Molecule - History and Etymology

History and Etymology

According to Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word "molecule" derives from the Latin "moles" or small unit of mass.

  • Molecule (1794) – "extremely minute particle," from Fr. molécule (1678), from Mod.L. molecula, dim. of L. moles "mass, barrier". A vague meaning at first; the vogue for the word (used until late 18th century only in Latin form) can be traced to the philosophy of Descartes.

Although the existence of molecules has been accepted by many chemists since the early 19th century as a result of Dalton's laws of Definite and Multiple Proportions (1803–1808) and Avogadro's law (1811), there was some resistance among positivists and physicists such as Mach, Boltzmann, Maxwell, and Gibbs, who saw molecules merely as convenient mathematical constructs. The work of Perrin on Brownian motion (1911) is considered to be the final proof of the existence of molecules.

The definition of the molecule has evolved as knowledge of the structure of molecules has increased. Earlier definitions were less precise, defining molecules as the smallest particles of pure chemical substances that still retain their composition and chemical properties. This definition often breaks down since many substances in ordinary experience, such as rocks, salts, and metals, are composed of large networks of chemically bonded atoms or ions, but are not made of discrete molecules.

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