I’ve been reading John Gribbin’s In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. He casually mentions the atomic (or, rather, ‘atomistic’) theories of the ancients — in particular Democritus. Gribbin accuses historians of science and popular writers of attributing too much to Democritus, whose ideas about the world do not resemble modern physics. I’ve been consuming quite a bit of history of science and pop-physics lately and can’t say I’ve ever been given the impression that Democritus (or any ancient philosopher scientists) founded particle physics. The historians do credit the atomists — notably Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus — with being unusually modern in their science. But science is not just a body of knowledge; it is a methodfor discovering how the world works. It is the atomists’ approach to understanding the world that is unusually modern.
Rather than looking at the atomists in terms of modern particle physicists, compare them to the other ancient philosopher scientists. The Athenians generally shunned experimentation: though Aristotle is noted for his taxonomic observations, the Athenians were generally happiest with reason and rational thought, and were unaccomplished empiricists. Those in the Pythogorean tradition valued logic and mathematics, but they turned their study into a cult of mathematical superstitions in which the proles were defended from the subversive facts like irrational numbers and dodecahedrons. The approach to science taken by the atomists was one which valued both the rational (what Democritus called “legitimate thought”) and the empirical — though Democritus was aware of the limitations of the senses, and described the empirical as “bastard thought,” noting that it must be applied with care. By advocating an empirical and a reductionist approach, the atomists are the intellectual ancestors of the most exciting and productive modern sciences.
This approach to understanding the world was to a large extent forgotten. The Romans picked over the remains of the Athenians, and they synthesised that with Christianity to produce the received wisdom of a millennium and a half. Religion ascended and the endarkenment closed in. The power of science was rediscovered, eventually, and began once again to free people from superstition. But as Carl Sagan asks: where might humankind be today had it never been forgotten?