Some years ago, during a scientific discussion at the weekend residence of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, one of her senior Cabinet members asked the question: “These molecules you talk about: what exactly are they? If I put some into a box, will they still be there in 10 days— or 10 years—time?” That question revealed an astonishing ignorance of elementary science, namely, that all matter is made up of molecules—whether it is the wood of the box or the air inside it—and that molecules remain intact unless they are changed to other molecules by chemical reactions. Although the politician concerned was a well-educated man—the Fellow of an Oxford College, no less—he was obviously ignorant of scientific principles taught to every schoolchild. He had also forgotten that Democritus, a philosopher whose work must have been known to him, had postulated the molecular nature of matter and had coined the word atom some 2400 years ago, though it took 2300 more years to prove it.
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