Yes, Atoms Exist — Charles Adolphe Wurtz

Charles Adolphe Wurtz built a convincing case for the existence of atoms based on a century of progress in the field of chemistry. The idea of the atom as a basic building block of matter was first proposed by ancient philosophers. The word derives from the ancient Greek word atomos, which means uncuttable. However, it was the development of modern chemistry during the 19th century that showed that matter is constructed in this way.

Wurtz was one of the best-known French scientists during the last half of the 19th century. In 1881, he published The Atomic Theory, in which he reviews evidence gathered through chemistry research that established the existence of atoms and some of their properties. Wurtz conducted research at the forefront of organic chemistry, where atomic theory proved to be essential to understanding the structure and properties of the great number of chemical compounds built around a carbon framework.

The English chemist Charles Dalton first articulated the modern notion of the atom in 1803. However, it was the French scientist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier who laid the groundwork for Dalton’s discovery. Lavoisier launched modern chemistry as a quantitative science, based on meticulous measurements of the amounts of reactants. Lavoisier’s discovery that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen provided the insight that elements combine to form compounds in simple, definite proportions.

In the decades following Dalton’s work, chemists applied quantitative techniques to study an increasing number and variety of chemical substances. Much of this work was carried out by French scientists, such as André-Marie Ampère, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Pierre Louis Dulong, Jean Baptiste Dumas, Auguste Laurent and Charles Gerhardt. Wurtz’ contribution was to categorize the structure of organic molecules based on the number of carbon atoms they contain, which established valency as a distinctive property of an element at the atomic scale.

Ultimately, proof that atoms exist was based on logical necessity; the concept was required to make sense out of the results of a century of chemistry research. This occurred decades before physicists began probing the structure of the atom directly, early in the 20th century, and nearly 100 years before photographic evidence of the atom’s existence was obtained in 1970.

General acceptance that atoms exist was not immediate. Many of Wurtz’ contemporaries resisted, preferring science based on purely empirical grounds over logic. However, the story of the discovery of the atom offers empirical proof for Wurtz’ assertion that, in the 19th century, chemistry was a French science.

Adolphe Wurtz is one of 72 scientists and engineers named on the Eiffel Tower.

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William Nuttle

William Nuttle

Navigating a changing environment — hydrologist, engineer, advocate for renewable energy, currently writing about the personal side of technological progress