From a Sense of Wonder to Dread: 90 Seconds to Midnight

Image by Zoltan Tasi.

The Origins of Atomic Theory

The dangerous life of the atom and its nucleus is a recent phenomenon. The ancient Greeks invented the atom and developed a theory about it. Out of the ideas of natural philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras, there emerged in the second half of the fifth century BCE the Atomic Theory. This was one of the most spectacular scientific developments of all time.

Leukippos (Leucippus) and Demokritos (Democritus) of Abdera, a polis in Thrace in Northern Greece, gave birth to the first scientific model of the fundamental unit of the universe: the atom. Only three hundred fragments survive from the work of Demokritos and two from that of Leukippos. Most of what we know of their theories was summarized largely by Aristotle and other ancient commentators on Greek science.

According to Aristotle, Demokritos and Leukippos penetrated the very fabric of existence unlike any natural philosophers before them. They discovered matter is made up of atoms, invisible particles that cannot be cut. They explained that the atoms come-to-be and pass-away by changes in their groupings and positions. Since “the truth lay in the appearance, and the appearances are conflicting and infinite,” Aristotle says, “Demokritos and Leukippos made the atoms infinite in number.”

Aristotle admires Leukippos and Demokritos for the daring of their speculation, in essence that nothing exists but atoms and space. They implied the key to the Cosmos and the structure of matter had two basic ingredients: atoms and the void, both eternal: an infinite number of invisible, impenetrable, and indivisible atoms move in infinite void, creating and destroying countless worlds. These atoms are different in size and shape with geometrical characteristics. When they come together, they form matter and trigger change.

Ancient Greeks thought highly of Demokritos. He was the “glory” of his homeland, Abdera. He was a polymath, a philosopher and a scientist who dug deep into the secrets and laws of the natural world and the Cosmos. And despite his achievements and wisdom, tradition has it, that he laughed at the frailties of life. Time, he said, engulfs everything.

For another glimpse of the atomic world of Demokritos, one goes to Epikouros. He arrived in Athens in 306 BCE from the Aegean island of Samos. He developed his own “apolitical” philosophy of making the individual invisible and unnoticed to the authorities. He did not find any satisfaction with the Greek gods, but he did not preach against them.

Rather, he accepted the atomic theory of Demokritos and used it to explain the world. Lucretius, a Roman poet of the first century BCE, was so spellbound with Epikouros and his ideas, especially his core teaching of the atoms and the void, he wrote an entire book, On the Nature of the Universe, immortalizing the work of Demokritos and Epikouros. But Lucretius’ hero was Epikouros. He said Epikouros’ genius “outshone the race of men and dimmed them all, as the stars are dimmed by the rising of the fiery Sun.”

Diogenes Laertios also extolled the atomic theory of Demokritos. He did his writing in mid-third century, 700 years after Aristotle and 800 years after Demokritos. Laertios had access to the writings of both Demokritos and Aristotle. In his book, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, he summarized the ideas of Demokritos as follows:

The first principles of the universe are atoms and empty space — everything else is merely thought to exist. Worlds are unlimited; they come into being then, in time, perish. Nothing can come into being from nothing. The atoms are unlimited in size and number. They exist in the whole universe in a vortex, giving rise to all composite things – fire, water, air, and the Earth. These composite things are conglomerations of atoms. And it is because of their permanent nature that these atoms are unalterable. The Sun and the Moon have been made of such smooth and spherical atomic masses. The same thing can be said of the soul, which is identical with reason.

According to Laertios, Demokritos believed we see by virtue of the impact of images upon our eyes. All things happen by virtue of action or necessity, the vortex being the cause of the creation of all things. The end of all action is tranquility, a state in which the soul continues calm and strong, undisturbed by any fear or superstition or any other emotion. “The qualities of things exist merely by convention. There is nothing but atoms and void space in nature.”

Atomism remains a singular contribution of Greek thought, serving as the stimulus for the development of modern atomic theory and physics. Without the benefits of complicated instruments, the atomists looked into matter and the Cosmos, revealing the innermost secrets of how the universe works.

A sense of wonder permeates the work of the great natural philosophers of ancient Greece. Gazing at the skies, brought them closer to understanding the forces of the Cosmos. Through the interpretation of their mythic traditions and logical and scientific observations, they sought answers to the fundamental questions of the universe.

The atoms of war

This Greek tradition sparked the growth of modern atomic physics. Unfortunately, World War II turned the minds of atomic physicists to war. The result was the atomic and nuclear weapons, one considerably more potent than the other. And once the Americans annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1946 with their atomic bombs, the atomic theory of the Greeks disappeared for ever. Now the atoms became triggers of vast lethal power for terrorizing humans and the planet.

The first fatal footprint of the new atomic / nuclear weapons was in their making. The mining of uranium, the concentration of uranium particles in a sphere, the use of explosives to light up the bomb, and the testing of those powerful weapons, wrecked the environment and made people sick. The land of bomb construction, and the physicists, engineers, and workers making the atomic / nuclear weapons would never forget them. The toxic legacy was bound to last forever.

That toxic legacy spilled over the Cold War and hot wars that continue to this day. They, too, became forever wars, especially by the United States that started this game of oblivion. The delusion of power and, worse, the hubris of superpower, shaped America after WWII. American presidents and the military, industrial, academic, religious, and business classes bought the propaganda of the munition industry, that the country needed the atomic / nuclear weapons and a vast military to defend itself against the radiation of communism emanating from the Soviet Union (Russia). Otherwise, the lobbyists of the armaments industry warned, America’s oligarchy would be overwhelmed.

The war in Ukraine, a test of survival

The lies of the gun manufacturers made America an empire of weapons and wars. The latest war could be terminal, however. This is a war started by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine primarily because Ukraine was ready to join the anti-Russian alliance of NATO run by the United States. Russia had been warning America and the Europeans (NATO) not to encircled it. But a corrupt Ukrainian government and hubris-ridden NATO-American leadership ignored Russia until Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

The Democrat President Joe Biden embraced the war in Ukraine, spending billions and arming Ukraine to the teeth with the latest American and European weapons. But Biden and his generals and Congressional leaders know, or should know, the war they are funding and indirectly fighting in the Ukraine is a war against nuclear-armed Russia. Never before nuclear-armed countries came so close to fighting each other, even with conventional arms. Never before one of the nuclear-armed enemies, in the case the United States, is openly advocating the defeat of its enemy, nuclear-armed Russia.

Its not useful guessing why Biden is so reckless with civilization, the safety of America, Europe, and the world. Saying he wants to defeat Russia is extremely provocative, nay challenging Russia to dare use its nuclear weapons.

This jump into barbarism has frightened the world. Here is UN Chief Antonio Guterres explaining this era of disorder and doomsday bombs. On August 1, 2022, he addressed in New York the conference on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. He warned the world of the gathering clouds of “nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War”

Ukraine was in Guterres mind. But he explained the war in the Ukraine between two nuclear-armed states did not come out of nothing. He denounced the massive arsenals of some countries, though he was quick to point out that “entire regions declaring themselves to be nuclear-weapons-free.” He warned that luck has saved the world from “suicidal mistake of nuclear conflict.”

“But as the years have passed, these fruits of hope are withering. Humanity is in danger of forgetting the lessons forged in the terrifying fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Geopolitical tensions are reaching new highs. Competition is trumping co-operation and collaboration. Distrust has replaced dialogue and disunity has replaced disarmament.  States are seeking false security in stockpiling and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on doomsday weapons that have no place on our planet. Almost 13,000 nuclear weapons are now being held in arsenals around the world. All this at a time when the risks of proliferation are growing and guardrails to prevent escalation are weakening.  And when crises — with nuclear undertones — are festering.  From the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. To the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and to many other factors around the world. The clouds that parted following the end of the Cold War are gathering once more. We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict.

With Ukraine in his mind, Guterres was emphatic. He said, “Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”

True, Biden and Putin have their fingers near nuclear annihilation. Even the doomsday clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been set to 90 seconds to midnight. This was done on January 24, 2023. One international guest in the ceremony of changing the doomsday clock to 90 seconds to midnight was Mary Robinson. She is the Chair of The Elders of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She is the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She said:

“The Doomsday Clock is sounding an alarm for the whole of humanity. We are on the brink of a precipice. But our leaders are not acting at sufficient speed or scale to secure a peaceful and livable planet. From cutting carbon emissions to strengthening arms control treaties and investing in pandemic preparedness, we know what needs to be done. The science is clear, but the political will is lacking. This must change in 2023 if we are to avert catastrophe.”

The other guests in the doomsday clock ceremony denounced Russia but said nothing about America funding the war in the Ukraine that could explode into a doomsday war. This is disturbing. After all, these doomsday clock scientists should not allow narrow nationalistic feelings to confuse them about the high moral ground they espouse for the abolition of their handiwork, nuclear weapons. Taking sides diminishes their standing, and that of the importance of the iconic doomsday clock.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.