For most of recorded history, no one accepted the existence atoms, even though Democritus, Lucretius and other ancient philosophers described them. Aristotle claimed matter was infinitely divisible and his view dominated for 2,000 years.
Imagine you lived 1,000 years ago. What evidence could you provide to attest to the existence of atoms? How could you combine simple observations and mathematical thinking to resolve the question, without any modern equipment?
Richard Feynman’s exact statement:
If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.
From “The Feynman Lectures on Physics,” 1964.
More videos from the Mathematical Impressions series.
Reprinted with permission from Simons Science News, an editorially-independent division of SimonsFoundation.org whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the computational, physical and life sciences.