[ExI] Chemists deserve more credit: Atoms, Einstein, and the Matthew Effect

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Thu Feb 18 01:48:10 UTC 2010

Some more non-controversial controversy for the list seems like a good idea.
I thought this article was interesting.

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Date: 18 February 2010 12:03
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 Metamodern (1 new item) Item 1 (02/17/10 23:41:52 UTC): Chemists deserve
more credit: Atoms, Einstein, and the Matthew
 [image: Cork cells, from Hooke’s
Johann Josef Loschmidt <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Josef_Loschmidt>
Chemist, atomic scientist

Chemists understood the atomic structure of molecules in the 1800s, yet many
say that Einstein established the existence of atoms in a paper on Brownian
motion, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brownian_motion> “Die von der
Molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wärme Gefordete Bewegung von in ruhenden
Flüssigkeiten Suspendierten Teilchen”, published in 1905.

This is perverse, and has seemed strange to me ever since I began reading
the history of organic chemistry. Chemists often don’t get the credit they
deserve, and this provides an outstanding example.

For years, I’ve read statements like this:

[Einstein] offered an experimental test for the theory of heat and proof of
the existence of atoms….
[“The Hundredth Anniversary of Einstein’s Annus

Perhaps this was so for physicists in thrall (or opposition) to the
philosophical ideas of another physicist, Ernst
had odd convictions about the relationship between primate eyes and
physical reality, and denied the reality of invisible atoms.

Confusion among physicists, however, gives reason for more (not less!)
respect for the chemists who had gotten the facts right long before, and in
more detail: that matter consists of atoms of distinct chemical elements,
that the atoms of different elements have specific ratios of mass, and that
molecules consist not only of groups of atoms, but of atoms linked by bonds
(“Verwandtschaftseinheiten”) to form specific structures.

When say “more detail”, I mean a *lot* more detail than merely inferring
that atoms exist. For example, organic chemists had deduced that carbon
atoms form four bonds, typically (but not always) directed tetrahedrally,
and that the resulting molecules can as a consequence have left- and
right-handed forms.

The chemists’ understanding of bonding had many non-trivial consequences.
For example, it made the atomic structure of benzene a problem, and made a
six-membered ring of atoms with alternating single and double bonds a
solution to that problem. Data regarding chemical derivatives of benzene
indicated a further problem, leading to the inference that the six bonds are
equivalent. Decades later, quantum mechanics provided the explanation.

The evidence for these detailed and interwoven facts about atoms included a
range of properties of gases, the compositions of compounds, the symmetric
and asymmetric shapes of crystals, the rotation of polarized light, and the
specific numbers of chemically distinct forms of molecules with related
structures and identical numbers of atoms.

And chemists not only understood many facts about atoms, they understood how
to make new molecular structures, pioneering the subtle methods of organic
synthesis that are today an integral part of the leading edge of atomically
precise nanotechnology.

All this atom-based knowledge and capability was in place, as I said, before
1900, courtesy of chemical research by scientists including Dalton, van ’t
Hoff, Kekulé, and Pasteur.
But was it really *knowledge?*

By “knowledge”, I don’t mean to imply that universal consensus had been
achieved at the time, or that knowledge can ever be philosphically and
absolutely certain, but I think the term fits:

A substantial community of scientists had a body of theory that explained a
wide range of phenomena, including the many facets of the kinetic theory of
gases and a host of chemical transformations, and more. That community of
scientists grew, and progressively elaborated this body of atom-based theory
and technology to up to the present day, and it was confirmed, explained,
and extended by physics along the way.

Should we deny that this constituted knowledge, brush it all aside, and
credit 20th century physics with establishing that atoms even exist? As I
said: perverse.
But what about *quantitative* knowledge?

There is a more modest claim for Einstein’s 1905 paper:

…the bridge between the microscopic and macroscopic world was built
by A. Einstein: his fundamental result expresses a macroscopic quantity —
the coefficient of diffusion — in terms of microscopic data (elementary
jumps of atoms or molecules).
[“One and a Half Centuries of Diffusion: Fick, Einstein, Before and

This claim for the primacy of physics also seem dubious. A German chemist,
Johann Josef Loschmidt, had already used macroscopic data to deduce the size
of molecules in a gas. He built this quantitative bridge in a paper, “Zur
Grösse der Luftmoleküle”, published in 1865.
I had overlooked Loschmidt’s accomplishment before today. I knew of
Einstein’s though, and of a phenomenon that the sociologists of science call
the Matthew Effect.<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_effect#Sociology_of_science>
*See also:*

   - A Map of Science <http://metamodern.com/2009/05/20/a-map-of-science/>
   - How to Learn About

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