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It’s the first Friday of the month, time for another installment about the history of atom theory by award-winning physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman. Today, we meet a 17th-century English duchess so fascinated by atoms, she wrote poems about them. Lots of poems. – Kim

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanSmall Atomes of themselves a World may make,
As being subtle, and of every shape:
And as they dance about, fit places finde,
Such Formes as best agree, make every kinde.
For when we build a house of Bricke, and Stone,
We lay them even, every one by one:
And when we finde a gap that’s big, or small,
We seeke out Stones, to fit that place withall.
For when not fit, too big, or little be,
They fall away, and cannot stay we see.
So Atomes, as they dance, finde places fit,
They there remaine, lye close, and fast will sticke.
Those that unfit, the rest that rove about,
Do never leave, untill they thrust them out.
Thus by their severall Motions, and their Formes,
As severall work-men serve each others turnes.
And thus, by chance, may a New World create:
Or else predestined to worke my Fate.

Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish (public domain image via Wikipedia)

This poem, “A World made by Atomes,” is one of about 50 published in 1653 by Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), the duchess of Newcastle.  The full set of Cavendish’s Atomic Poems is available from the Emory Women Writers Resource Project. The titles of these poems range over topics such as “The weight of Atomes,” “The difference of Atomes and Motion, in youth and age” and even “All sharpe Atomes do run to the Center, and those that settle not, by reason of the straitnesse of the Place, flye out to the Circumference. Sharpe Atomes to the Center, make a Sun.” Yes, that last one is the title of a 14-line poem.

Margaret Lucas was a member of the queen’s court when the Civil War in England forced the royalty to flee to Paris.  There, she met and married William Cavendish.  William and his brother Charles were patrons of the sciences and interacted with many of the intellectuals of the day.  Thus, Lady Margaret had the opportunity to discuss issues of science with people such as René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi, whom we discussed in the previous post and who were part of the Newcastle Circle.

The Newcastle Circle was no longer active once the English members could return to their homeland in the late 1640s. Margaret and her brother-in-law returned to England in 1651. In 1653, Margaret published two volumes of poems – Poems and Fancie and Philosophical Fancies, both of which include poems about atomsAbout this latter volume, Robert Kargon states, “she expounded an atomism at once so extreme and so fanciful that she shocked the enemies of atomism and embarrassed its friends.”

Her model had four types of atoms – fire, air, earth, and water.  The part is not different from the Greek philosophers.  However, she also assigned shapes to each of these atoms.  For example,

The Square flat Atomes, as dull Earth appeare,
The Atomes Round do make the Water cleere.
The Long streight Atomes like to Arrowes fly,
Mount next the points, and make the Aiery Skie;
The Sharpest Atomes do into Fire turne.
(First stanza of “The foure principall Figur’d Atomes make the foure Elements, as Square, Round, Long, and Sharpe”)

That is: air atoms were long, straight and hollow with a vacuum inside.  Therefore they were soft.  Going far beyond many of the Greeks, Margaret ascribed all types of health and sickness to atoms. In fact much illness was caused by atoms disagreeing, or fighting, with each other.  For example,

When sicke the Body is, and well by fits,
Atomes are fighting, but none the better gets.
If they agree, then Health returnes againe,
And so shall live as long as Peace remaine.
(“What Atomes cause Sicknesse”)

Thus, Lady Margaret’s atoms had free will and knowledge which got them (and us) into trouble.

Detail from from frontispiece

Detail from from frontispiece for several of her books in the 1650s and 1660s (public domain image via Wikipedia)

While she may have embarrassed other proponents of atoms, one of her contributions was to bring the ideas about the constituents of matter such as those of Descartes and Gassendi from the Continent to England.  At the same time, she reopened some of the issues related to atomism and atheism. Some historians think that she was an atheist and stated so in some of her writings while others feel that she was quite pious and her statements about atheism are misunderstood.

Philosophical Fancies was published about eight months after Poems and Fancies.  From the quotation above, we can see that Kargon thinks that she continued to believe in atoms although perhaps in a rather unorthodox way.  Others have stated that she wrote the poems in Philosophical Fancies to begin a renunciation of her belief in atoms.  For example, a statement on the Emory Women’s Writers Resource Project notes, “By 1663, she had decided that if atoms were ‘Animated matter,’ they must have ‘Free will and Liberty.’ Thus, like human nations, they would always be at war and could never cooperate to create complex animals, vegetables and minerals: ‘And as for Atoms, after I had reasoned with my Self, I concluded that it was not probable, that the Universe and all the Creatures therein could be Created and Disposed by the Dancing and Wandering and Dusty motion of Atoms.’”

Title page of The Blazing World

Title page of The Blazing-World (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to works on natural philosophy (today called science), Margaret wrote other poems, essays, plays and The Blazing-World, a work which today is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel.  In all, she published about 21 volumes.

In 1667, Margaret requested that she be allowed to visit the Royal Society during one of its meetings.  The society had been formed five years earlier as a place where its (all male) members could share experiments.  The duchess of Newcastle was allowed to attend the May 23 meeting where she observed experiments such as the weighing of air and the use of a microscope.  However, Samuel Pepys stated that her dress and behavior made some of the Society Fellows “uneasy.”  She was not invited back, and women were first allowed to become Fellows of the Royal Society in 1945.

Overall it seems that the duchess of Newcastle had both positive and negative effects on the cause of atomism.  In the next post, we will look at some of the aftermath and how atoms finally started to be separated from atheism.


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

Rediscovering a Roman Poet – and Atom Theory – Centuries Later

Reconciling Atom Theory with Religion

Did Atom Theory Play a Role in Galileo’s Trouble with the Inquisition?

Did Gifted Scientist’s Belief in Atoms Led to His Obscurity?

Does Atom Theory Apply to the Earthly and the Divine?

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 four major awards — the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Oersted Medal (2014), 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 AAPT’s Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.