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It’s the first Friday of the month, which means it’s time for the next installment of how atom theory evolved. Here, physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman talks about how three schools of Indian philosophy explained what things were made of.—Kim

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanAt about the same time that Democritus and others were developing some basic ideas of atoms in Greece, Indian philosophers were thinking about similar issues. As with the Greeks, the Indian philosophers were thinkers not experimentalists. So, they developed theories of fundamental objects by logic. They concluded that some fundamental building blocks—atoms—existed.

Three different schools of thought—Nyaya-Vaisesika, Jainist, and Buddhist—came to similar but slightly different conclusions.

One of the earliest philosophers (about 600 BCE) was Kanada, the founder of the Vaisesika School.  Atoms in this school of thought were indestructible and thus could not be divided into smaller objects.  They were so small that they could not be perceived by humans. Instead, the atoms combined, and it took a combination of at least three atoms to be apparent. Atoms of the four fundamental substances—earth, air, fire, and water—had other properties such as color, odor, flavor, and touch.  Earth and water also had weight.

So the system became rather complex as these atoms combined to create something that could be perceived. To make the system still more complex, atoms were associated with other components of human endeavors that are less easily observed. Thus, Kanada and his followers associated atoms with space, time, the soul, and thoughts.

The Buddhists stuck with just the basic four atoms—earth, fire, water, and air. Their atoms also could only be perceived in combinations. For them, the minimum number of atoms was seven or eight with one atom at the center and the rest surrounding it.

of Universe as per Jain cosmology

The Shape of Universe as per Jain cosmology in form of a cosmic man, from Samghayanarayana loose-leaf manuscript India, ca. 16th century (public domain image from Wikimedia Commons).

The Jains had a somewhat more complex view of atoms and is, perhaps, the closest to the modern view.  Their atoms were, once again, indivisible and indestructible. As with the Nyaya-Vaisesika views, the atoms of the Jains had properties such as color, flavor, and taste.

A connection with modern models is that atoms came in two opposing kinds, and these opposites attracted to make a combination of atoms. For example, humid atoms were attracted to dry atoms; rough atoms to smooth, etc. Any aggregate of two atoms would require a combination of opposites.  The system was somewhat like our present view of electrical charge where opposites attract. (Of course, some people think that model applies to some social interactions as well, but that idea cannot be explored with the laws of physics.)

The similarity of the early Indian views of matter with the Greek models have led some to wonder if communication occurred between the philosophers in these early civilizations. Could Democritus have talked with the followers of Kanada?

Of course, we have no way of knowing for certain. But the folks who study these issues carefully have not found any solid evidence that such communication occurred. It seems likely that the early models of the atom were developed independently at about the same time in history. (It might make a good historical fiction to speculate about what a meeting of Greek and Indian atomists would be like. But probably only a few physicists would be interested in reading it.)

For the most part, our modern views evolved from the Greeks, so next time we will start looking at further development of those ideas after the Romans.


What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.
Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms
The Poetry of Atoms

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received three major awards—the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and American Association of Physics Teachers’ Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.