Atom and aether in nineteenth-century physical science


This paper suggests that the cases made for atoms and the aether in nineteenth-century physical science were analogous, with the implication that the case for the atom was less than compelling, since there is no aether. It is argued that atoms did not play a productive role in nineteenth-century chemistry any more than the aether did in physics. Atoms and molecules did eventually find an indispensable home in chemistry but by the time that they did so they were different kinds of entities to those figuring in the speculations of those natural philosophers who were atomists. Advances in nineteenth-century chemistry were a precondition for rather than the result of the productive introduction of atoms into chemistry.

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  1. 1.

    For an account of Thomson’s experiments see Smith (2001).

  2. 2.

    For the distinction between Boyle’s mechanical philosophy and his experimental science see Chalmers (1993).

  3. 3.

    For a more detailed appraisal of the status of Dalton’s chemistry see Chalmers (2005).

  4. 4.

    Paul Needham (2004) shares my skepticism about the degree to which Dalton’s atomism was explanatory but goes further than I do to claim that the theory did not even explain the laws of proportion.

  5. 5.

    Chemical formulae and atomic weights were underdetermined by experiments on combining weights and volumes, which were compatible, for example, with a relative atomic weight of 8 for oxygen and a formula of HO for water. But the need to confront that problem was present whether or not one interpreted formulae in terms of atoms.

  6. 6.

    Cited in Brock (1967, p. 21).

  7. 7.

    Cannizzaro (1910, p. 42), in the famous paper of 1858 in which he used vapor density and specific heat measurements to fix relative atomic weights, was careful not to commit himself to the claim that rational formulae which distinguished the acidic from other hydrogen in organic acids represented arrangements of atoms in space, indicating that “without touching the disposition of the atoms within the molecule of acids, I only wish to indicate distinctly the part which is not changed in the transformation of the acid into its corresponding salts”.

  8. 8.

    See Needham (2002) for an English translation.

  9. 9.

    For details see Brock (1967, pp. 22–23).

  10. 10.

    As cited in Hunt (1991, p. 160).

  11. 11.

    For detail on the relationship between Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory and his mechanical aether models see Chalmers (1986); Chalmers (2001).

  12. 12.

    Ernst Mach was a possible exception. He subscribed to an undulatory theory of light but declined to hypothesize about an aether.


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Chalmers, A.F. Atom and aether in nineteenth-century physical science. Found Chem 10, 157–166 (2008).

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  • Atoms
  • Aether
  • Chemical formulae
  • Scientific realism