The history of the 20th century would be completely different without atomic theory. Today, almost all educational programs around the world are taught that the English physicist and chemist, John Dalton (1766-1844), was the first to develop the theory of the atom, an indivisible particle from which all matter is made. But evidence suggests that an Indian sage and philosopher who lived six centuries before Christ was the first to speak of this primal particle. He was known as Acharya Kanad, meaning “the master of small things.”

He’s known to have been the son of a sage named Ulka and his name was Kahyap. Born between 800 and 600 BC, in Prabhas Kshetra near what is today the state of Guyarat, in eastern India, from an early age, he became interested in tiny objects. As a child, he accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to the city of Prayagraj. Along the way, he noticed the grains of rice and bits of flowers dropped by pilgrims on the ground near the temples along the banks of the Ganges River. He began collecting these grains of rice and, when asked why, he explained that just as a collection of rice grains could become a person’s food, still more could feed the entire world. Thus, he said, a grain of rice is as valuable as any other wealth in the world. After that, people started calling him Kanad. (In Sanskrit kan means “the smallest particle.”)

This child who collected grains of rice dedicated his life to theorizing and philosophizing about this invisible world and the smallest, most invisible particles. Gradually, he began teaching his theories and won the title of Acharya, meaning “Master.” He’s believed to have been one of the earliest theorists of the atom, having spoken, millennia before Dalton, about these smallest particles making up matter.

The theory of the atom is said to have reached the Hindu sage one day while walking and carrying his food. Dividing the food into ever smaller pieces in his hands, eventually he could not divide it into pieces any smaller. It was then that he imagined the possibility of a particle that was indivisible and invisible to the human eye. He called it Anu, which means, literally “atom.”

Kanad believed that the atom was eternal and described its tendency to bind with other atoms. He also spoke of the Dwinuka, a double or binary molecule, resulting from the union of two atoms. According to his theory, it would have the same properties as the original molecules. He also suggested that other substances would arise from the differing combinations of these atoms and that these combinations could produce chemical changes in the presence of specific factors such as heat. To explain this, he used the process of the ripening of fruit and the discoloration that arises over time in objects made of mud or clay. Kanad founded a philosophical school known as Vaisheshika and wrote a book called Vaisheshik Darshan in which he explained his atomic theory.

At times history is more complex than it seems. Today’s science has set aside Kanad’s work because his has been thought a more a philosophical, logical, or metaphysical theory rather than a scientific work. Kanad never wanted to prove anything empirically, but his theories still surprise us today for their closeness to the nature of matter and for his commitment to what is small, the smallest, and which still joins us to all the entities of the universe.

Image: Public domain

The history of the 20th century would be completely different without atomic theory. Today, almost all educational programs around the world are taught that the English physicist and chemist, John Dalton (1766-1844), was the first to develop the theory of the atom, an indivisible particle from which all matter is made. But evidence suggests that an Indian sage and philosopher who lived six centuries before Christ was the first to speak of this primal particle. He was known as Acharya Kanad, meaning “the master of small things.”

He’s known to have been the son of a sage named Ulka and his name was Kahyap. Born between 800 and 600 BC, in Prabhas Kshetra near what is today the state of Guyarat, in eastern India, from an early age, he became interested in tiny objects. As a child, he accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to the city of Prayagraj. Along the way, he noticed the grains of rice and bits of flowers dropped by pilgrims on the ground near the temples along the banks of the Ganges River. He began collecting these grains of rice and, when asked why, he explained that just as a collection of rice grains could become a person’s food, still more could feed the entire world. Thus, he said, a grain of rice is as valuable as any other wealth in the world. After that, people started calling him Kanad. (In Sanskrit kan means “the smallest particle.”)

This child who collected grains of rice dedicated his life to theorizing and philosophizing about this invisible world and the smallest, most invisible particles. Gradually, he began teaching his theories and won the title of Acharya, meaning “Master.” He’s believed to have been one of the earliest theorists of the atom, having spoken, millennia before Dalton, about these smallest particles making up matter.

The theory of the atom is said to have reached the Hindu sage one day while walking and carrying his food. Dividing the food into ever smaller pieces in his hands, eventually he could not divide it into pieces any smaller. It was then that he imagined the possibility of a particle that was indivisible and invisible to the human eye. He called it Anu, which means, literally “atom.”

Kanad believed that the atom was eternal and described its tendency to bind with other atoms. He also spoke of the Dwinuka, a double or binary molecule, resulting from the union of two atoms. According to his theory, it would have the same properties as the original molecules. He also suggested that other substances would arise from the differing combinations of these atoms and that these combinations could produce chemical changes in the presence of specific factors such as heat. To explain this, he used the process of the ripening of fruit and the discoloration that arises over time in objects made of mud or clay. Kanad founded a philosophical school known as Vaisheshika and wrote a book called Vaisheshik Darshan in which he explained his atomic theory.

At times history is more complex than it seems. Today’s science has set aside Kanad’s work because his has been thought a more a philosophical, logical, or metaphysical theory rather than a scientific work. Kanad never wanted to prove anything empirically, but his theories still surprise us today for their closeness to the nature of matter and for his commitment to what is small, the smallest, and which still joins us to all the entities of the universe.

Image: Public domain