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Tuesday, February 07, 2006 

Invisible atoms and old texts

marcguyver has read stories about someone named Jesus in the bible and is frustrated (I think) because there are people that don't consider those words proof enough that that person lived. He asks another great question:
Lastly, have you ever seen an atom? And yet, if all of our abilities to actually see an atom (i.e. through an electron microscope) were destroyed, I'm guessing you'd still believe that atoms are real because of the 'testimony' or 'written record' of others who had seen them in the past; am I wrong?
I love this question.

Two guys were sitting around, postulating about the smallest possible particle that could exist. They called this concept the "atom", meaning "indivisible". What is the smallest piece of stone that can still be called a stone be like? How about the smallest part of this table leg, or the contents of this glass of wine? There wasn't an electron microscope in sight as this thought experiment was performed by Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus in 500 BC. They came up with a theory that it was the different sizes and shapes of these "atoms" that caused different physical properties such as "hard" or "liquid".

It turns out that their theory didn't hold up when examined using the scientific method. Other theories were proposed, and tested, and as early as 1897 there were insights that the "indivisible" atom had to be comprised of subatomic particles.

Ernst Ruska invented the electron microscope based on knowledge that electrons possess a wave aspect, magnetic fields could manipulate electrons, and that the shorter electron waves would magnify more than ordinary light waves. You couldn't happen to invent an electronic microscope without understanding electrons!

But even with this microscope could we not see an atom. That had to wait until Erwin Muller invented the Field ion microscope in approx. 1951.

How cool is that!

If we were to lose all our scientific knowledge, there we would be on square one with Democritus and Leucippus, postulating about things we can't see, and slowly performing experiments to understand (again) what it is that makes up our universe. If we were to lose all copies of the bible, no amount of sitting around postulating would re-create it. That is why I can believe in atoms though I can't see them, but not, by extension, the contents of a very old book.

A guy named Sir David Dalrymple once wondered about the preponderance of Scripture in early ancient writings after someone challenged him to collect together the entire New Testament from outside sources if all extant MSS were destroyed or lost by the 3rd Century.

His conclusion: "That questions roused my curiousity, and as I possessed all the existing works of the Father of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time i have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses."

Just thought I'd share that.

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  • I'm the freethoughtmom from New England. Welcome!
  • The word rational means having the ability to reason. Reasoning takes time. Giving yourself the space to think is practically a luxury in our society.

    My father is a logical engineer, my mother a caring nurturer. My handwriting with my dominate hand resembles that of my father, the other, my mother. I feel lucky to have both sides to draw from.
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