Science in the Ancient World An Encyclopedia

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About The Encyclopedia of Ancient History:. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History is the only comprehensive collection of twenty-first century scholarship available on the entire ancient Mediterranean world, with over 5, original entries published since November Why The Encyclopedia of Ancient History? To search for articles, please use the Advanced Search Tool.

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About this reference work About The Encyclopedia of Ancient History: The Encyclopedia of Ancient History is the only comprehensive collection of twenty-first century scholarship available on the entire ancient Mediterranean world, with over 5, original entries published since November Theophrastus also produced the first systematic attempt to classify minerals and rocks, summarised in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder in 77 AD.

The earliest Greek philosophers , known as the pre-Socratics , were materialists who provided alternative answers to the same question found in the myths of their neighbors: "How did the ordered cosmos in which we live come to be? As reported by such later writers as Aristotle, their explanations tended to center on the material source of things.

Science in the Ancient World: An Encyclopedia by Russell M. Lawson

Thales of Miletus — BC considered that all things came to be from and find their sustenance in water. Anaximander — BC then suggested that things could not come from a specific substance like water, but rather from something he called the "boundless. He adduced common observations the wine stealer to demonstrate that air was a substance and a simple experiment breathing on one's hand to show that it could be altered by rarefaction and condensation.

Heraclitus of Ephesus about — BC , then maintained that change, rather than any substance was fundamental, although the element fire seemed to play a central role in this process. All these theories imply that matter is a continuous substance. Two Greek philosophers, Leucippus first half of the 5th century BC and Democritus of Abdera lived about BC came up with the notion that there were two real entities: atoms , which were small indivisible particles of matter, and the void, which was the empty space in which matter was located.

Xenophanes of Colophon prefigured paleontology and geology as he thought that periodically the earth and sea mix and turn all to mud, citing several fossils of sea creatures that he had seen. The materialist explanations of the origins of the cosmos seems to miss an important point. It doesn't make much sense to think that an ordered universe comes out of a random collection of matter. How can a random assemblage of fire or water produce an ordered universe without the existence of some ordering principle? The first step in this emphasis upon a model was that of the followers of Pythagoras approximately — BC , who saw number as the fundamental unchanging entity underlying all the structure of the universe.

Even on a larger scale, the parts of the universe were arranged on the principles of a musical scale and a number. Thus with the Pythagoreans we find number emerging as the rational basis for an orderly universe — as the first proposal for a scientific ordering principle of the cosmos. Like the Pythagoreans, Plato c. A later account has it that Plato had inscribed at the entrance to his school, the Academy , "Let no man ignorant of geometry enter.

Plato is known more for his contributions to the philosophical basis of scientific method than to particular scientific concepts. He maintained that all things in the material world are imperfect reflections of eternal unchanging ideas , just as all mathematical diagrams are reflections of eternal unchanging mathematical truths.

Since Plato believed that material things had an inferior kind of reality, he considered that we don't achieve demonstrative knowledge — that kind of knowledge we call science — by looking at the imperfect material world. Truth is to be found through rational demonstrations, analogous to the demonstrations of geometry. Aristotle — BC disagreed with his teacher, Plato, in several important respects.

Science in the Ancient World: An Encyclopedia (History of Science)

While Aristotle agreed that truth must be eternal and unchanging, he maintained that we come to know the truth through the external world which we perceive with our senses. For Aristotle, directly observable things are real; ideas or as he called them, forms only exist as they express themselves in matter, such as in living things, or in the mind of an observer or artisan. As this last point suggests, Aristotle's concept of causes was less limited than ours. He distinguished four causes :. Aristotle's emphasis upon causes fundamentally shaped the later development of science by insisting that scientific knowledge, what the Greeks called episteme and the Romans scientia , is knowledge of necessary causes.

He and his followers would not accept mere description or prediction as science. In view of this disagreement with Plato, Aristotle established his own school, the Lyceum , which further developed and transmitted his approach to the investigation of nature. Most characteristic of Aristotle's causes is his final cause, the purpose for which a thing is made.

He came to this insight through his biological researches , in which he noted that the organs of animals serve a particular function.


Thus Aristotle was one of the most prolific natural philosophers of Antiquity. He made countless observations of the structure and habits of animals , especially those in the sea at Lesbos. He also made many observations about the large-scale workings of the universe, which led to his development of a comprehensive theory of physics. For example, he developed a version of the classical theory of the elements earth , water , fire , air , and aether. In his theory, the light elements fire and air have a natural tendency to move away from the center of the universe while the heavy elements earth and water have a natural tendency to move toward the center of the universe, thereby forming a spherical earth.

Since the celestial bodies — that is, the planets and stars — were seen to move in circles, he concluded that they must be made of a fifth element, which he called Aether. Aristotle could point to the falling stone, rising flames, or pouring water to illustrate his theory.

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His laws of motion emphasized the common observation that friction was an omnipresent phenomenon — that any body in motion would, unless acted upon, come to rest. He also proposed that heavier objects fall faster, and that voids were impossible. Aristotle's successor at the Lyceum was Theophrastus , who wrote valuable books describing plant and animal life. His works are regarded as the first to put botany and zoology on a systematic footing. He also produced one of the very first works on mineralogy , with descriptions of ores and minerals known to the world at that time.

He made some shrewd observations of their properties.

For example, he made the first known reference to the phenomenon, now known to be caused by pyroelectricity , that the mineral tourmaline attracts straws and bits of wood when heated. From both these early texts was to emerge the science of mineralogy , and ultimately geology. Both authors describe the sources of the minerals they discuss in the various mines exploited in their time, so their works should be regarded not just as early scientific texts, but also important for the history of engineering and the history of technology.

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Pliny is especially significant because he provides full bibliographic details of the earlier authors and their works he uses and consults. Because his encyclopedia survived the Dark Ages , we know of these lost works , even if the texts themselves have disappeared. The book was one of the first to be printed in , and became a standard reference work for Renaissance scholars, as well as an inspiration for the development of a scientific and rational approach to the world.

The important legacy of this period of Greek science included substantial advances in factual knowledge, especially in anatomy, zoology, botany, mineralogy and astronomy; an awareness of the importance of certain scientific problems, especially those related to the problem of change and its causes; and a recognition of the methodological importance of applying mathematics to natural phenomena and of undertaking empirical research. The resulting Hellenistic civilization produced seats of learning in Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria along with Greek speaking populations across several monarchies.

Hellenistic science differed from Greek science in at least two ways: first, it benefited from the cross-fertilization of Greek ideas with those that had developed in the larger Hellenistic world; secondly, to some extent, it was supported by royal patrons in the kingdoms founded by Alexander's successors. Especially important to Hellenistic science was the city of Alexandria in Egypt, which became a major center of scientific research in the 3rd century BC.

Unlike Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum , these institutions were officially supported by the Ptolemies; although the extent of patronage could be precarious, depending on the policies of the current ruler. Hellenistic scholars frequently employed the principles developed in earlier Greek thought: the application of mathematics and deliberate empirical research, in their scientific investigations. The interpretation of Hellenistic science varies widely. At one extreme is the view of English classical scholar Cornford, who believed that "all the most important and original work was done in the three centuries from to BC".

The level of Hellenistic achievement in astronomy and engineering is impressively shown by the Antikythera mechanism — BCE. It is a gear mechanical computer which computed the motions of the Sun and Moon, including lunar and solar eclipses predicted on the basis of astronomical periods believed to have been learned from the Babylonians.

In medicine , Herophilos — BCE was the first to base his conclusions on dissection of the human body and to describe the nervous system. Geometers such as Archimedes c. Eratosthenes used his knowledge of geometry to measure the distance between the Sun and the Earth along with the size of the Earth.

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Astronomers like Hipparchus c. Pliny reports that Hipparchus produced the first systematic star catalog after he observed a new star it is uncertain whether this was a nova or a comet and wished to preserve astronomical record of the stars, so that other new stars could be discovered. Science in the Roman Empire period was concerned with systematizing knowledge gained in the preceding Hellenistic period and the knowledge from the vast areas the Romans had conquered. It was largely their work that would be passed on to later civilizations.

Even though science continued under the Roman Empire, Latin texts were mainly compilations drawing on earlier Greek work.

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Advanced scientific research and teaching continued to be carried on in Greek.

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Science in the Ancient World An Encyclopedia Science in the Ancient World An Encyclopedia
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