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A brief history of corpuscular discoveries [timeline]

Philosophers of science are in the business of explaining the special features of science, like the unifying power of scientific explanation and the wonderful sense of understanding it produces. We try to explain the amazing success of modern scientific theories, the structure of inductive inference in the science, and extract systematic positions – like realism, constructivism, and empiricism – from the evidence of theoretical success. One source of theoretical success I trace comes from the history of corpuscular alchemy and chemistry, which provided what we would now call atomic and molecular views of unobserved reality. Even the biological discoveries depicted here, like DNA and penicillin, rested on assumptions about molecular, and so corpuscular, structures. The vision of a world made up of atoms or corpuscles goes back at least as far as Democritus. Until the late 1500s, through Al-Kindi and Paracelsus and Gassendi that vision was heavily laden with magical incantation, spiritual fantasy, and errant theorizing. For most of that time, theorists wandered in darkness.

All that changed when practitioners in the late 1500s, on the cusp of modern materialism, ascribed accurate characterizations to a few of the most important dimensions of the corpuscles (their shape, their impact, etc.), so that unifying principles like Boyle’s law could be seen to apply to them. At least 80 years before Newton’s contributions, these trained practitioners in techniques of alchemy combined dissolving and reconstitution. This led them to the view that invisible particles were responsible for the change. Together with Galileo’s view, expressed in the Assayer, that most phenomena are produced by “matter in motion”, corpuscular alchemy and its progeny powered the steep ascent of science.

I have focused on theoretical advances – not merely instrumental or engineering improvements – in the areas of chemistry and physics, where evidence of an unobservable corpuscular world had real bite. There are lots of interesting and in some ways fruitful theoretical views that preceded atomic or corpuscular theories, those of Paracelsus, or the Islamic scientists, for example. But their theories were too inaccurate to drive sustained advances. Once thinkers got the right corpuscular hunch around the time of van Helmont, Sennert, and Boyle, chemistry and physics alike could take off. Lots of figures were atomists, but few of them until van Helmont, Sennert, and Boyle had distinctive experimental evidence for it. But it all arose from a contingent leap from late alchemy. The competing, and widely repeated story that science ascended from the scientific method may be comforting, but it is false.

Many philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science don’t like timelines, because they think timelines label early discoveries as primitive, and later discoveries as closer to our current, “elevated” state. These scholars often note that every epoch holds its views out as incontrovertible, or the highest state of accumulated wisdom, only to be proven false. Yet, it should also be noted that all of them are gratified that their doctors rely on chemistry rather than alchemy. Of course all of our current theoretical views fall short of the truth, but in accuracy and integration they differ from ancient and medieval theories on a scale that is orders of magnitude superior to predecessors. It is my goal to bring fresh resources to the defense of scientific realism, to document good explanations that we don’t understand, and to display the role of contingency in the history of science that allows a feeble view like corpuscular alchemy, by a series of unlikely events, lift a languishing or misguided field to a science worthy of the name. The timeline below is just a thin wedge of evidence showing that, in science, there is no substitute for being right, and that no amount of methodological effort can compensate for a bad theory. Instead, theoretical success occurred when contingent but truth-tracking events intervened.

Featured image credit: Large Hadron Collider. View of the LHC tunnel sector 3-4 by Maximilien Brice (CERN). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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