Atomos: The Atomic Theory We Forgot About

Taking a short intermission from Atomos as A Concept-Oriented Programming Language, I thought it would be interesting to share where Atomos got its name.

Atomos comes from the Greek word “Atomos”. It means indivisible. The modern word “atom” is derived from the same. Since the word or idea was coined we have dedicated time and effort to understand the universe and break it down to its smallest components. While we haven’t gotten there yet, the benefits of trying have been indisputable. No one really knows how close we are and there are many places still to check. I wonder though if we forgot to recheck someplace obvious along the way? The place of origin.

Over 2400 years ago Atomos was the idea Democritus, an ancient Greek man, had when considering how far matter or “stuff” could be split into its component parts. The uncanny similarities to the modern idea of the atom sometimes grant him the title of, “Father of (ancient) Science”. Still, the kind of insight required to make a guess that lands anywhere near our modern concept of an atom was unbelievably lucky and or pure human genius mixed with a bad batch of wine.

In Democritus’ lifetime, he arrived at his conclusion by believing in the mind; Rationalism and Materialism were his game. Reading about his bizarre guess thousands of years later, I wonder how he could have made it. How did his mind construct that concept with what he knew then? Since our minds interpret and generate our realities simultaneously, there is a razor-thin line between how we perceive the world inside and outside our minds that often confuse us. Let’s not take Democritus’ atom for granted as just a lucky guess for a moment and see what we can do with it. While my interpretation isn’t very materialist, I’d like to think he’d appreciate my still rationalist counter-proposal.

I think that Democritus did see an atom but not in the physical world. He may not have thought to question it further due to a simple and very common cause-and-effect error and the rest of us since didn’t question it because we stopped being curious after “lucky guess”. We can throw Democritus a pass here no problem. Not only was this around before science was invented but there is that pesky cause-and-effect error.

We often forget that our perceiving and understanding engines for the world around us are actually the same engine, our brain, located in the same place, our heads.

We don’t have much of a mental framework to understand and organize our thoughts, feelings, and where they come from. That is why we confuse things like opinions and facts or who is responsible for hurt feelings. Below I show a feedback loop which is a basic concept in science and fundamental for any organism to respond and adapt to an environment. Out of balance for too long and that organism ceases.

The Mind’s Scientific Method

I doubt Democritus solved this in his time since we are still struggling with it today. Democritus didn’t see an atom in the real world, his mind took experiential information, extracted and synthesized a pattern, and then projected it onto the world to try and explain what he saw with more clarity. A single guess this way looks just like an abbreviated form of the scientific method. Iteratively making many guesses and we see how our body of scientific work has and is being done.

Isn’t extracting and confirming patterns the hallmark and genius of the human mind? We didn’t see perfect geometric shapes or something like infinity in the wild to imagine it. This ability to untangle common elements in story and color to find fundamental patterns and structure in the world around us is what we are uniquely brilliant at. I call this ability abstraction, which is largely stolen from computer science, thank you CompSci.

Using abstraction as a fundamental basis for explaining our cognition, I reimagine and redefine wisdom and intelligence in the linked post. Check out the link if you are curious. It isn’t necessary now it will be important later on in Atomos.

So, what am I giving Democritus credit for? Maybe Democritus’ brilliant atomic theory was something like our first theory of information. I think most people would agree that his guess couldn’t have been right with what we knew back then. So, perhaps he was right for another reason. What if atoms are fundamental parts of the universe, not because they were physically small but because they were conceptually small and so fundamental that they lost meaning when broken apart?

Information loss/gain from one element to another results in a different atom or concept

While it is difficult to know exactly what Democritus’ had pictured, we can see in the figure above that our modern idea of the atom captures these ideas. Every single element in the periodic table is separated by exactly one proton and electron from the elements that sit next to it. When atoms break down they lose meaning and become different elements. For physical atoms, this is called nuclear fission and is the centerfold of the design of atomic weapons.

Democritus and the rest of us since may not have realized that his indivisible piece of the universe was the idea itself nor how useful these principles could be for understanding the nature of information, how we understand it and what we can do with it.

As I mentioned earlier, we don’t have a good framework to keep track of the things we can’t see and that list of invisible things is getting longer every day. It would be nice to have a simple starting point that is sufficiently abstract to serve as a template for tackling problems we can’t see. If it can also apply to things we can see that would be incredibly convenient.

Historically, whenever we run into barriers we look to nature and take pages out of her notebook. This is where we get ideas like Artificial Neural Networks and Genetic Algorithms. This round I say we can take a page from our notebook. Everything we see and understand was imagined first so let’s imagine a little more. Fortunately, we have a large body of science to draw from already so this should go much faster. We’ll see.

Bifurcation of Atomism

Interestingly, it was as recent as 1822 that a French mathematician named Joseph Fourier gave us the concept of physical dimensions. We made that play once rather successfully so I think we should give it another shot. Giving our ideas dimensions, and perhaps virtual properties based on known physical laws, might sound bizarre but, that is only because we forgot we did this, to begin with. Isn’t dark matter just matter with unknown dimensions? Perhaps things like preference, feelings, and or morality are another kind of dark matter?

We still do this to some extent today that I’ve noticed. Below is a brilliant and colorful photo of the Carina Nebula. However, many photos like this are artificially colored so that we can see them. In space, visible light is white, including our “yellow” sun, and light coming from galactic structures like below exist in spectrums outside what the human eye can perceive.

Carina Nebula: Artificial Coloring

“Through advanced space telescopes like the Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes, we have plenty of gorgeous imagery of nebulae. Most of these are formed through infrared and false-color images but they all are striking.” — SpaceCenter.org

This is an example of modifying dimensions so we can see what would otherwise be invisible. Giving dimensions is the same, just with extra steps.

Aside from a similar graphical appearance, Democritus’ and modern atomic theory contains important principles about the origin, integrity, and behavior of information when modified. The idea that concepts lose meaning when split apart is very helpful for explaining a lot of what we see. For the rest, we just need to do what we’ve done before, guess and check. Atomos is a conceptual template for laying out information an understanding of the relationships between concepts. At this stage, it is very granular but over time Atomos can easily evolve into conceptual molecules and anything else we care to think up.

Some of Atomos was an accident while the rest is just an amalgamation of principles that I have collected over time. This story is one of them.
There is no single reason for Atomos and there is no single thing it is useful for. It is a work in progress and will require iteration. Please ask questions so I can improve it. Thanks for reading!

Expert Modeler | Scientist | Teacher | Engineer

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