Editorial

By the time this issue of the magazine falls into your hands, the summer of `98 will be almost over, but I`ve just finished an excellent book that I can wholeheartedly recommend for late summer or fall vacation reading. The book is The Atom in the History of Human Thought, by Bernard Pullman (Oxford University Press, New York, 1998).

Editorial

The quest for the atom

By the time this issue of the magazine falls into your hands, the summer of `98 will be almost over, but I`ve just finished an excellent book that I can wholeheartedly recommend for late summer or fall vacation reading. The book is The Atom in the History of Human Thought, by Bernard Pullman (Oxford University Press, New York, 1998).

The late Bernard Pullman was a very distinguished professor of quantum chemistry at the Sorbonne in Paris. Professor Pullman`s original work was in French but the book is available here in English in a superb translation by Axel Reisinger, a research scientist with Sanders, a Lockheed Martin company, in Nashua, NH.

From ancient Greece to modern physics

The idea of the atom--the ultimate essence of physical reality--has been the focus of a quest that has engaged humanity for more than 25 centuries, claims Pullman. Although many scientists would date the "modern" theory of atomic physics from Max Planck`s discoveries in 1900 and Albert Einstein`s proposition, in 1905, that light is composed of particles that he called photons, Pullman reaches much farther back in history. A true intellectual, Pullman has no hesitation in delving into the works of Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Maimonides, Galileo and Descartes, Newton and Maxwell. Pullman not only gives accounts of virtually every major philosopher of Western civilization but he also makes erudite excursions into the Hindu and Arab worlds. He follows a logical progression of ideas, closing with the contributions of such outstanding nuclear physicists as Werner Heisenberg and Richard Feynman.

Living with atoms

Although Pullman claims to be only a scientist and not a philosopher or a man of religion, he is clearly a well-grounded historian of science or what used to be called "natural philosophy." He modestly notes that his only credential for writing the book is to have "long lived side by side with atoms." Not only has he lived with atoms but he is clearly well versed in ancient and modern philosophy.

Very few scientists can with ease demonstrate the links between the primordial substances described by ancient Greek philosophers--earth, water, fire, and air--and the continuing discoveries of modern quantum physics. Pullman does so in an entertaining and easy-to-read manner. And despite all the years of extensive scientific endeavor, Pullman admits that there are still many unanswered questions about the nature of the atom. "Asking questions presents no difficulty at all," says Pullman, "but extracting answers is another matter altogether."

As Pullman notes, it has taken 2500 years to go from the idea of the invisible and indivisible atom to one that is divisible and visible, from the corpuscular atom to the wave-particle atom, from empty and inert void to a vacuum that is filled and active, to learn to annihilate matter and materialize things out of a vacuum. "In the light of such lessons from the past, who knows what surprises are in store for the next 25 centuries?" Pullman asks. The reader of Professor Pullman`s wide-ranging book will be well prepared to understand the revelations still to come in quantum physics.

The endless pursuit of an elusive truth

Pullman readily admits that there is still much to discover about the atom. In his thoughtful closing "provisional epilogue," Pullman recounts how Charles Coulson, a former Oxford University professor of quantum chemistry, once received a letter that addressed him as "professor of phantom chemistry." The amusing blooper appealed to Coulson as it did to Pullman, who says "it evoked the endless pursuit of an elusive truth." Professor Pullman`s literate accounting of the endless pursuit of the elusive atom over the centuries makes for an extremely engrossing and entertaining book.

Jeffrey Bairstow

Grou¥Editorial Director

[email protected]

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