Topic 6 – Ancient Greek Science

Dec 5, 2021


“Before a structure such as Stonehenge or the Templo Mayor could be built, careful observations had to be made and repeated over and over to ensure their accuracy. Careful,
repeatable observations also underlie modern science. Elements of modern science were therefore present in many early human cultures. If the circumstances of history had been different, almost any culture might have been the first to develop what we consider to be modern science. In the end, however, history takes only one of countless possible paths. The path that led to modern science emerged from the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Middle East—especially from ancient Greece.

Why does modern science trace its roots to the Greeks?
Greece gradually rose as a power in the Middle East beginning around 800 b.c. and was well established by about 500 b.c. Its geographical location placed it at a crossroads for
travelers, merchants, and armies from northern Africa, Asia, and Europe. Building on the diverse ideas brought forth by the meeting of these many cultures, ancient Greek philosophers soon began their efforts to move human understanding of nature from the mythological to the rational.

Three Philosophical Innovations
Greek philosophers developed at least three major innovations that helped pave the way for modern science.

First, they developed a tradition of trying to understand nature without relying on supernatural explanations and of working communally to debate and challenge each other’s ideas.

Second, the Greeks used mathematics to give precision to their ideas, which allowed them to explore the implications of new ideas in much greater depth than would have otherwise been possible.

Third, while much of their philosophical activity consisted of subtle debates grounded only in thought and was not scientific in the modern sense, the Greeks also saw the power of reasoning from observations. They understood that an explanation could not be right if it disagreed with observed facts.

Models of Nature

Perhaps the greatest Greek contribution to science came from the way they synthesized all three innovations in creating models of nature, a practice that is central to modern science. Scientific models differ somewhat from the models you may be familiar with in every­
day life. In our daily lives, we tend to think of models as miniature physical representations, such as model cars or airplanes. In contrast, a scientific model is a conceptual representation created to explain and predict observed phenomena. For example, a scientific model of Earth’s climate uses logic and mathematics to represent what we know about how the climate works. Its purpose is to explain and predict climate changes, such as the changes that may occur with global warming. Just as a model airplane does not faithfully represent every aspect of a real airplane, a scientific model may not fully explain all our observations of nature. Nevertheless, even the failings of a scientific model can be useful, because they often point the way toward building a better model.
The Greeks created models that sought to explain many aspects of nature, including the properties of matter and the principles of motion.

It’s worth briefly discussing how ancient Greek philosophy was passed to Europe, where it ultimately grew into the principles of modern science. Greek philosophy first began to spread widely with the conquests of Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.).
Alexander had a deep interest in science, perhaps in part because Aristotle had been his personal tutor. Alexander founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt, and his successors founded the renowned Library of Alexandria. Though it is sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from legend in stories of this great Library, there is little doubt that it was once the world’s preeminent center of research, housing up to a half million books written on papyrus scrolls. Most were ultimately burned, their contents lost forever.

The details of the Library’s destruction are hazy and subject to disagreement among historians, but the Library appears to have remained an important research center for several hundred years. One account holds that its demise was intertwined with the execution of a woman named Hypatia (a.d. 370–415) in a.d. 415. Hypatia was one of the few prominent female scholars of the ancient world, and some accounts attribute to her important discoveries in mathematics and astronomy. In commemoration of the ancient library, Egypt built a New Library of Alexandria (the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which opened in 2003), with hopes that it will once again make Alexandria a global center for scientific research.

The relatively few books from the Library that survive today were preserved primarily thanks to the rise of a new center of intellectual inquiry in Baghdad (in present-day Iraq). As European civilization fell into the period of intellectual decline known as the Dark Ages, scholars of the new religion of Islam sought knowledge of mathematics and astronomy in hopes of better understanding the wisdom of Allah. During the 8th and 9th centuries a.d., scholars working in the Muslim Empire translated and thereby saved many ancient Greek works. Around a.d. 800, the Islamic leader Al-Mamun (a.d. 786–833) established a “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad with a mission much like that of the destroyed Library of Alexandria. Founded in a spirit of openness and tolerance, the House of Wisdom employed Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all working together in scholarly pursuits.

Using the translated Greek scientific manuscripts as building blocks, these scholars developed the mathematics of algebra and many new instruments and techniques for astronomical observation. The latter explains why many official constellation and star names come from Arabic; for example, the names of many bright stars begin with al (e.g.,
Aldebaran, Algol), which means “the” in Arabic. The Islamic world of the Middle Ages was in frequent contact with Hindu scholars from India, who in turn brought ideas and discoveries from China. Hence, the intellectual center in Baghdad achieved a synthesis of the surviving work of the ancient Greeks and that of the Indians and the Chinese. The accumulated knowledge of the Baghdad scholars spread throughout the Byzantine empire (part of the former Roman Empire). When the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) fell to the Turks in 1453, many Eastern scholars headed west to Europe, carrying with them the knowledge that helped ignite the European Renaissance (and eventually, the enlightenment).” – The Cosmic Perspective (Bennett et al.)


Name a few noteworthy Greek philosophers

Name a few noteworthy Islamic philosophers

Newton’s quote “If I have seen further, it is because I am standing on the shoulder of giants”. What does Newton mean?

What happened to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad?