William Whewell (1794-1868)

Hypothesis of Atoms

excerpt from Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences vol. 1, 1840, pp. 406-7 [from Maurice Crosland, ed., The Science of Matter: a Historical Survey (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1971)]

So far the assumption of such atoms as we have spoken of serves to express those laws of chemical composition which we have referred to, it is a clear and useful generalization. But if the atomic theory be put forwards (and its author, Dr Dalton, appears to have put it forwards with such an intention,) as asserting that chemical elements are really composed of atoms, that is, of such particles not further divisible, we cannot avoid remarking that for such a conclusion, chemical research has not afforded, nor can afford, any satisfactory evidence whatever. The smallest observable quantities of ingredients, as well as the largest, combine according to the laws of proportions and equivalence which have been cited above. How are we to deduce from such facts any inference with regard to the existence of certain smallest possible particles? The theory, when dogmatically taught as a physical truth, asserts that all observable quantities of elements are composed of proportional numbers of particles which can no further be subdivided; but all which observation teaches us is, that if there be such particles, they are smaller than the smallest observable quantities. In chemical experiment, at least, there is not the slightest positive evidence for the existence of such atoms. The assumption of indivisible particles, smaller than the smallest observable, which combine, particle with particle, will explain the phenomena; but the assumption of particles bearing this proportion, but not possessing the property of indivisibility, will explain the phenomena at least equally well. The decision of the question, therefore, whether the atomic hypothesis be the proper way of conceiving the chemical combinations of substances, must depend, not upon chemical facts, but upon our conception of substance.

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