God and the Atom by Victor Stenger: a very brief review

  • The theme of this book is to track the confirmation and development of the atomic theory from Leucippus through the discovery of the Higgs boson and to show how atoms and void have prevailed despite continuous opposition by religious and idealist thinkers. This is a lot to cover, and I, as a non-scientist, am interested in the topic mainly to try to understand how the ancient physics of Epicurus compares to modern physics.

    I see this book as a good reference book for someone interested in the subject. Stenger covers 2500 years of thought, so by it's nature as a 300 page book he can only give a cursory treatment to each step along the way. To do a deeper dive would require many volumes. It's reassuring to note that he supports Epicurus's physics. For an Epicurean well versed in physics, this book might be a pleasant review and provide material for further thought and discussion. Personally, I found the first two thirds or so to be relatively easy to grasp, the final third is quite complex and requires more serious study than I currently find necessary to devote to the subject. So while I got a lot out of reading the book, it left me less than satisfied at the end.

    Stenger is an experimental physicist as opposed to a theoretical physicist. As such, he emphasizes ideas confirmed by experimental observation and states that such ideas are the only valid ones, as opposed to unconfirmed theories.

    He cites the philosopher Andrew Pyle as laying out these “ideal central claims of atomism”:

    1. Indivisibles: particles of matter either conceptually indivisible or physically unsplittable.

    2. Void, vacuum, "Non-Being", or purely empty space in which the atoms are free to move.

    3. Reductionism: “the reducibility of the atomic model refers to the fact that the observations we make about matter, such as the wetness of water or the color of copper, and perhaps even human intelligence, can be reduced to the motions and interactions of elementary particles that themselves do not possess such properties.”

    4. Mechanism, which claims in effect that no body is ever moved except by an external impulse from another body.

    Here are some notable quotes from the book regarding the general theme:

    He begins his preface with this quote from Epicurus: “It is impossible for anyone to dispel his fear over the most important matters, if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but instead suspects something that happens in myth. Therefore, it is impossible to obtain unmitigated pleasure without natural science.”

    This book will make the case that atoms and the void indeed are all there is.”

    No one knows exactly how the original atomists arrived at their intuition. But observation must have played a role. No fact about the world has ever been discovered by pure thought alone.”

    He quotes Gaston Bachelard: “by virtue of the existence of dust, atomism was able to receive from the time of its inception an intuitive basis that is both permanent and richly evocative.”

    My basic position as an experimental physicist is that all we know about is what we observe with our senses and instruments. We describe these with models, sometimes called theories, but we haven't the faintest idea what is ‘really’ out there. But, does it matter? All we need to concern ourselves with is what we observe. If whatever is really out there produces no observable effect, then why should we worry about it?”

    “….the reduction of all we observe to the interaction of tiny bits of matter moving about mostly randomly in empty space is irreconcilable with the common belief that there must be something more to the universe we live in, that human thoughts and emotions cannot be simply the result of particles bouncing around. We will see how attempts to uncover evidence for immaterial ingredients or holistic forces in nature that cannot be reduced to the interactions of elementary particles have been a complete failure.”

    Today we often hear it said that, according to quantum mechanics, we can never have completely empty space, as particle-antiparticle pairs flit in and out of existence. While this is true, at any given instant a volume will contain these particle pairs with empty space in between. The basic atomic model remains part of quantum physics. The matter we observe on all scales is mostly empty space with tiny particles mostly randomly moving about constituting the visible universe and perhaps its invisible parts as well.”

    It remains possible that in some future, successful theory, the ultimate constituents or atoms of matter may not be treated as point-like (zero-dimensional) particles but strings (one-dimensional) or multidimensional “branes” (from “membranes”). Even if these models ultimately succeed (they haven't so far), the elementary structures will be so small that they will remain particulate in the eyes and instruments of experimenters for the foreseeable future. For my purposes, I have no need to bring in these speculations and will stick to what is already well established.”

  • Rather than attempt to outline the book or try to present any specific theories of physics, I’d like to attempt to relate current thinking as I understand it from this book to the Twelve Fundamentals of Nature in order to provide a platform for further discussion. Any mistakes are purely mine; I’m trying to figure this out as I go! If discussion follows, this might best be moved to the various forum threads under The Fundamentals of Nature; I’m listing them here to have them in one place for clarity.

    Twelve Fundamentals of Nature:

    1. Matter is uncreatable.

    In the 18th century, Antoine Lavoisier determined the law of conservation of mass. Einstein showed that this must be incorporated into the First Law of Thermodynamics (Law of Conservation of Energy), which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system. This is because mass can be created and destroyed by energy. If I understand it correctly, E=mc2 defines matter as a relationship of mass and energy. Thus matter is uncreatable.

    However, cosmologically, there seems to be some disagreement as to whether the universe came from nothing, as Stenger discusses in the following.

    From Chapter 6, Light and the Aether: “...the validity of the three great conservation laws of physics is testimony to a universe that is isolated from anything on the outside and looks just like it should look if it came from nothing.”

    From Chapter 12, Atoms and the Cosmos: “...as shown in 1970 by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, Einstein's general theory of relativity implies that the universe at its first moment of existence was a singularity, that is, an infinitesimal point in space of infinite energy density. This meant that not only was matter created at that moment, but so were space and time….

    “A finite, created universe conflicts with the teachings of the atomists that the universe is eternal and boundless. In chapter 1, Epicurus was quoted as saying, “The universe is without limit.” The big bang seemed to refute atheist atomism.

    “However, there was a fly in the ointment. General relativity is not a quantum theory and so does not apply to a region of space less than 1.616 × 10–35 meter in diameter, called the Planck length, named for the physicist Max Planck who... initiated the quantum revolution. Applying the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, it can be shown that it is fundamentally impossible to define a smaller distance or to make any measurements inside a region of that size. Basically, we can have no information about what is inside a sphere with a diameter equal to the Planck length. It is a region of maximal chaos.

    “The uncertainty principle also mandates that no time interval shorter than 5.391 × 10–43 second, called the Planck time, can be measured. Thus, our cosmological equations, derived from general relativity, can apply only for times greater than the Planck time and only for distances greater than the Planck length. Although their singularity proof was correct for the assumptions made, both Hawking and Penrose long ago agreed that it does not apply once quantum mechanics was taken into account, a fact most theologians... have conveniently ignored. In short, the origin of our universe was not a singularity and need not have been the beginning of time.”

    I understand this as meaning that the Big Bang is actually the point where our physics ends, and any theories as to the initial moment are purely speculation.

    Also from Chapter 12: “In one scenario, which I have discussed in previous books and has been worked out mathematically, our universe appears from an earlier one by a process known as quantum tunneling. For our purposes here, suffice it to say that nothing in our current knowledge of physics and cosmology requires us to conclude that the beginning of our universe was the beginning of space, time, and everything else that is.”

    Further: “….while the big bang was the beginning of our universe, it was not necessarily the beginning of all that is. Modern inflationary cosmology strongly suggests that other universes besides our own exist in what is called the multiverse. Because we have no observational evidence (yet) for other universes, I will not indulge in speculations about them, except to say that such speculations are based on well-established science and their ultimate empirical confirmation is not out of the realm of possibility. In any case, allow me to simply use the term multiverse to refer to all that is, even of it should turn out that our universe is all there is.”

    And: “So the real issue is not where our particular universe came from but where the multiverse came from. This question has an easy answer. …the multiverse is most likely eternal. Repeating myself, since it always was, it didn't have to come from anything.” This, to me, is speculation and just kicks the problem down the road. But I must confess my ignorance.

    2. Matter is indestructible.

    As in Fundamental 1, this is stated by the First Law of Thermodynamics.

    3. The universe consists of solid bodies and void.

    This invalidates the aether, the idea that the void is a medium of some sort in which things move. The wave motion of light was thought to be evidence of this ancient idea. However light was determined to be part of the electromagnetic field, a field being “a quantity that has a value, or set of values, for each point in space.” Further, light was determined to be particulate, composed of photons: little bundles of energy which are bits of matter. Therefore light consists of particles in a field, not waves moving in the aether.

    4. Solid bodies are either compounds or simple.

    Not much to say here: atoms combine to make molecules, etc.

    5. The multitude of atoms is infinite.

    This is a cosmological question; I’m not aware of the theory. However if the universe is infinite, this would seem to follow.

    6. The void is infinite in extent.

    This is a cosmological question; I’m not aware of the theory.

    7. The atoms are always in motion.

    Matter is comprised of energy, mass and momentum, which I think implies motion.

    8. The speed of atomic motion is uniform.


    9. Motion is linear in space, vibratory in compounds.


    10. Atoms are capable of swerving slightly at any point in space or time.

    The idea of atoms traveling uniformly downward is outdated. In terms of the swerve permitting free will, I think that the reducibility of the atomic model supercedes this.

    11. Atoms are characterized by three qualities, weight, shape and size.

    My understanding of current theory is: particles are characterized by three qualities, energy, mass and momentum.

    12. The number of the different shapes is not infinite, merely innumerable.

    Regarding molecules, this still applies. Atoms are numbered in the periodic table of the elements, although I assume that may be added to, particularly in other regions of an infinite universe. Atoms, for a layman such as myself, consist of smaller particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. A simplified version of the latest model consists of up and down quarks (composing protons and neutrons), electrons, and photons.

    This is my very humble attempt to grapple with these issues. Any clarification from those more knowledgeable among us would be greatly appreciated!