funder of the Miletus school, proposed that water is the source of the
myriad things, while Heraclitus maintained that fire was the origin of
all phenomena. Empedocles propounded the theory of the four major
elements or ‘roots’, the four being water, air, earth and fire.
The theory of
the five elements proposed by Zou Yan during the Warring States period
(403-222 b.c.) in China was yet another early theory concerning the
composition of matter.
Leucippus in ancient Greece jointly formulated the atomic theory that
matter is formed from indivisible particles (i.e. atoms). Matter was
thought to be comprised of atoms of different elements.
mid-seventeenth century Pierre Gassendi investigated this proposition
from the point of view of atoms and further postulated that atoms of
matter exhibit random motion in space. Based on this, certain physical
phenomena such as the various states of matter—i.e. liquid, gaseous,
and solid states—and the conversions occurring between them could now
Also in the
seventeenth century, the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650)
stated in his treatise A Theory of Ether that the mutually applying
forces between objects need an intermediate medium of transmission. He
claimed that space is not emptiness without any substance, but that it
is filled up with ether. Ether serves as the medium for transmitting
forces, even thought it cannot be perceived by human sense organs.
Ether also transmits the moon’s effect on the earth’s tidal patterns. A
vacuum is not an empty space without any substance. Vacuity refers to
the quantum field (the ground state) and denotes empty space.
The theory of
primal energy (in Chinese, yuan qi) as proposed by ancient Chinese
philosophers Zhang Zai and Wang Fuzhi, suggested that the myriad things
in the world come from primal energy, and that empty space is filled up
with both the yin and yang energies.
Based on his
observation of vacuums (absolute empty space) the English physicist Sir
Isaac Newton (1642-1727) formulated tha theory of gravity. Albert
Einstein carried out research on quantum fields, and challenged the
validity of the concept of empty space; he recognized that vacuity does
not mean mere emptiness. In his treatise on the special relativity
theory, Einstein showed that light and electromagnetic fields are
matter, and can be transmitted through empty space. He negated the
existence of ether. He also proved that there are areas where Newtonian
physics cannot be successfully applied. The validity of the theory of
relativity suggests that absolute vacuum does not exist.
Prior to the
Warring States era and the Spring and Autumn period in China, during
the Western Zhou dynasty before 776 b.c., time was measured using a
leaking vessel. In order to determine the wind’s direction and the
twenty-four periods of the lunar year the Chinese used a sundial,
measuring the shadow cast by a jade tablet with a square base and a
pointed top. These instruments are examples of some of the early
methods of investigation people used in order to penetrate the origin
and source of the myriad things in the universe. Also in China, the
theory of the five elements was proposed, suggesting that the myriad
things in the universe were formed from the five basic elements of
metal, wood, water, fire and earth.
The theory of
yin and yang was also formulated in China. This theory used the
contradicting and opposing motion of yin and yang to explain all kinds
of phenomena and events in nature. A theory concerning the hexagrams of
the Yi Jing (Book of Changes) was also formulated. The broken and
unbroken lines in these symbols denote yin and yang. In groups of
three, the lines form trigrams, basic symbols that represent the
occurrence of specific events. For example ( )
represents water. The combinations and permutations together give a
total of sixty-four gua (hexagrams) and three hundred and eighty-four
yao (the individual lines in the hexagrams) which are used to explain
the ever-changing phenomena in nature.
In the Water and
Earth Chapter of Guan Zhi’s treatise it is said that water unites the
source of myriad things. (Guan Zhi was also known as Guan Zhong, (d.
644 b.c.), the prime minister of the state of Qi during the Spring and
Autumn period.) In the fourth century b.c., Song Yan and Yin Wen
proposed the theory of energy (in Chinese, qi), which stated that
energy unites the myriad things in the universe. This theory had its
impact on the development of the theory of primal energy that was
developed later in China.
In the book Mo
Jing by Mo Zi, the concepts of time and space as well as a dynamic of
mechanics were recorded, in which time and space were defined as ‘mi
dao time’ and ‘mi dao place.’ Thus a definite time and place were
synthesized, and the concepts of time (jiu) and space (zhou) were
formulated. Mo Zi was of the opinion that motion refers to a change in
the positions of objects, while stillness (zhi) refers to objects
remaining stationary at a certain position for a certain period of
time. Mo Zi carried his in-depth analysis on motion further in
discussing the concept of ‘an instant’ (wu jiu) He explained that there
is an intimate relationship between the motion and time of objects. In
Mo Jing, Mo Zi also suggests that matter cannot be destroyed. An early
version of the theory of elements was also proposed here.
Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), the founder of formalistic
logic, suggested the continuity of space and time for matter. He
disagreed with the concept of vacuum and postulated that through
intellectual reasoning and activity sense perception can reach the peak
of ordinary abstract ideas. Four factors that influence changes in the
motion of physical bodies are: the apparent cause, the teleological
cause, material, and momentum. All matter is endowed with a certain aim
or ‘natural substance’ Heavenly bodies constantly orbit around the
earth at constant velocities (earth being the center of the
Aristotelian universe) and form the four basic elements of water, fire,
air, and earth, which contitute all matter on earth. Inclining towards
or converging at a specific space belonging to it, matter finds its
state of equilibrium and tends to dwell at that location. Thus
according to their natural motion, heavy substances sink and light ones
rise; this motion is due to their inherent nature.
Between 1869 and
1871, the Russian chemist Dmitri I. Mendeleyev was the first one to
comprehensively arrange the periodic table. Based on the ascending
order of the atomic numbers of the sixty-three elements, he predicted
the properties of three undiscovered elements. These elements were
isotopes of aluminum and curium, which were discovered later. The
actual measured chemical and physical properties basically agree with
Mendeleyev’s prediction. They have been artifficially fused together as
element 108 and element 109.