No Such Thing as Atoms!

a play by Amy Brannon

This script is a dialogue between the major scientists who contributed to the modern model of the atom. It allows students to see the scientists as real people who don't know everything, but aren't afraid to propose theories based on what they do know. Technology is emphasized to show that new technologies lead to new discoveries.

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Script


Democritus

Greetings, young Americans. I am the great Greek thinker, Democritus.

I live in the year 400BC. We do a lot of thinking around here.

The younger generation thinks they are smarter than their elders. They don't believe me,

but I am convinced the elements are made of single particles. I would call them"atoms," which means indivisible.

I don't really have any technology to prove that, but I'm sure if we had some good equipment, it would prove you can cut a piece of matter down to a single piece that cannot be divided any further.

I picture an atom as a single particle, like this (show prop). I think future scientists will find a way to prove me right.

Aristotle

(Laugh out loud) You poor, crazy old man.

Democritus

Who are you?

Aristotle

I am the greatest Greek thinker, Aristotle, student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great.

I live in the year 350BC.

You drink too much wine. Your idea that elements are made of indivisible particles is nonsense.

I guarantee you with all the brilliance of my great brain that the universe is a continuous mixture of these four elements (show prop) earth, air, fire, and water. You can divide anything an infinite number of times, and you'll never come to a piece that cannot be further divided.

Democritus

Do you have any technology to prove that?

Aristotle

Duh! (point at brain like Blake on The Voice.) What do you call this?

Dalton

Your brain is technology?

Aristotle

It doesn't get any better than this, man. (point at brain with both hands) State of the art. Wait, who do you think you are, questioning me?

Dalton

I'm John Dalton, a school teacher in England. We question everything here.

Aristotle

England? What's that?

Dalton

It's a future thing. You wouldn't understand.

Aristotle

(look angry) There's nothing I can't understand. How far in the future?

Dalton

Like, 2000 years. I'm in 1808. AD.

Aristotle

AD?


Dalton

Forget it.

But I think your technology brain is made of mush, which is not infinitely divisible.

Those mixtures you speak of are composed of atoms, just like Democritus thought.

Aristotle

Nonsense!

Dalton

Yep, there's atoms, alright. Single pieces of matter that can't be divided.

Aristotle

What makes you think that?

Dalton

Well, you see, what happened was, we have some really impressive scales to measure the mass of those elements before and after they combine, and they always combine in whole-number ratios for a particular compound. (show model)

Aristotle

(scoff) ALWAYS?

Dalton

Well, when you perform hundreds of experiments, and read hundreds of other peoples' experiments, and it keeps happening, you kinda can't help but assume it always will. So if they combine in whole-number ratios, there must be whole pieces that can't be divided into parts.

Thomson

Well...

Democritus
Aristotle
Dalton

(All three turn toward Thomson)
WHAT?!

Thomson

With all due respect, I wouldn't say atoms can't be divided.

Dalton

Who are you?


Thomson

J.J. Thomson. I'm from England, too.

Dalton

I've never heard of you.

Thomson

I live in 1897. I'm a physicist.

Aristotle

Ooh, a physicist. (to Dalton) Step down, Mr. school teacher.

Dalton

Why? What did you find out?

Thomson

Well, apparently, atoms ARE divisible. They have removable parts with a strong negative charge.

Dalton

Removable? How do you know?

Thomson

Well, see, I was messing around with this cathode-ray tube…

Aristotle

Cat dog what tube?

Thomson

Its where a beam of light goes through a tube from one piece of metal to the other. Anyway, the negative side of my magnet pushes that light away, so I think the metal atoms are sending out little negative parts. I call them electrons.

Dalton

Where are these little negative parts in an atom?

Thomson

Oh, they're spread all through it. And the rest is positive, so it's all balanced out. Like nuts in plum pudding. Or like seeds in a watermelon.

Rutherford

(to Thomson) Um, sir?

Thomson

What?

Rutherford

I tested your hypothesis. It's wrong. There's not positive and negative all mixed together.

Democritus
Aristotle
Dalton

Who are you?

Rutherford

Rutherford. Ernest Rutherford.  I tested Thomson's hypothesis in 1911.


Thomson

How?

Rutherford

Surely you've heard of my gold-foil experiment.

Thomson

(scratch his chin silently)

Democritus

Gold foil? Sweet! What did you do?

Rutherford

Well, you see, I shot alpha particles at a piece of gold foil…

Democritus
Aristotle
Dalton

Alpha particles?

Rutherford

They're like little atoms that flick off of radioactive metals. Anyway, I shot them at some gold foil and I could see them hitting a screen BEHIND the gold foil. Thousands of them flew right through the gold and hit the screen.

Thomson

(not believing) You saw thousands of alpha particles?

Rutherford

Well, it seemed like thousands. I sat there for several nights in a row. Anyway, every once in a while, a particle would bounce back toward my alpha emitter.

Democritus

What could that mean?

Rutherford

Well, I wondered that myself. I finally figured it out. The alpha particles are positive and have a lot of mass, so they must have hit something positive with even more mass. And whatever they hit must be a tiny little area in the gold, because most of the alpha particles go right through without hitting anything.

Thomson

That's wild.

Aristotle

That's ridiculous. There's no such thing as atoms.

Bohr

You want wild, I'll show you something wild.

Democritus
Aristotle
Dalton

Who are you?

Bohr

Danish physicist, 1913.

Aristotle

(rolls his eyes) Yay. Another physicist.

Bohr

Yeah, Mr. Thomson. Atoms do have electrons, but they aren't spread evenly like plum pudding. They orbit the nucleus a set path, like planets orbiting the sun.

Democritus
Aristotle

(burst out laughing)
Planets orbiting the sun.

Bohr

Yes, gentlemen. The sun is the center of the universe nowadays.

Rutherford

How do you know the electrons orbit in paths?

Bohr

Because they give off light in certain patterns. I saw it when I was looking at a tube of hydrogen gas through my prism.

Aristotle

(puts head in his hands) This is beyond absurd.

New person

Oh, let me tell you about beyond.

All

Who are you?

New person

I am [actor invents this character]. I am a philosopher and have been for 30 years.

Democritus

(scoff) 30 years. Try thinking for 60 years, then call yourself a philosopher.

New person

Well, I am now 76 years old, and I think I have been  thinking for all those years.

Dalton

What do you know about beyond?

New person

I live in [actor chooses location] in the year 2222. I've seen things beyond all of you.

I foresee that in the future... (student makes up something futuristic)