Roger M McCoy
A few men in the early Greek civilization made attempts to understand natural phenomena by observation and reason rather than relying on supernatural forces. In some cases their conclusions lasted into the present time. When you study geometry you usually hear of a Greek living in the sixth century BCE named Thales. This man found that the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter is a constant, which he identified by the Greek letter 𝞹 (pi). He used 𝞹 because it is the first letter of the Greek word, περίμετρος, which written in Latin script as perimetros, becomes perimeter. The use of pi is unavoidable for anyone making computations involving circles. In recent times math fans even observe a pi day, March 14th, which coincidentally is the approximate value of pi when the date is written as 3.14.
Thales also accurately predicted the solar eclipse of 585 BCE. Aside from these important contributions his other efforts involved wrong assumptions which led to inaccurate conclusions. Fortunately his wrong conclusions led to criticism from one of his own students, Anaximander, and thus was born a very important element of science…criticism from colleagues. Scientists today make a practice of testing, replication, and analysis of work by other scientists. Now all scientific discoveries are reviewed by other scientists who have no personal involvement in the discovery. This approach reflects back to Thales’ student, Anaximander questioning his mentor’s conclusions. Thales is sometimes called the "father of science” partly because he was the first to propose natural rather than supernatural explanations for common occurrences. Much of their work is now classified under mathematics.
Another sixth century BCE Greek, Pythagoras, is best known to geometry students for his useful Pythagorean theorem, which shows the relationships among the sides of a right triangle, i.e. one angle is 90 degrees. In addition, Pythagoras was also the first to propose that the Earth is a sphere. As the first to apply observation and analysis to come to conclusions about the natural world, Thales and Pythagoras showed us that science is more than a body of facts; it is a way of thinking. Their use of observation and deduction to test a theory is still an important foundation of science today.
Archimedes’ (b.287 BCE) study of fluids led to explanations of water pressure and an understanding of why some objects float and others sink. For an example of his idea, consider that a cubic foot of aluminum weighing 168 pounds will displace a cubic foot of water which weighs only 62 pounds and the aluminum will sink. If the aluminum cube is then made into an aluminum boat, its volume is greater and the amount of water it displaces increases. If the boat made from the cubic foot of aluminum now displaces more than one cubic foot of water (168 pounds), the boat will float. If the boat should leak and fill with water it will lose that advantage and sink. Archimedes is also credited with explaining the principle of the lever and devising Archimedes’ screw which is still used as a means of raising water from one level to another.
Among other early Greek scientists were Hippocrates (b.460 BCE) who was first to write descriptions of many diseases, and Galen (b.129 BCE) who actually performed many operations including eye and brain surgery which nobody tried again for almost two thousand years…no information on the fate of his patients. The Greeks under the guidance of Hippocrates made substantial progress in understanding the human body. Prior medical methods had been largely confined to religion, rituals and potions. Disease and mental disorders were considered a sign of the gods’ disapproval and must be dealt with by spells or prayers.
Meanwhile in China inventive minds were recording astronomic events such as solar eclipses and supernova (a star that suddenly increases brightness due to an explosion), and creating many useful things such as the abacus, sundial, the compass, paper, and gunpowder. Other centers of learning in the pre-science ancient world include Babylonia, Egypt, and Persia, where detailed astronomical tables were compiled.
Egypt produced some significant advances in geometry which developed from the land surveying needed to preserve the layout of farmland and ownership after flooding by the Nile River. Their most famous contribution, actually made by the Greeks who occupied the country, was the compilation of all known information of their time, written on scrolls for storage in the famous library in Alexandria. Many Greek intellectuals of the time are known to have used the Alexandria library, but unfortunately it was totally destroyed by fire in 275 CE while the occupying Roman army was putting down a rebellion, and all the valuable scrolls recording ancient literature and knowledge were lost.
Science made a significant beginning under the ancient Greeks and Persians and copies of the ancient scrolls had been made by European scholars. During the Middle Ages most of that ancient knowledge in Europe was destroyed by invading barbarians or suppressed as pagan ideology by the Christian Church in Rome. Thus Europe entered the “Dark Ages” while the rest of the civilized world (Persia, Babylonia, China, etc.) carried on the intellectual tradition with no suppression of knowledge. Fortunately much of the knowledge preserved in China, India, Babylonia, and even Ireland, was recovered during the European Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when communication between Europe and the East was restored.
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