How the Greeks got there first

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

It was cheeky for me to be giving a paper at an international meeting on ancient Greek science in Liverpool. But I have two excuses. First I strongly hold the somewhat politically incorrect, but historically true, idea that all science as we know it had its origins in ancient Greece. Secondly, Archimedes is one of my heroes and I could not resist the opportunity to put him in his proper place in the history of science - up there with Newton.

The Greeks were the first people in recorded history to do what we would regard as science. They stood back from nature and tried to understand it for its own sake. Understanding was to be its own reward. Other societies, like the Chinese, were brilliant engineers and technologists, but they had no science. And one can have wonderful technology without any scientific knowledge whatsoever, as shown by the early invention of agriculture and the ability to extract and work metals. The Greeks had two great advantages that helped them establish science: they had a society in which there was vigorous debate and discussion of evidence, and they discovered geometry, and therefore proved theorems. Moreover geometry provided a way of describing the world. The crucial role of the word therefore cannot be overemphasised. It lay at the core of their science.

Archimedes is the founder of modern physics. He was the first to apply mathematics rigorously to understand how the world functions. He set up a series of postulates that had to be taken as true and then proved his laws with a mathematical logic. His proof of the law of levers, that is, why a large weight can be balanced by a small weight if their distances from the point of support is inversely proportional to their weights, is highly imaginative. He needed to invent the concept of centre of gravity and to use, for the first time, equations in proving his argument. And then he went on to apply these ideas to floating bodies. I do not believe for a moment that he solved this difficult problem in the bath. He probably thought in the bath and often leapt out when he had a new idea. Those who think all scientific ideas are merely temporary explanations, to be replaced later, should reflect on this theory which will be right forever.

It was a delight to be at a meeting on a subject about which one knew so little, with no fixed position to defend. It was possible to learn so much. But this was a meeting dominated by classicists and historians and they have a culture quite different from that which I, as a biologist, am most used to. For example, a mathematician attending a related meeting said that not since he was four years old and had just learned to read, had he ever been read to so much. No one at my meetings would dare to read their papers. And there is no attempt to make life easier for the listener by showing slides. And it struck me as very unfortunate that the classicists should have on the whole ignored Greek science and that scientists should be so ignorant of the enormous debt they owe those ancient Greeks.

How was my contribution received? There was a lively discussion about whether Archimedes really used equations, and my ignorance of the true nature of the original texts became all too apparent. I had only used the available English translations. I did learn, however, to appreciate how clever other Greeks like Galen were. But my passion for my hero remained not only undimmed but reinforced. No wonder Galileo called him "divine".

! Lewis Wolpert of University College London, is chairman of Copus (the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science).

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