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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Newton’s Epicurean Theory of Structure of Matter

Newton's portrait by Godfrey Kneller (1702)
Isaac Newton was influenced by the Epicurean theory of atomism, which he discovered mainly in the works of Pierre Gassendi. But he also read Lucretius’s De rerum natura directly. Here’s an excerpt from Optics in which Newton is talking about the elementary particles from which the world is created:
It seems probable to me that God, in the beginning, formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles, of such sizes and figures, and with such other properties, and in such proportions to space, as most conduced to the end for which He formed them; and that these primitive particles, being solids, are incomparably harder than any porous bodies compounded of them, even so very hard as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God had made one in the first creation. While the particles continue entire, they may compose bodies of one and the same nature and texture in all ages: but should they wear away or break in pieces, the nature of things depending on them would be changed.
Newton followed Gassendi in fusing the Epicurean or Lucretian theory of atoms with the Christian doctrine. In Gassendi's atomic model there is a rejection of the basic principles of Epicurus—that nothing is created out of nothing and that God has no role to play in creation of the universe. Gassendi asserts that God created the universe, the void, and the atoms from nothing, but he supports the Epicurean theory of everything being created through the interactions between atoms. Newton admits this view of atoms in his ontology.

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