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on 22 July 2013
The title of Victor Stenger's latest book contains an intriguing pairing: the G-word is there, up against of all things the atom. Current debates between believers and non-believers often become heated, but rarely over the role of atoms in religion. Only when we take a longer, historical perspective can we see what's at stake. Far from simply being a neutral (albeit fascinating) part of modern science, Stenger argues that atomism is atheism.

He begins 25 centuries ago with two ancient philosophers, Leucippus and Democritus, whose atomic theory can be summed up in a simple phrase: "atoms and the void." Everything is made of atoms, even gods and the soul. Stenger then turns to two later figures (still BCE), the Greek philosopher Epicurus and the Roman poet Lucretius, who developed the teachings of Democritus in important ways. With the rise of Christianity, these materialist works were suppressed for a thousand years.

Christian philosophers also went to some trouble to misrepresent and vilify Epicureanism, and while a few could admire the poetic achievement of The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics) by Lucretius, the ideas contained within the elegant Latin hexameters were anathema: the message of this poem was "atheistic and materialistic, denying the existence of anything magical or supernatural, including an immortal soul, and proclaiming the evils of religion." (For more on Epicurus and Lucretius, see Stephen Greenblatt's excellent The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.)

Taken out of its philosophical context, the particulate nature of matter doesn't seem like a radical concept, something to be condemned from the pulpit. Whereas Darwinian evolution might threaten a believer's understanding of human nature, the Higgs boson is innocent of all atheistical interpretation, until, that is, we remember that the Higgs is actually the latest vindication of a thoroughgoing reductionist materialism.

Stenger repeats a point made by many writers, that "the history of science is marked by the continual overthrow of common sense." There is a profound irony here: naturalism is far from natural. Atomism might be textbook physics now but, as well as being condemned for religious reasons, it was also once resisted by many of the best scientific thinkers, and for very good reasons. After all, before the 20th century there was no direct empirical proof that atoms actually existed. In the 17th century, Pierre Gassendi rehabilitated both Epicurus and the atomic model, which was especially unusual since he was both a priest and "a strict empiricist". (This supports Richard Popkin's judgement in The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza that Gassendi was "one of the major figures in the scientific revolution".)

Even by the 19th century, most physicists (including James Clerk Maxwell) doubted the existence of atoms and some (notably Ernst Mach) were harsh in their opposition. Against this sceptical - and mistaken - consensus, "Boltzmann would be the primary champion of the atomic theory of matter and provide the theoretical foundation based on statistical mechanics".

One of Stenger's aims in this book "is to demonstrate the great extent of our current knowledge of the nature of the matter in our universe." With chapters on "the chemical atom" and "atoms revealed" he does a good job of marshalling this knowledge, although he also includes details that will make little sense to most lay readers, even those with science degrees. (Try this for size: "Gluons emitted by quarks in the protons interact to make a Higgs boson.") The historical and philosophical context he sketches is one of the book's strengths. Atomism originated in the ancient world as part of a broader materialist philosophy, which was eclipsed - although never obliterated - first by Platonic notions and then by a Christianity that could not tolerate such ideas.

Stenger has a taste for the kind of philosophy that "performs a valuable service in clarifying and interpreting scientific results." His long career as an experimental particle physicist and his prolific second career as an eloquent advocate of the new atheism make him a discriminating guide to the history of sceptical and scientific ideas. He shows that atomism, like scepticism, has deep roots, and he shows how it eventually emerged from the long shadow of supernaturalism to become an essential part of our scientific understanding of the universe. Just what that means for the G-word remains to be fully explored, but this book is a good starting point.
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on 4 April 2014
Dr Stenger writes in a way that makes the complex subject of particle physics easy to read. Using the chronology of the development of atomism he beautifully illustrates the latest theories in physics and cosmology.
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on 11 April 2013
Victor Stenger has the uncanny ability to make complex things accessible to people from non science or non physics background. He has done it in his past works and this work is also no different.His arguments are strong and convincing. I am hopeful that those who are blind fans of their respective religions ( or dharma) will also read this book with an open mind.
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on 11 December 2015
Superb book well put together, easy to read and excellently thought out arguments.
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