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Here is the latest installment on the history of atom theory by physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman, and we are now at the cusp of the Renaissance, where political intrigue has left an unemployed former Vatican official searching for a good book to copy and sell to wealthy patrons. – Kim

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanIn the previous post I mentioned that some of the classical Greek works were preserved by “passing through” the Middle East. Because of strong scholarship in the Middle East while Europe was in the Dark Ages, these documents were translated into Arabic and later back into Latin. Some of the classical Greek and Roman intellectual works took another route. They lay dormant for centuries, usually in monastery libraries. Then, they were discovered by individuals who made an effort to find these materials. Roman poet Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), which includes description of atoms, was one such document.

Prior to the middle of the 15th century, documents were reproduced by individuals making one copy at a time. Much of this copying was done by monks, presumably because with no worldly temptations they had a lot of time available. Thus, only a limited number of any written work would be available. The number of documents was also limited by the lifetime and availability of the material on which books were written.

Parchment and papyrus could last only a few hundred years. Further, they were relatively rare, so sometimes a copyist would scrape ink off one manuscript because he or she wanted to reuse the parchment. If these were not sufficient destructions, insects and worms saw books as lunch. With all of this, it is amazing that any of the Greek and Roman manuscripts survived at all.


Poggio as depicted by Alfred Gudeman in the 1911 book Imagines Philogorum.

But they did. By the end of the 14th century book hunters were looking through libraries attempting to find classical works of philosophy and science. In the next few paragraphs I will briefly tell the story of Poggio Bracciolini, the man who rediscovered and disseminated Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. (Books have been written about Poggio, so this is description is very incomplete.)

Poggio’s family had rather modest means. So, when he entered adulthood and wished to move into the professional world, he needed something to get him started. That something was his handwriting. Because everything was copied by hand, a person with outstanding skills at writing was a valuable resource, one that could earn good money in Florence at the end of the 14th century. Poggio used his talents and the money he earned from them to become trained as a notary. Thus, he came to know influential and wealthy Florentines such as Niccolo Niccoli who had a strong interest in all things Greek and Roman and who will play a role later in this story.

A sample of Poggio's handwriting.

A sample of Poggio’s handwriting.

In 1403, Poggio decided to move to Rome where he joined the staff of the pope. The Vatican at this time was not a pleasant work environment. Poggio wrote a collection of stories that reflect some of what he heard about the activities of the pope’s staff in a book called Facetiae. Because this blog is family-friendly, I cannot include any of the stories here. In spite of the atmosphere in Rome, Poggio flourished and eventually rose to the rank of apostolic secretary, essentially the pope’s personal secretary.

In 1410, Poggio’s new boss, Baldassare Cossa, was elected pope and took the name John XXIII. However, others also claimed to be the pope. In 1414 a meeting was convened in Constance, Germany, to resolve the conflicting claims to the papacy. The end result was that John XXIII was disposed and imprisoned. His name was stricken from the official register of popes so that more than five centuries later another man, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, could again choose the name John XXIII.

De rerum natura manuscript

De rerum natura copied by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris for Pope Sixtus IV, Italy, 1483.

Poggio, thus, found himself in Germany and unemployed. So, he began searching the monasteries in the area for ancient books. In January 1417, Poggio entered a monastic library. He did not record its location, but historians think that it was in Fulda, Germany. There, he found a copy of Lucretius’s poem. Apparently, he was not allowed to remove the manuscript from the library.

Instead, he hired someone to make a copy for him. Poggio sent that copy to his longtime friend Niccolo Niccoli in Florence. Niccoli had copies made and kept them.  For a long time he did not return any version to Poggio. After 12 years, he finally sent a copy to Poggio and made copies available to others. Lucretius’ explanation of atoms and the philosophy of Epicurus were once again in circulation.
Over 50 copies from the 15th century still exist, so a large number must have been made. Shortly thereafter Gutenberg entered the scene and many more (printed) copies went into circulation.

How important this discovery and dissemination was to the development of ideas about matter is not completely clear. In his award-winning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern Stephen Greenblatt makes a case for Poggio’s discovery being the real beginning of the Renaissance. Others have, however, disputed this claim. (See for example, “Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters” by Jim Hinch or “The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt: A flawed but dazzling study of the origins of the Renaissance” by Colin Burrow.) Independent of how important Poggio’s work was to the intellectual development of Europe, without people such as he who meticulously scoured through libraries and copied old manuscripts, we would not likely have access today to many of the works of ancient thinkers.

With the Renaissance comes a more “modern” view of the scientific methods. Eventually those methods lead to a slow steady development of our ideas of atoms. In the next post we will start that story.

(All images are in the public domain via Wikiamedia Commons.)


What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.

Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Religion, Science Clashed over Atoms

Medieval Arabic Scholarship Might Have Preserved Scientific Knowledge

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.