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E - 119 : Why is Science so Greek?

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

The School of Athens, painted by Raphael 1509 - 1511 depicting nearly all the great Greek Philosophers and Scientists - read Wikipedia to find out who is who!

On our way from Malta to Athens, we will stop in towns which were once home to two prominent scientists and mathematicians: Syracuse to Archimedes and Croton to Pythagoras. Am often wondering, why is it that our Western Civilization is based on Greek culture? Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia or the Hindus Valley were richer civilizations. Greece is kind of a poor fellow with so little arable land that its people had to emigrate in the 8thcentury BC and find new homes in Magna Graecia, the Ukraine, the Adriatic and the south coast of France.

Syracuse, the home town of Archimedes

The influence of Greek civilization and science is dominant though throughout antiquity. Not for nothing did the Romans built their society on Greek foundations and developed it further. The Arab Caliphs did the same when they came to power in the 7th century AD. One of their first projects was to translate the important Greek oeuvres into Arabic in order to make the precious knowledge available to their world. Luckily, they did this! Western Europe lost most of the classical Greek works during the dark Middle Ages. Thanks to Arab copies, they could be recovered during the Renaissance.

Aristotle in Arabic Scriptures which were re-translated in the Renaissance

The question remains unanswered though, why the Greeks? Why not others? The Sumerians were excellent astronomers wih the intellectual skills to develop complex mathematics. So were the astronomers in the Hindus Valley. Or the Egyptians who oriented the Pyramids of Giza towards the stars and the solstice. The Persian Empire was well known for its logistics skills which allowed it to keep a standing army of 200’000 soldiers fit and fed – its command and control system was first rate. So why not them? Their elites were as curious and smart as the Greeks.

Mankind believed for thousands of years that the sun, the moon and the stars represented the Gods. Assuming they were recording divine messages, the astronomers of ancient civilizations compiled a rich trove of astronomical data and supplied them to their God-Kings who determined the calendar, the day of seeding and harvest and explained to their subjects the meaning of solar and lunar eclipses or comets. We know the names of many kings who mapped the skies but almost none of their astronomer. Interpreting the skies was a business for the ruling elite.

The Antikythera Device, our first analogue computer, with 27 wheels, accurately calculated the position of sun, moon and key stars for the next 250 years (built late 2nd century BC)

Over time, the results of these observations spread via trading routes to Greece where society was organized differently. The empires of Mycenae and Crete had collapsed and were replaced by dozens of city states run by their own free citizens. Greece was poor and had to mobilize all its manpower to survive. Mutual support was vital for a community - communal decision making its logic consequence. Not surprisingly, the word democracy originates from Greece. Demos = “people” / Kratos = “rule”, oligarchy means: Oligoi = “a few” / Kratos = “rule” and aristocracy: Aristos = “the best” / Kratos = “rule”. Am sure all aristocrats agree that they are the best … but probably nobody else! But most importantly, there were no King-Gods who used Astronomy to justify their own rule. As free citizens governed their own affairs, they also had their own view of the world. The wisdom of crowds came into play. Many Greeks were sailors and traders, understanding the mechanics of the heavens thus was a most useful skill to have. It made navigation easy.

How Eratosthenes (276 - 194 BC) calculated the circumference of the Earth

Hipparchus calculation of the distance of the moon applies the same principles

With their different approach, the Greek took the Gods out of the heavens and replaced them with reason and logic. They began to calculate the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars predicting their future positions – their tool was mathematics. It was the birth of science as we know it. Thalis of Miletus (626 – 548 BC) was considered by Aristotle to be the world’s first mathematician and scientific philosopher. He worked with deductive reasoning and was not only able to predict the solar eclipse of 585 BC, but also calculated the height of the Pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore.

Thales calculating the height of the Pyramids comparing them to the length of his shadow

Many Greek scientists followed in his footsteps and went on to measure the circumference of the earth at the time when most people believed it was flat, invented longitude and latitude, calculated the distance to the moon, created the first maps based on measuring the relative position of stars and distances by odometers, devised water pumps, pulleys, trireme warships, suspension bridges, catapults, the first analogue computers and steam engines and discovered how organs worked and disease progressed.

Archimedes' water wheels are used still today!

The complete list of Greek inventions fills many pages. If you want to learn more about Greek scientists, have a look at the site below:

The lack of central governance and the separation from religious leadership was the key reasons why science could develop. There was no supreme national, “divine” ruler who would veto a scientific discovery because it did not suit him. Another one was the country’s relative poverty. There is no abundance e where limestone rocks drop straight into the sea. Energy had to be used efficiently and things to be done with minimal effort. It reminds me of our own industrial revolution which did not happen in wealthy Spain, France or Italy but in relatively poor England who needed coal for energy. Since coal mines are often below groundwater levels, water had to be constantly pumped. The steam engine was perfect for the job. It consumed less coal than could be mined thanks to its actions. The steam engine opened the way for using fossil fuels – the energy that catapulted us into today’s wealth and lifestyle – and also our environmental problems.

For the last few centuries the Greek roots of modern science are honoured by making up neologism that compound Greek words and affixes but actually never existed in the Greek language. Good examples are telephone (tele = “far”, phonos = “voice/sound”) or atmosphere (atmos = “vapour”, sphere = “globe/ball”).

Archimedes also invented pulleys to make maximum use of lever

This blog would be incomplete without talking about three other innovations which happened in parallel:

Greek traders and sailors perfected the Phoenician alphabet for their record keeping. Thus it became suitable for preserving the ideas and discoveries of scientists.

The free Greeks demanded access to knowledge which made them build libraries – the most famous is the library of Alexandria but there were many more. This way, scientists had access to the works of their predecessors and colleagues from far away. Giants could stand on the shoulder of giants before them.

Last but not least, Greek traders did not only ship grain from the colonies back to Greece, but also carried news and letters. Entire schools of thoughts were thus created throughout Greece, often at considerable distance.

In essence, freedom of men, the absence of a censoring institution, a competing decentralized political structure, relative poverty and the technical means to freely circulate new ideas created the base for our western civilization. There are many nations which never experienced an industrial revolution. It is worth asking why.

Pythagoras' Theorem we all know so well from our High School Math

How Archimedes calculated Pi for the first time!

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