About the Greek Concept of the Atom


Ancient Greek philosophers were the first to theorize about microstructure, or the idea that matter is made up of smaller pieces such as atoms. In general, early Greek theories connected the physical world with the spiritual world. By modern standards, these theories are vague, but for the time they were groundbreaking ideas. Known as atomists, these early philosophers helped pave the way for modern science.

Time Frame

  • Thales from Miletus was the first Greek atomist. He lived approximately 620 to 540 B.C. and believed that water was the basis of all life and everything was made of water. Thales's disciple, Anaximander, took the idea a step further, believing that there was not one basis of life, but a kind of vacuum called an apeiron that created all matter. Anaxagoras from Clazomenae was the first Greek to state that the world's matter did not change. He lived approximately 500 to 428 B.C., and coined the term nucleus, which he believed was a different base particle for each substance. Democritus from Abdera is Greece's foremost atomist. Living from 460 to 370 B.C., this is the golden age of early atomic theory.


  • Though Democritus carried atomic theory the farthest, his ideas are extrapolations and improvements on earlier Greek theories. The idea that matter did not change was around for a hundred years before Democritus was born. Though Greek atomic philosophy started with the basic elements, water, fire, earth, and air, many ancient Greeks believed there were tiny particles among life that were connected to the brain and soul and could not be detected by physical senses. Democritus continued this thought process by expanding the specifics of atoms.


  • Democritus coined the term atoms, which means indivisible in Greek. He believed atoms were the building block of nature, and could not be created or destroyed. He believed that all atoms were different in their structure, shape, and size. For instance, he believed that white objects were made of smooth atoms and black objects were made of rough atoms. Consistent with other Greek philosophers, Democritus believed that the soul had a physical form and was made of minute particles of air and heat. Later in his life, Democritus stated that density was a form of tightly packed atoms. He believed the universe was made up of the perpetual motion of atoms.


  • The philosopher Aristotle disagreed with Democritus on the point of atoms. Aristotle believed that the world could not consist of small particles because air did not fall to the ground as any object did when thrown into the air. Aristotle believed there were four basic elements: dryness, wetness, heat, and cold. He believed that those four elements worked in different combinations to form all other matter. Because of Aristotle's popularity, the theories of Democritus were overshadowed for many centuries.


  • Modern scientists, starting with Sir Isaac Newton, have proved Democritus mostly correct. Democritus theorized in a time when Greeks still believed in multiple gods directing their fates from Mount Olympus. The idea of a purely physical world was new and unorthodox view. After Democritus came Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, all of whom focused on the political, cultural, and spiritual aspects of philosophy more than what we would call modern science. Today, we know that space can exist without matter and that there are particles even smaller than the atom (neutrons, electrons, protons, and even nucleons and quarks). Science has come a long way in more than two thousand years since Democritus first proposed the idea of atoms.

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