In the process of evolution, matter could be neither created nor destroyed and the sum total of all the three, mass, energy and consciousness, remained the same. The redistribution of mass and energy gave rise to all the diversity of  the material world, the plants and the animals. Matter was re'cognisable through its five qualities-smell, taste, touch, colour and sound,  corresponding to the five senses. There were five forms of matter-earth, water, fire, air and empty space. A parallel to this theory, but possibly of a much  later origin (about 600 B.C.), was the materialistic cosmogony of Thales and others  in Greece. Thales  formulated the idea that everything originally came from water, and then earth, air and living  things separated out. To earth and air, mist and fire were added to be called elements from which other substances were made, like words are made from letters. These elements,  as in the case of Samkhya, had to fulfil two incompatible functions. On the one hand, they stood for actyal observed phenomenon, such as wind, flood, storm etc., while on the other hand they stood for qualities such as hot, cold, wet, dry, light, heavy etc. The distinct contribution of Samkhya as well as the Greek school of  thought was that they had set up a picture of how the universe had come into being and how things happened, without the intervention of gods and a predetermined design. The weakness of these ideas lay in  their vagueness and their purely descriptive character. By themselves, these ideas could lead nowhere, nothing concrete could be done with them and there was no practical application. However, with all their shortcomings, these thoughts represent man's  first stirrings  to search for his origins  and that of  the universe. A very different way to understand the nature of matter was to stipulate the existence  of atoms. Atoms were thought of as the fundamental building blocks of observed substances. A particular combination of atoms imparted properties and qualities  to substances. The Indian Vaisesika  system, the well known proponent of which was Kanada (about 600 B.C.),  considered the smallest particles as dimensionless mathematical points. These points possessed potential quality of  the four elements, earth, water, fire and air, on the basis of which, they were divided into four categories. At  least six atoms of  the same category  joined together, with the space  in between filled by empty space,  to form a complex atom which is analogous to a chemical element. The problem of different,  heterogeneous atoms  joining  together was overcome by  the Jainas. Jainas said that when two heterogeneous atoms  joined  together, the combination gave rise to a new body. The mechanism of joining was by mutual attraction, one positive, the other negative. All changes  in qualities  of compounds were explained by  the nature of their mutual attraction. While the above shows a high level of intellectual activity,  the limitations lay in the abstraction. The philosophers had no hesitation at all in putting together obviously contradictory ideas in their abstractions. For example,  in their cosmogonic system they included things they observed in the material world alongwith things they did not observe, or things they learned from religious  texts, or things which had no material basis. Thus,  the Jainas  brought in karma and soul within their otherwise materialistic system; and the Vaisesikas  formulated that atoms were set in motion by adrista, i.e  performance in the previous life. The Greek atomists were, curiously enough,  free from these distortions  such as  ideas of soul, adrista or karma propounded by Indianatomists. Democritus (about  o.B.c.)  imagined  the universe to be made out of small innumerable indivisible particles moving in the void of  empty space. The atoms were unalterable. They were supposed  to be  of various geometricalforms to explain their capacity for combining to form all the different things in  the world. Their movement accounted for all visible change. This atomic theory avoided appeal to pre-ordained harmonies. i.e.. it did not say that the universe was static, where things worked according  to a predetermined design. Instead, it presented a dynamic univerie where things were not static, but were changing. In  this senseit remained a heresy, as it challenged the established ideas of Plato and Aristotle. We cannot consider the Greek or Indian atomism as a part of  scientific ideas, in  spite of its brilliance. No conclusions could be drawn from it which could be practically verified. However, we cannot deny that Greek atomism. with  its inherent materialism and reasonableness did influence  the atomism of Gassendi (1  592- 1655),  Newton  (  1642-  1727) and through them that of Dalton ( 1766-  1844),  2000 years later.

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