History: Science & Ancient Greeks

Mozelle Martin

At the height of the ancient Greek civilization, around 2700 years ago, people started trying to give reasons and explanations for the way the world around them worked.

One could argue we are still trying to figure it out.

Anyway... the Greeks believed that their gods behaved logically and could not be the cause of everything that happened in nature. By thinking independently, the Greeks founded the study of natural philosophy, which ultimately led to the modern sciences.

The first known natural philosopher was Thales of Miletus (624 - 550 B.C.). He predicted a solar eclipse in 585 B.C. and introduced geometry (the study of shapes) to the world. Thales also developed the idea that the universe is an intelligent design, with each part depending on the others, and that each effect has a natural and repeatable cause.

This idea is the basis of working logically to establish scientific facts.

Sadly, Thales didn't leave any documentation behind, so everything we know about him came almost exclusively from Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.).

Aristotle, the son of a physician, questioned everything around him and investigated the effects to find causes. Aristotle and his followers wrote in detail about a wide range of subjects, including physics, biology, medicine, and earth sciences. Although many of his conclusions have been proven incorrect, they greatly influenced science for centuries.

Often described as the first pure mathematician, Pythagoras of Samos (569 - 475 B.C.) was interested in using logic and reason to prove mathematical principles. Today he is best known for the Pythagorean theorem, which connects the lengths of the sides of right-angle triangles. Relatably, sundials were used for many centuries to show the time by plotting the changing position of the sun's shadow during the day.

However, 1000 years before Pythagoras' theorem, a Babylonian discovered it and mapped a series of trigonometry tables with a clay tablet and a reed pen. They are more accurate than anything you'd learn in math class. The 3700-year-old tablet was used to plan the architectural construction of monumental structures, thereby proving the intense sophistication of Babylonian mathematics.

Next, for the guitar players reading this article, Pythagoras also discovered that the sound of a plucked string depends on its length. Moreover, he was also the first to use math to describe natural occurrences.

Of course, math would not have evolved without Archimedes (287 - 212 B.C.). Born on the eastern coast of Sicily (part of Greek colonization at the time), he made many important discoveries, including how to compute the spheres and cylinders and how forces work with levers. Archimedes used math to solve many practical problems, discovering how objects float in water and building war machines to protect his native city from the Roman invasion. Sadly, he was killed during the Siege of Syracuse.

However, in 1566, mathematician Tycho Brahe lost part of his nose in a duel with Danish noble Manderup Parsbjerg. The duel was supposed to settle an argument about a formula. Not sure who won, but for the rest of his life, the then-20-year-old Tycho Brahe had to wear a metal prosthetic nose.

Be sure to follow me, so you don't miss my next article, Science in Asia.

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History of Science to the Age of NewtonPhoto byUniversity of Oklahoma

As an aside, since I am so horrible at math, one of my lifelong jokes has always been: "who could have possibly been so bored, drunk, high, or demented that they decided to mix the alphabet with numbers?" Perhaps a future article on algebra may answer that. Personally, I haven't used algebra without force since high school, have you?

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