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JAMA 100 Years Ago
October 3, 2001

ARE ATOMS REAL ENTITIES?

Author Affiliations
 

JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA. 2001;286(13):1552. doi:10.1001/jama.286.13.1552

At the opening of the 71st annual session of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which met in Glasgow last September, President Rücker of the University of London devoted his address to an interesting discussion of the present atomic theory of the constitution of matter. Through the century just ended, a century of wonderful progress in chemical and physical knowledge, three grand conceptions have dominated the so-called physical sciences as distinct from the biological, 1, that matter is made up of separate particles—Dalton's fruitful and comprehensive theory of the existence of atoms; 2, that heat is due to movement among these particles, and 3, that there is an all-pervading subtle medium called ether. While these conceptions have grown in strength with each succeeding decade, they have not been blindly accepted without question. Especially during recent years have voices been raised against their universal acceptance, and the opinion has been expressed that the atomic theory and the theory of the existence of ether have served their purpose. It may be freely admitted that the view that matter is constituted by aggregations of separate particles has been useful in helping us to get some sort of understanding of the properties of matter in the past, but we are urged not to forget that these units are simply speculative and not objective and real. The terms "atoms" and "ether," useful and convenient fictions, answer the purpose of working drawings which though different from material reality yet help us to gain an insight into its arrangement and its properties, and to codify observed facts and laws. But the working model is probably very much unlike the real thing.

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