Modern Chemistry Might Have Started A Few Decades Before We Thought

One of the annotations by Santorio Santori, a contemporary of Galileo. Courtesy of the British Library.

A new discovery highlights that Santorio Santori, one of the inventors of the thermometer, might have played a bigger role in the development of modern chemistry than we originally thought. He might have been responsible for the modern introduction of atomic theory years before his friend and contemporary Galileo Galilei published his books about the nature of matter.

According to Dr Fabrizio Bigotti, from the University of Exeter, Santorio not only put forward the idea that matter was made of particles as early as 1603, he also produced experiments to test that. This information, as reported in the journal Ambix, was discovered in an annotated copy of one of Santorio’s books.

"This discovery makes the case for a deeper study of early modern chemistry in the Medical School of Padua, where Santorio taught, and the work carried out there between the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century," Bigotti said in a statement. "Santorio's true contribution to chemistry has been forgotten but, I hope, this new discovery means that will no longer be the case.”

Santorio tested his assumptions about the nature of matter by doing optical experiments using lights as well as distilling urine. He believed, rightly, that the properties of a substance depend on how particles are distributed in a substance, and he rejected the classical notions of elements held by the Church.

"The notes show he did not see the world not made up of four elemental qualities – hot, cold, dry and moist – as Aristotle had suggested. This helped to start the process of getting rid of the idea that magic and the occult could be found in nature,” Bigotti continued.

Italy at this time was clearly ripe for the birth of the modern scientific method and the revival of the atomic theory first put forward by the Greek philosopher Democritus. It's interesting to think how these great Renaissance thinkers might have influenced each other. 

Galileo put forward his support for atomism first in 1612, but it wasn't until he published his book The Assayer in 1623 that he provided a stronger case for the corpuscular theory. Santori is often remembered for his medical work and his inventions like the wind gauge and the water current meter, but he was much more than that. 

"It is truly remarkable that, beyond his undoubted merits in science and early modern technology, Santorio also held very innovative ideas on chemistry and was so fully committed to investigating the structure of matter," Bigotti said.

The Venetian thinker clearly played an important role at the dawn of modern science and it’s only fair he gets the recognition for that.  

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