The first scientists
The first scientific culture in the world was established about 2,500 years ago in Ionia, a Greek colony located among the islands and coasts of the eastern Aegean Sea (roughly the western shoreline of Turkey today). Ionia was not at the center of anything, but was at a crossroads of trade between Greece and the civilizations of Eastern Asia. As often happens in such regions a diversity of cultures prevailed and differing belief systems were accepted. The physical disconnection of the islands and inlets further prevented a single world view from taking over the region.
Around 600–400 B.C. an era known as the Ionian Awakening began. The Ionians rejected superstition and a remarkable idea took hold: the universe is knowable. It exhibits an internal order that allows the laws of nature to be revealed.
The thinkers of the time were children of sailors, farmers, and tradesmen. These men and women were used to getting their hands dirty. They built things, fixed them, and understood how they worked. In Ionia, practicality and experimentation were highly valued.
The Ionian way of thinking led to a number of notable scientists and engineers. Thales of Mile was a geometer who tried to explain the world without superstition and employed the length of a shadow and angle of the sun above the horizon to determine the height of buildings. Theodorus, the master engineer, is credited with inventing the key, the ruler, the carpenter’s square, the level, the lathe, and even central heating. Empedocles proved that we live in an atmosphere of air, a thing we cannot see and often cannot feel but does exert constant pressure on us. When asked about his purpose in life, Anaxagoras replied, “The investigation of the Sun, the moon, and the heavens,” a true astronomer! He was the first person to posit that the moon shines by reflective sunlight and came up with a theory for its phases. Democritus invented the word “atom,” and imagined calculating the volumes of shapes by cutting them up into a very small number of thin plates, knocking on the door of integral calculus.
The Great Library
Alexandria inherited the intellectual flame that was lit in Ionia. Scholarship came into its own in this city founded by none other than Alexander the Great. Alexandar promoted open-minded learning. Although it’s hard to say which rumors are true, he is often credited with descending under the sea in the world’s first diving bell, welcoming differing religions, encouraging his officers to take Persian wives, and collecting exotic plants and animals among other things. But the crown jewel of Alexandria was the magnificent library.
The library was actually built and maintained by the Ptolemaic dynasty, Greeks who inherited the Egyptian portion of Alexander’s empire. They poured a considerable amount of wealth into amassing all the knowledge of the ancient world. Ships pulling into the harbor would be searched, not for contraband but for books. Any scrolls that were found were then laboriously hand-copied before being returned to their owners. The Ptolemies sent agents abroad to buy up libraries. On one presumably memorable occasion, they secured the official state copies of ancient tragedies from the Athenians, guaranteeing the return of the documents by leaving an enormous cash deposit. Ptolomy valued knowledge more than gold and silver though. The originals were kept in Alexandria and copies sent back to Athens.
New scientific knowledge was also generated in Alexandria. It was here that Eratosthenes made an accurate estimate of the diameter of the earth and argued that you could reach India by sailing west from Spain. Hipparchus thought that stars were created, destroyed, and slowly moved through the cosmos over centuries. And Euclid wrote a textbook on geometry that would inspire Kepler and Newton 1500 years later.
The seeds of modern scientific knowledge were sown in Ionia and Alexandria over 2000 years ago, but were not revived until the Italian renaissance. So what happened? And what can we learn from these civilizations to teach us about our own potential futures?