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An atom is the smallest unit of matter that is recognizable as a chemical ELEMENT Atoms of different elements may also combine into systems called MOLECULES which are the smallest units of chemical COMPOUNDS In all these ordinary processes atoms may be considered as the ancient Greeks imagined them to be the ultimate building blocks of matter When stronger forces are applied to atoms however the atoms may break up into smaller parts Thus atoms are actually composites and not units and have a complex inner structure of their own By studying the processes in which atoms break up scientists in the 20th century have come to understand many details of the inner structure of atoms The size of a typical atom is only about 10 -10th meters A cubic centimeter of solid matter contains something like 10 24th atoms Atoms cannot be seen using optical microscopes because they are much smaller than the wavelengths of visible light By using more advanced imaging techniques such as electron microscopes scanning tunneling microscopes and atomic force microscopes however scientists have been able to produce images in which the sites of individual atoms can be identified EARLY ATOMIC THEORIES The first recorded speculations that MATTER consisted of atoms are found in the works of the Greek philosophers LEUCIPPUS and DEMOCRITUS The essence of their views is that all phenomena are to be understood in terms of the motions through empty space of a large number of tiny and indivisible bodies The name atom comes from the Greek words atomos for indivisible According to Democritus these bodies differ from one another in shape and size and the observed variety of substances derives from these differences in the atoms composing them Greek atomic theory was not an attempt to account for specific details of physical phenomena It was instead a philosophical response to the question of how change can occur in nature Little effort was made to make atomic theory
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