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6th century BC
     The universe of the Greeks
     The geographers of Miletus

5th century BC
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The universe of the Greeks: from the 6th century BC

The Greek interest in scientific speculation is first seen in the city of Miletus, in Ionia. Here the philosopher Thales acquires fame by predicting a solar eclipse in 585 BC. None of his works survive, but his reputation among Greeks in the following centuries is that of a man who takes a reasonable or 'scientific' approach to the mysteries of the natural world.

This reputation seems to be supported by the achievements of his pupil Anaximander. He is credited with being the first man to attempt a map of the world, and he offers a bold explanation of the origin of the universe.


In Anaximander's theory the cosmos results from a struggle between the opposites of heat and cold. In the vast unlimited beginning of time the two begin to separate, resulting in a ball of fire surrounded by mist. The hot ball contracts and hardens, forming a solid sphere at the centre - the earth.

But the separation is not perfect. Some outer rings of fire trap layers of mist within them. The mist is our atmosphere. Through gaps in it we catch glimpses of the surrounding fire, in the form of sun, moon and stars.


If later accounts of Anaximander's ideas are correct (only a single sentence of his work remains), he even imagines a version of gravity. He says that the earth can remain unsupported at the centre of this system, by reason of its equal distance from the surrounding bodies.

Anaximander's concept of the beginning of life is equally astonishing. He argues that humans cannot always have existed (our infants are too defenceless). The first living creatures, he believes, develop in water through the action of heat. They resemble sea urchins. Humans do not evolve from these urchins, but arrive later in a more welcoming environment.


The geographers of Miletus: 6th century BC

Nothing is known of the map of the world supposedly produced in Miletus by Anaximander in the mid-6th century BC. But by the end of the century, also in Miletus, another geographer writes a book of which sufficient details survive for his ideas to be reconstructed. He is Hecataeus.

Like most early mapmakers, Hecataeus puts the most important place at the centre of the world. For medieval Christian cartographers this is Jerusalem. For Hecataeus it is the Aegean Sea, on the east coast of which stands Miletus.


The shape of the world according to Hecataeus has a geometrical simplicity. It is a flat circle, with a continuous ocean forming the rim. The circular land mass is divided into two parts by an almost unbroken stretch of water linked with the ocean on the west at the straits of Gibraltar, then running east the length of the Mediterranean, through the Black Sea and (after a short land bridge) into the Caspian Sea, which joins the ocean on the east.

The semicircle of land above this belt of water is Europe, while the semicircle below is Asia. The part west of the Nile has the subsidiary name of Libya, standing in for Africa.


Hecataeus is at the end of a pioneering century of Greek science in Miletus, which lies to the east of mainland Greece. At the same period a new centre of Greek scientific speculation is being developed far to the west, in the Pythagorean tradition of southern Italy.

Greek philosophy is strongly associated with Athens, because of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. But scientific history testifies rather more to the colonial spread of Greek culture round the Mediterranean. Ionia and Samos, Italy and Sicily, Alexandria; these are the places where Greeks will establish the rational traditions of western science.


Pythagoras: 6th century BC

Ancient mathematics has reached the modern world largely through the work of Greeks in the classical period, building on the Babylonian tradition. A leading figure among the early Greek mathematicians is Pythagoras.

In about 529 BC Pythagoras moves from Greece to a Greek colony at Crotona, in the heel of Italy. There he establishes a philosophical sect based on the belief that numbers are the underlying and unchangeable truth of the universe. He and his followers soon make precisely the sort of discoveries to reinforce this numerical faith.


The Pythagoreans can show, for example, that musical notes vary in accordance with the length of a vibrating string; whatever length of string a lute player starts with, if it is doubled the note always falls by exactly an octave (still the basis of the scale in music today).

The followers of Pythagoras are also able to prove that whatever the shape of a triangle, its three angles always add up to the sum of two right angles (180 degrees).


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