Ancient and modern

Epicurus on particle physics

Television science is just catching up with the ancients

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

According to a top TV scientist, in the beginning there was ‘empty space’ and ‘energy’. After a big bang, the universe started out as a ‘featureless void’. But emerging particles ‘organised themselves into the universe we see today’ by ‘clumping together’ because of ‘deviation’ from perfect smoothness in ‘warped’ space. Meanwhile, cosmic light particles are zooming along in straight lines and still going strong, creating billions of other universes. This ‘astonishing idea’ is the ‘cornerstone of modern cosmology’. Ancient, too.

According to the farmer-poet Hesiod (7th century bc), in the beginning there was Khaos (‘empty space’) and the world was ‘featureless void’, till the ‘energy’ was supplied by Eros, ‘Lust’, to populate it with mountains, seas, etc. Epicurus (4th century bc) was worried about this: ‘when he was still young, he asked the schoolmaster what the Khaos came from if it came first. The master replied that he did not know: that was a job for philosophers. “Right,” said Epicurus, “I’ll have a few words with them if they know the truth about things that exist.”’


In fact he came across the works of the 5th century bc atomist, Democritus. From these he discovered that the universe was material, created out of atoms (= particles) falling through space. To form matter, these particles must have ‘clumped together’ to make this world because, Epicurus hypothesised, of a ‘deviation’ that ensured these atoms crashed into each other from time to time.

Further, space must be infinite — otherwise all the particles would pile up in a corner somewhere and slowly fill the universe up. In that case, it follows that, space being infinite, the particles are zooming along, swerving into each other elsewhere in the universe, forming worlds elsewhere; and since our world was born to live and die, so these other worlds must be undergoing exactly the same process, coming into being, living, dying (and dead). The universe is therefore filled with worlds in every stage of transition. Particles being infinite, the worlds must be infinite. QED.

Give these top scientists time, and they get there eventually.

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