Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Democritus and the January Sales.

I am slowly returning to my books. At the moment I am reading THE RIVALS by Michael White. This is a very interesting book about rivalry in science and extremely well-written. The introduction took me on a rapid journey through the birth of science and introduced me to a man called Democritus who died in 370 BC. He had an atomic view of matter. Nothing, he said, is ever made from nothing - which must be a way of stating the conservation of mass. Unfortunately the ideas of two slightly later Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, were more influential. Their semi-mystical and egoistical idea that man was at the centre of everything held back scientific thought for a couple of millennia. The church found that Aristotle's ideas blended comfortably with their own and consequently anyone like da Vinci, Copernicus or Galileo who were inquisitive and tried to find better explanations of how the world worked had to be careful otherwise they would be dubbed heretical and, like Bruno in 1600, condemned to death. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that Democritus's ideas were revisited.

Everything is formed from atomic collisions, Democritus said, and everything is interrelated. His ideas seem astonishingly modern and I keep wondering why he is not better known. This interrelation between everything that happens I find quite haunting. It is as if the universe is diffused with something like spider web and everything we do, everything that happens, sets the spider web vibrating in a new and unique way. Every breath, every movement causes the world to change. Most of the time it is just slight and inconsequential, but just occasionally I suppose it can be catastrophic.

Today, for instance, I got up early for the sales. It was strange shopping before dawn. At 8am there were already people waiting - huddling around doorways in the dark, just their faces lit by the Christmas decorations still twinkling inside the shops. I thought of Democritus's atoms. For about ten minutes we waited, the numbers slowly swelling, and a rough queue forming down the road in front of the main shops; while on the other side of the big glass doors the security guards stood, as if watching for a signal, then finally throwing switches to allow the automatic doors to open. The we surged in together.

All of us together can strip a shop. All of us acting together can warm a planet. Small individual changes make big global changes. We are like Democritus's atoms changing everything around us. It is at the same time humbling and terrifying.


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