Science Diction: The Origin Of The Word 'Atom'

The British poet and alchemist Thomas Norton used the word "attoms" in his 1477 poem, The Ordinal of Alchemy. Historian Howard Markel explains how Norton came to use the word, and points out earlier philosophers who raised the concept of indivisible units of matter.

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Unidentified Man: The alphabet has only 26 letters. With these 26 magic symbols, however, millions of words are written every day.

IRA FLATOW, Host:

And that can only mean it's time for this month's episode of Science Diction, where we talk about the history of scientific words with my guest, Howard Markel. Dr. Markel is professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and director of the Center for the History of Medicine there. Welcome back.

HOWARD MARKEL: Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Hey, what's our word this month?

MARKEL: The word is atom.

FLATOW: A-T-O-M.

MARKEL: A-T-O-M. Not the guy Adam, but the concept, atom.

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FLATOW: Or in New York we'd spell it A-D-E-M here.

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MARKEL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Who first coined the word atom in the English language?

MARKEL: Well, in the English - before the English language, it's actually a Greek term. Now, there are some people who think that Indian Jainism clerics may have come up with the idea of indivisible units comprising matter. And you know, Sir Isaac Newton thought it was a Phoenician named Moses the Phoenician from the 13th century B.C., who we(ph) also link to the real Moses or the Moses of Charlton Heston fame.

But when it comes to the word atom, we have to go to ancient Greece of 400 B.C. And there was a brilliant philosopher named Democritus, and he proposed the Greek word atomos, which means uncuttable. And so as he explained, all matter was eventually reducible to discrete, small particles or atomos.

FLATOW: And Thomas Norton, he wrote a book called "Ordinal of Alchemy" in 1477.

MARKEL: Well, that's right. I mean, that whole difference, by the way, between Democritus and then Thomas Norton is a couple of thousand years is because the great experts of the day, the original groves of academe, were Plato and Aristotle, and they had a different theory. They thought that matter was divisible into air, fire, earth and water. So they didn't like his theory and that was worse than not getting tenure back then.

So it didn't come up until 1477, when a brilliant alchemist and poet named Thomas Norton - he was also a courtier for King Edward IV of England - came up with the word atoms in his poem "The Ordinal of Alchemy."

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Howard Markel about this week's word on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Howard, when did atom first enter the vernacular? We're going from the Greek, the English, things like that.

MARKEL: Well, it begins to catch on, you know, the late 17th to 19th century, the golden age of chemistry, and there were all these great natural philosophers - Boyle, la Vossier(ph), Priestly, and they're all obsessing about composition and the nature of matter. And so that brought them back to reconsider the atom.

And it was in 1803 when John Dalton published his atomic theory on indivisible elements and the periodic table of - the periodic chart of the table of elements, which we all carried around and memorized in high school days. And that kept scientists busy for decades.

But it was really the 1890s when scientists began looking at radioactive elements. Henri Becquerel and the Curies, and they started looking at - I love this - subatomic particles. First we say the atom is indivisible, but then we know there's protons, neutrons and electrons and so on, and then things kept going and going.

And of course most notoriously was the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We entered the atomic age, which is not only a scientific term, but it's also a whole era of popular culture, whether it's movies or science fiction or novels.

FLATOW: You know, we kept dicing the atom. As you say, we went to sub and then sub-subatomic. Do we need a new term?

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MARKEL: Well, we do. And I was thinking of, you know, that's still another episode of Science Diction when you go from protons, electrons, neutrons to quarks. And it's just so funny to call it - it's sort of like jumbo shrimp or, as Groucho Marx said, military intelligence. So the idea of subatomic particles is somewhat funny.

FLATOW: Yeah. Why did Plato and Aristotle have such an issue with poor Democritus's idea about atoms being the basic units of matter? What was so bad about that idea?

MARKEL: Well, it ran counter to their theory.

FLATOW: Yeah.

MARKEL: They were really these earth, wind, fire and water types of guys, and so they thought Democritus was a little bit too junior. Plato wanted to burn all of his books. He thought his work was so shoddy.

But, you know, there's a real humor to that. We're talking about it now. You know, several thousand years later we choose to remember Democritus, even though his idea of the atom is very different from modern concepts. But his ideas were missed by the leading lights of his day, Aristotle and Plato.

FLATOW: How difficult would it be to coin a new phrase for sub-subatomic? I mean, could we get one started? Do you have any suggestions?

MARKEL: For the whole genre?

FLATOW: Yeah. I mean, you're constantly saying sub-subatomic. Why - can't we just put something in different?

MARKEL: Well, you know, maybe if we kept to something Greek or Latin, it could be atomos obscura. But they're all rather obscure, aren't they? I think subatomic right now is really the best way, and we just bite our tongue as we say it.

FLATOW: Yeah. How do you find the words that you're interested in looking up these days? You have - do you do triage? Do you find things that are in, you know, in vogue or what should we be looking for, you know?

MARKEL: Well, I look for words everywhere because I read all the time.

FLATOW: Yeah.

MARKEL: And if any time a word comes up that's interesting, I think about it. You know, next month we'll probably review the word common. That's because I happen to drink at a coffee shop called Common Coffee. But it's also a great scientific term.

But if people want to send me in some words, I'd be delighted to look them up, and then you start with the Oxford English dictionary and work your way down, so to speak, into the archives.

FLATOW: Well, you know, there's a lot of talk about scanners around, you know. Everybody's talking about scanners at airports. Maybe the word scanner...

MARKEL: Well, I will look that up, Ira.

FLATOW: You know, something like that.

MARKEL: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: Or something that have to do - anything. Or we had - we have something on physics, particle physics, that's even - how do we capture these little subatomic - antimatter?

MARKEL: The antimatter...

FLATOW: We have antimatter.

MARKEL: Yeah.

FLATOW: We have anti - where does - anti has been around a while, too, I'm sure.

MARKEL: Yeah. Antimatter...

FLATOW: Is anti a Greek word?

MARKEL: You know, you catch me on the fly here. I suspect it is. And, of course, we have the term the anti-Christ, if you look at, you know, older literature, the idea of the opposite of something...

FLATOW: Right.

MARKEL: ... you want to look at.

FLATOW: Well, I'll take you off the hook and let you do your homework.

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MARKEL: Professors always prefer it that way before we go before an audience.

FLATOW: And we prefer that you get it right, so you don't have to come back and put a little asterisk...

MARKEL: That's good. That good.

FLATOW: Nice to have you, as always, Howard.

MARKEL: Thanks so much and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, Ira.

FLATOW: You too. Howard Markel. Dr. Markel, he's an MD and professor of history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also director of the Center for the History of Medicine there.

And as he says, if there is a word that you'd like us to look up for you and have Dr. Markel to talk about it, go to our website. It's sciencefriday.com, and leave us a suggestion there.

You can also go there and see our Video Pick of the Week that's up this week, at how Disney created Rapunzel's locks in their latest animated film. And we have a great little piece done there by our multimedia editor, Flora Lichtman, about how that works. Some - beautiful piece of video up there also.

Have a great week. We'll see you next week.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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