Dead atom

In hmolscience, a dead atom, or “dead atoms”, as compared to a living atom, or “living atoms”, is a religio-mythology based chemistry term, often found in origin of life discussions, particularly in anti-materialism arguments, according to which the atoms of the periodic table are classified as being “dead” or not in possession of “life”, or not alive, but which, according to the doctrine of evolution, some of which, such as hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur, etc., are the so-called "dead" components that go into the formation of the first living thing or first living molecule.

John Tyndall nsTyndall
In 1874, rish physicist John Tyndall, Belfast BAAS Address (see: Tyndall-Stewart-Tait debate), gave one of the clearest and most famous examples or parodies of the so-called "dead atoms" argument; specifically, he gives the following Platonic dialogue using Greek atomic theorist Lucretius as one of the protagonists: [2]

“You are a Lucretian, and from the combination and separation of insensate atoms deduce all terrestrial things, including organic forms and their phenomena. Let me tell you, in the first instance, how far I am prepared to go with you. I admit that you can build crystalline forms out of this play of molecular force; that the diamond, amethyst, and snow-star are truly wonderful structures which are thus produced. I will go further and acknowledge that even a tree or flower might in this way be organized. Nay, if you can show me an animal without sensation, I will concede to you that it also might be put together by the suitable play of molecular force.

Thus far our way is clear; but now comes my difficulty. Your atoms are individually without sensation, much more are they without intelligence. May I ask you, then, to try your hand upon this problem? Take your dead hydrogen atoms, your dead oxygen atoms, your dead carbon atoms, your dead nitrogen atoms, your dead phosphorus atoms, and all the other atoms, dead as grains of shot, of which the brain is formed. Imagine them separate and sensationless, observe them running together and forming all imaginable combinations. This, as a purely mechanical process, is seeable by the mind. But can you see, or dream, or in any way imagine, how out of that mechanical act, and from these individually dead atoms, sensation, thought, and emotion are to arise? Are you likely to extract Homer out of the rattling of dice, or the differential calculus out of the clash of billiard balls?”

In 1915, American naturalist John Burroughs, in his The Breath of Life, commenting on Tyndall's address, stated the following: “Tyndall was another great scientist with an inborn idealistic strain in him. His famous, and to many minds disquieting, declaration, made in his Belfast address over thirty years ago, that in matter itself he saw the promise and the potency of all terrestrial life, stamps him as a scientific materialist. But his conception of matter, as "at bottom essentially mystical and transcendental," stamps him as also an idealist. The idealist in him speaks very eloquently in the passage which, in the same address, he puts into the mouth of Bishop Butler, in the latter's imaginary debate with Lucretius, quoting the above dead atoms paragraph in full, and concludes: [3]

“Could any vitalist, or Bergsonian idealist have stated his case better?”
John Whitehorn
In 1917, American age 23 newly-minted biochemist John Clare Whitehorn (1894-1973), a year before entering Harvard Medical School, published his first article: “The Nature of Matter: This is Not a Universe of Dead Atoms”, based on the review of the evidence for the electronic nature of matter, published in Popular Astronomy and also republished by request in Scientific American, the opening paragraph of which is as follows: [4]

“From the time when men began to wonder at the world and ponder its problems they have puzzled over the nature of the universe. Sensing an external world of objects and feeling the vital necessity of dealing with these objects, they have sought for an understanding of the universe which would give them a mastery over it. And in their more contemplative moments they have tried to attain to a more comprehensive view which would not only be serviceable in handling objects but would also give a true presentation of the reality of the universe. Through the whole range of solutions offered one can find an everpresent attempt to conceive the universe in some unitary and comprehensive manner. Some have looked upon it as a chance collection of dead atoms propelled by blind force; others as pure idea or thought. Between these two extremes there have been all sorts of gradations and compromises.”

Whitehorn’s article prompted a response article entitled “A Universe of Active Energy” by a T. Henry, in The Theosophical Path, wherein the discussion was turned towards Whitehorn's use of the term "active energy" as the solution to the problem. [5]

Albert MathewsMathews
In 1924, American biochemist, physical chemist, and physiologist Albert Mathews, in his General Cytology textbook chapter “Chemistry and Psychism”, gave the following rather hilarious view of life arising out the the dead hydrogen and oxygen atoms via the action of light and ether: [6]

“It is perfectly correct, therefore, from this point of view to speak of living and dead hydrogen atoms. We can even go farther with the simile if we wish and say that when the living high reactive form of the atom passes to the dead, unreactive form, the soul of the atom escapes at the moment of death, for a ray of light leaves the dying atom an travels onward in space, until perhaps it encounters and is absorbed by some other dead hydrogen atom, which it again raises to life by thus giving it a soul. What is this soul? It is a minute portion of the luminiferous ether; of time and space; of eternity and infinity.

For us it is oxygen which thus summons the dead from the tomb; which vitalizes the dead molecules and atoms. The energy is stored in certain of the atoms of the molecules of the protoplasm in the form of widened orbits of rotation of the electrons. It is this which gives them the power of reacting and of passing back to the dead. When such electrons fall back to more stable configuration, the atom and molecule reverts to the dead and inert form such as we keep in bottles. It is the oxygen, then, which vitalizes all animals; but it is from the sun that the vital, radiant energy has come. It is in fact the luminiferous ether which has made they thing alive, for the ether is the great storehouse of energy; it is itself nothing else than space and time; energy and time. Energy is but ether divided by time. Quantity of energy is quantity of ether per second. So all goes back to the either; infinity and eternity. From it is derived our energy and life.”

(add discussion)
Dead atom (alive bee)
American illustrator Linda Hensley’s 2010 illustration of American nuclear physicist Philip Ugorowski’s description of the “nucleus as a jostling swarm of bees, and I happily absorbed his explanation of the orbiting electrons as more bees, or maybe gnats” to illustrate the apparent (or non-apparent) "dead atom" / "living molecule" (bee) divide, dichotomy, or dualism. [1]

Though difficult to see, the “dead atoms” concept is a forced contrivance a forcing of the religious-mythology view (life/death theory) into chemistry (atomic theory), of which the latter is hard science, the former mythology, primarily Egyptian mythology.

Some, such as German polymath Johann Goethe, approached the question, with inquisitive caution, and tend to side with physical chemistry (e.g. moral symbols); others, with human-grandeur ideals, may tend to slip into the "pan-views", i.e. panpsychism, panbioism, panexperientialism, etc., perspective, concluding that the hydrogen atom is alive, as is all the universe, or variants of this position. An example of the latter position is German polymath Gottfried Leibniz, who to rid himself of the problem of deriving life from death, displaced Greek atoms with his theory of “monads”, out the summation and integration of which he supposed all the phenomenon of life—sentient, intellectual, and emotional—to arise.

A recent example is American polymath Libb Thims, who in circa 2007 mindset was ruminating on Goethe's solution, vacillating in the vicinity of the Leibniz monad mindset, albeit more along the lines of the possibility of a fermion/boson type of rudimentary panbioism, but eventually, in 2009, arriving at the defunct theory of life position, a difficult position to arrive at, to say the least, according to which all religio-mythology based terms and conceptions need to be jettisoned, and as such the idea of a "dead atom" and the like term "living molecule" are both, in modern hard science terms, defunct neoplasms, a heritage of our ancient beliefs, passed along through the last five millennia of syncretism-evolved Anunian theology teachings, known commonly as: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, all rooted in ancient mythology of the life/death daily rebirth cycle of the sun (Ra), but which is now is explained via a combination of the nebular hypothesis, big bang theory, and hydrogen-helium thermonuclear reaction theory.

See also
Dead matter


1. Hensley, Linda. (2010). “Satellite”, Jun 25.
2. Tyndall, John. (1874). “Address” (pg. 32), Delivered before the British Association assembled at Belfast. Longmans, Green, and Co.
3. (a) Burroughs, John. (1915). The Breath of Life (pg. 220). Publisher.
(b) John Burroughs – Wikipedia.
4. (a) Whitehorn, John C. (1917). “The Nature of Matter: This is Not a Universe of Dead Atoms” (scan), Popular Astronomy, 25:229-44; in Scientific American Supplement, Aug 11, Part I, (pg. 82-), Aug 18, Part II (pg. 1-6-).
(b) Brosin, Henry W. (1951). “John C. Whitehorn: A Biographical Sketch” (abs), American Journal of Psychiatry, 108:7-9.
(c) John Clare Whitehorn (photo) –
5. Henry, T.. (1917). “A Universe of Active Energy” (dead atoms, pg. 481). The Theosophical Path, Volume 12-13.
6. (a) Mathews, Albert P. (1924). “Chemistry and Psychism”, in: General Cytology (pgs. 25-28, 92), Edmund V. Cowdry, ed. University of Chicago Press.
(b) Slosson, Edwin E. (1925). Sermons of a Chemist (pgs. 11-12). Harcourt, Brace, and Co.

Further reading
● Whitehorn, J.C. (1917). “The Nature of Matter: This is Not a Universe of Dead Atoms” (Part I, Part II) (scan), Popular Astronomy, 25:229.
● Henry, T.. (1917). “A Universe of Active Energy” (dead atoms, pg. 481). The Theosophical Path, Volume 12-13.

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