Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Direct proof that atoms existed

The success of the kinetic theory of heat was taken as strong evidence that, in addition to the motion of any object as a whole, there is an invisible type of motion all around us: the random motion of atoms within each object. But many conservatives were not convinced that atoms really existed. Nobody had ever seen one, after all. It wasn't until generations after the kinetic theory of heat was developed that it was demonstrated conclusively that atoms really existed and that they participated in continuous motion that never died out.

The smoking gun to prove atoms were more than mathematical abstractions came when some old, obscure observations were reexamined by an unknown Swiss patent clerk named Albert Einstein. A botanist named Brown, using a microscope that was state of the art in 1827, observed tiny grains of pollen in a drop of water on a microscope slide, and found that they jumped around randomly for no apparent reason. Wondering at first if the pollen he'd assumed to be dead was actually alive, he tried looking at particles of soot, and found that the soot particles also moved around. The same results would occur with any small grain or particle suspended in a liquid. The phenomenon came to be referred to as Brownian motion, and its existence was filed away as a quaint and thoroughly unimportant fact, really just a nuisance for the microscopist.

It wasn't until 1906 that Einstein found the correct interpretation for Brown's observation: the water molecules were in continuous random motion, and were colliding with the particle all the time, kicking it in random directions. After all the millennia of speculation about atoms, at last there was solid proof. Einstein's calculations dispelled all doubt, since he was able to make accurate predictions of things like the average distance traveled by the particle in a certain amount of time. (Einstein received the Nobel Prize not for his theory of relativity but for his papers on Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect.)

Discussion Questions

A Based on Franklin's data, how could one estimate the size of an oil molecule?
B How could knowledge of the size of an individual aluminum atom be used to infer an estimate of its mass, or vice versa?
C How could one test Einstein's interpretation by observing Brownian motion at different temperatures?

Last Update: 2009-06-21