Daniel Bernoulli: Biography, Inventions & Atomic Theory

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

In the 1700s Daniel Bernoulli discovered the principle that allows airplanes to fly and found the first evidence for the existence of atoms in gases. These are just some of his many scientific contributions! Learn about his life and work in this lesson.

The Birth of Atomic Theory

Hold up a piece a paper and imagine for a moment that you could break the paper into smaller and smaller pieces until you got down to such tiny pieces that you couldn't separate it any further. What would be left? Are there some fundamental particles that make up all the matter we see around us, even the piece of paper?

These questions were first addressed by the Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus, who lived in the fifth century B.C. They said that at the smallest level everything is made of tiny particles, which they called atoms. However, at the time they had no way to prove or even test this theory.

It would be several hundred years until a scientist and mathematician named Daniel Bernoulli would begin to provide some proof that these tiny atoms were really there. He lived in 1700s, and his groundbreaking work was instrumental in the development of modern atomic theory, which explains the behavior of matter in terms of the tiny atoms that it's made out of.

The eighteenth century mathematician, scientist, and inventor Daniel Bernoulli
Daniel Bernoulli

Early Life and Education

Daniel Bernoulli was born in 1700 in Groningen, a city in the northern part of the Netherlands. His father, Johann Bernoulli, was a professor of mathematics at the university there. The family had originally come from Basel, Switzerland, and when Daniel was five years old they moved back after his father became the chair of mathematics at the University of Basel. Interestingly, before Bernoulli's father was chair of mathematics, his uncle also held the same position!

Although his family was full of mathematicians, Bernoulli's father did not want him to follow in their footsteps. He tried to convince his young son to become a businessman, but Bernoulli refused. Finally, Bernoulli agreed to study medicine because his father thought it would be easier to make a living as a doctor than as a mathematician. He completed a medical degree in 1720, but he was still fascinated by mathematics and never gave up on his dream of becoming a mathematician like his father and uncle.

After obtaining a graduate degree in medicine, Bernoulli decided to go to Venice to get further medical training. However, while he was there he continued to study mathematics, publishing a book called Mathematical Exercises in 1724. In Venice, Bernoulli also invented a new type of hourglass that could be used to tell time on a ship. This was particularly challenging because of the motion of the sea, and Bernoulli's work was recognized when he won a prize from the Paris Academy in 1725.

Life in St. Petersburg

After these early successes, Bernoulli left medicine behind altogether and accepted a position as the chair of mathematics at a university in St. Petersburg. In 1727, a young man names Leonard Euler, who had been a student of Bernoulli's father in Basel, came to St. Petersburg. For the next few years, Euler and Bernoulli would work together, making many discoveries that revolutionized the world of science and mathematics.

Hydrodynamica and Atomic Theory

The most important and influential work Bernoulli did during this time was on fluid flow, a branch of science known as hydrodynamics. In his book Hydrodynamica, Bernoulli analyzes the motion of water as it flowed out of a hole in a container, describing the action of pumps used to raise water and presenting the first mathematical description of the kinetic theory of gases.

According to this theory, gases are made up of tiny particles that are in constant random motion. The interactions between these particles explains many of the properties of the gas. Finally, someone had provided mathematical evidence for the existence of those tiny atoms that the Greeks described thousands of years earlier! Although it would be many more years before the scientific community fully recognized the implications of Bernoulli's work, this laid the foundation for modern atomic theory.

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