Isaac Newton and the atom

In the second edition of his Opticks, published in 1718, Isaac Newton explained matter in terms of atoms. In his view it seemed probable that in the beginning God made atoms, forming matter ‘in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles,’ with such sizes, shapes, properties and distribution as were most suitable for the divine purpose. These ‘primitive Particles’ made up ‘porous Bodies.’ The particles were so hard that they would never wear or break. What God made, ‘No ordinary Power’ could divide. If they wore away or broke, ‘the Nature of Things … would be changed.’

Drawing attention to this passage, Johnson and Wilson, in the Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, describe it as ‘one of the most influential pieces of writing in the history of science.’ Newton is paraphrasing arguments in Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book I, lines 540-598, and ‘fusing Lucretian doctrine with creationism and voluntarist theology.’

Monte Johnson and Catherine Wilson, ‘Lucretius and the History of Science’, in Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007, chap. 8 (pp. 131-148), at pp. 141-142. Isaac Newton, Opticks. Or, A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light, 2nd ed., with Additions, London, Royal Society, 1718, accessible online on the website of the Newton Project; the relevant passage is in Book III, towards the end of the book and the work. The first edition was published in 1704. On Newton cf. also the website of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge. On voluntarist theology cf. Mark Murphy, ‘Theological Voluntarism’, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2/7/2002, revised 8/1/2008.


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