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On Nuclear Energy and the Occult Atom

Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib Document

Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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On Nuclear Energy and the Occult Atom

On Nuclear Energy and the Occult Atom: A Supplement

A Supplement

Partly by my fault, two things are missing in this translation. The one is the omission of my acknowledgements, the other a short rendering of the first two lectures of the series of four which was meant to precede the present publication. The manuscript of the translation was begun when the pocketbook Kernenergie und Geisteswissenschaft had not yet appeared. I owe this translation to Cynthia Chandler, then living in Dornach, who tried hard to find adequate words for the rather idiomatic language of the lectures. I want to thank her for her work and especially for her patience and perseverance. Later I sent the MS of our translation to Norman Davidson in England who had kindly offered his help and who did a marvelous job. For the final draft I had the very valuable typing assistance of Linda Larson who incorporated all the advice I had received by Mr. Davidson and added some further revisions.

Georg Unger
Dornach, 1983


First Lecture
Nineteenth Century Atomism

The revival of Greek atomism took place in modern times with the same reasons put forward as by the classical authors: it is difficult to visualize matter as continuous and quite specially to understand how continuous matter can be compressed or attenuated. Often enough one simply visualized matter as composed of particles having exactly the same properties as the substance in the world of perception; or in the case of light: that red light is composed of red particles and blue light of blue ones. Descartes distinguished between the primary and the secondary sense qualities (the primary qualities being mechanical, while heat, sound and light are secondary). This distinction led to the reduction of all qualities to the movement and order of simply particles. At first the transition of ice to water and eventually to vapor served as the only convincing example for the picture that in the solid state of matter the atoms have rigid mutual positions, that in the liquid state the atoms are movable but still “stick” together, and that only in the gaseous state the mutual attractions are overcome by the higher kinetic energy of the particles. That is why liquids can form free surfaces whereas gases do not but expand into any space offered.

Later chemistry could use the mechanistic model to explain the fixed numerical relations in the weight of reacting substances. Atoms could be united in pairs (for instance) to form molecules. There was the fact of fixed weight ratios, now interpreted as the ratio of the weights of the atoms in question. Another fact, that there are multiple proportions in which certain substances may react, led to the interpretation that one atom of the one kind attracts, binds, a fixed number of the other kind. On closer inspection these interpretations show only a lack of thinking comparable to the absurdity that only by the intervention of atoms could the unique factoring of, say, 35=5x7 be understood! At the same time one had learned in celestial mechanics to calculate the movements of the heavenly bodies assuming that solely central forces were acting between them. Following the same pattern of thought it was assumed that similar mechanics of the atoms would explain all phenomena. As a matter of fact, it was possible in heat theory to derive the lawful connection between temperature, volume and pressure of a gas by assuming for calculation purely mechanistic hypotheses. All the same, at the end of the century leading chemists (Ostwald) and physicists (Mach) expressed serious doubts as to the reality of the atoms, which were thought to be convenient “reckoning pennies”.

There are important successes in the theoretical understanding of properties of gases by this so-called “kinetic theory”. But the assumptions made are by no means a consequence of observable facts; some are not even immediately plausible. They cannot, didactically, be derived in a really convincing manner but just have to be accepted and tested by the success of prediction. — Steiner's criticism of the atomistic picture, as formulated in a very early essay he sent to F. Th. Vischer, is directed against the philosophical side of atomism, not against its usefulness in mathematical physics.


Second Lecture
Atoms as “Phenomena”

The Atomism of the 19th century changed and did so due to new experiences.

What did the “real atoms”, which got into the hands of man, look like? They contradicted everything that was thought about them:

They penetrate matter. The later being predominantly “empty”

They are not undividable; there is radio-active decay.

In trying to explain the emission of light one has to assume vibrations which cannot he ascribed to material particles; a new kind of integer number law arose.

The practically unlimited production of energy by radium violated a fundamental theorem of energetics which could be saved only by additional assumptions.

Sometimes waves behave like particles and particles like waves.

In most cases exact information about the “classical parameters”, such as plane, time, velocity, etc. is excluded in principle (uncertainty relation).

In certain cases it becomes necessary to speak of the loss of identity of particles.

The way this chaos of thought is mastered speaks clearly of the nonphysical nature of the entities in question. They no longer appear as “building blocks” but rather as “fragments” of nature. One student called this a “difficult thought act”, but in reality it's just elementary logic. The potential fracture lines in safety glass, with its inner tension, are a good simile for the knowledge of future “fragments” — a simile for the “potential existence” of atoms.

The following is a symptomatological view of the more recent history of science:

E. Maxwell develops a system of formulae for electricity and adds — for the sake of symmetry terms which were at that time not observable. The formulae should explain light waves. H. Hertz derives solutions of Maxwell's equations. His waves are not “discovered” but the result of deliberate calculation.

M. Planck derives from new measurements of radiations the quantization of energy.

The work of M. and P. Curie leads to the discovery of radium and new radiations that show discontinuous appearances. (Not seemingly but really discontinuous.)

Earlier, Crookes had developed the idea of a new state of matter (“radiating matter”) — today plasma. This was in connection with cathode rays. The beta-rays of radium are related to cathode rays. Alpha- and beta rays penetrate matter. They are pseudo-particles. Isolated traces on photographic emulsions or in vapor-saturated air are observed.

Also at the turn of the century, Lorentz develops his electron theory for the purpose of theoretical chemistry. The atom appears as essentially electric. The way in which radiation passes through matter points to the extraordinary emptiness of the atom. Later experiments lead to the idea of the nucleus-shell structure of the atom.

Rutherford's experimental results lead N. Bohr to his “astronomical” model of the atom. Bohr makes physically “impossible” assumptions but in a conscious way, because of the discrete levels of energy. The integer number laws of Balmer in spectroscopy are an important confirmation for Bohr.

Three articles of Einstein in 1905: (1) the statistical treatment of Brown's molecular motion is to decide the question: do atoms exist, really? — (2) the photon hypotheses puts the energy quantums into radiation itself, in contrast to wave theory — (3) the formulae (of Lorentz) in the electrodynamics of moving conductors lead Einstein to the equivalence of mass and energy (and to the union of spare and time in relativity theory).

From the “wave mechanics” of L. de Broglie, from the works of Heisenberg and of Schrodinger, the systematic unity of quantum physics has arisen at the end of the first quarter of this century. A model that cannot be visualized without contradictions (within “classical” concepts) has to be assumed in order to master the conditions in the atom — by formulae which likewise are essentially non-visualizable.

At the end of the development of “phenomenal atomism” Heisenberg raises the criticism of whether you can visualize atoms as little specks of matter.

Schrodinger responds: “The answer is decidedly ‘No’. The atom lacks the most primitive characteristic of what we usually think in connection with ‘matter’. Some older philosopher would have said if the case could have been brought to his attention: Your newfangled atoms do not consist of any substance at all, they are pure form.”

The following is the end of the second lecture verbatim:

If a material object shows some sense qualities, then it will show all (and if some are missing there is a reason for why they are missing). One could call this a kind of arch-phenomenon of matter: Co-existence of sensory qualities. What I have tried to show you can be summarized in the statement: the appearance of phenomenal atomism transcend physical reality.

We get into a non-sensible — I do not say supersensible — the expression “subsensible” would fit better. — a subsensible world you can grasp only by thought pictures which you do not take for reality. If that reminds you of what is said about the nature of higher knowledge I do not mind. The higher levels of cognition begin with certain impressions which “look” like products of imagination but which, however, are more than that since they express a reality behind them. The investigator of the supersensible would get into confusion if he would take “imagination” (in the technical sense of higher knowledge) for immediate reality. Something similar belongs to the models of modern physics but I want to emphasize: like caricatures. In a way they are pseudo-imaginations adequate to the subsensible. I do not want to have said that these models are real imaginations for the scientists are not investigators in the realm of the supersensible. But they experience certain different levels when mathematics begins exactly where, in higher knowledge, inspiration begins. With that we have achieved our goal; namely, to characterize the new atomism as the invasion of the subsensible world with new “laws of nature”.

Last Modified: 17-Oct-2020
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