Introduction: 2000 B.C. to A.D. 699

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Introduction: 2000 b.c. to a.d. 699


Throughout the course of human history, science and society have advanced in a dynamic and mutual embrace. Regardless of scholarly contentions regarding an exact definition of science, the history of science in the ancient world is a record of the first tentative steps toward a systematic knowledge of the natural world. During the period 2000 b.c. to 699 a.d., as society became increasingly centered around stable agricultural communities and cites of trade, the development of science nurtured necessary practical technological innovations and at the same time spurred the first rational explanations of the vastness and complexity of the cosmos.

The archaeological record provides abundant evidence that our most ancient ancestors' struggle for daily survival drove an instinctive need to fashion tools from which they could gain physical advantage beyond the strength of the relatively frail human body. Along with an innate curiosity about the workings and meanings of the celestial panorama that painted the night skies, this visceral quest for survival made more valuable the skills of systematic observation, technological innovation, and a practical understanding of their surroundings. From these fundamental skills evolved the necessary intellectual tools to do scientific inquiry.

Although the wandering cultures that predated the earliest settlements were certainly not scientifically or mathematically sophisticated by contemporary standards, their efforts ultimately produced a substantial base of knowledge that was fashioned into the science and philosophy practiced in ancient Babylonia, Egypt, China, and India.

While much of the detail regarding ancient life remains enigmatic, the pattern of human history reveals a reoccurring principle: ideas evolve from earlier ideas. In the ancient world, the culmination of early man's intellectual advances ultimately coalesced in the glorious civilizations of classical Greece and Rome, where the paths of development for science and society were clearly fused. Socrates' observation that "The unexamined life is not worth living," expresses an early scientific philosophy that calls thinking people to examine, scrutinize, test, and make inquires of the world. This quest for knowledge and rational thought gave a practical base to the development of modern science and society.

The Formulation of Science

In ancient societies, the natural world was largely explained by the whims of gods or the dreams of man. Against this backdrop, the earliest scientists and philosophers struggled to fashion explanations of the natural world based on observation and reasoning. From a fundamental practice of counting, for example, ultimately evolved Pythagorean arguments about the nature of numbers. From attempts to explain the essential, basic constituents of the material world came Leucippus (c. 440 b.c.), Democritus (c. 420 b.c.), and Epicurus (342-270 b.c.), who argued that matter was composed of extremely small particles called atoms.

The advancement of science was consistently spurred by an increasing need to measure and manipulate the world. It is evident from early mathematical problems embodied in both the Moscow and Rhind papyri that practical mathematics and geometrical reasoning in were well developed in ancient Egypt, especially they as related to the science of building and construction. From these practical roots grew the flower of formal mathematical theory in ancient Greece.

Unfortunately, many of the once-cherished arguments of ancient science ultimately proved erroneous. Despite their flaws, these philosophical statements of logic and mathematics were stepping stones to modern scientific understanding. For example, until swept aside in the Copernican Revolution of the 1500s, errant models of the universe made by Ptolemy (127-145) dominated the Western intellectual tradition for more than a millennium. Although Aristotle's (384-322 b.c.) physics asserted that a moving body of any mass had to be in contact with a "mover," and for all things there had to be a "prime mover," this flawed but testable hypothesis did not yield until brought under the empirical and mathematical scrutiny of Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

Amidst misguided concepts were often found examples of solid scholarship and brilliant insights into natural phenomena. Euclid's Elements, a synthesis of proofs, was the seminal mathematical text of the period. Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 b.c.) proposed that Earth rotated around the Sun more then 1,700 years before Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) defied church doctrine to reassert the heliocentric view. Another example of the depth of intellectual progress in the ancient world can be found in the work of Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-194 b.c.), who, while working at the great library in Alexandria, Egypt, used elegant deduction and clever empiricism to deduce a reasonable estimate of the circumference of Earth at a time when only the most primitive of maps could be constructed.

Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian Science and Mathematics

Reconstructed from the scattered and fragmented remains of paintings and pots, the record of human civilization begins with the early settlements founded along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in about 3500 b.c. Although scholars don't believe that this early civilization invented writing, they did keep records, used a calendar based on the phases of the Moon, and made the first technological use of metals. The Mesopotamian culture that followed used cuneiform writing to detail the ebb and flow of early history, from the Sumerian King Gilgamesh through the collapse of Sumer and the rise of Babylon.

The advancements of science in Mesopotamia are concentrated in two divergent periods, the earlier Babylonian period (1800-1500 b.c.) and the later Seleucid period (400-100 b.c.). It's clear that many of the mathematical techniques and skills used in these societies predate either of these periods. The earliest papyrus and cuneiform writings known show a wide practical application of mathematics, especially as related to building and construction. In an effort to fashion more accurate calendars, particular attention was paid to the seasonal movements of the stars. The Babylonian development of a sexagesimal (base-60) numerical system allowed accurate calculation of the movements of the celestial sphere needed for the advancement of astronomy and the practice of astrology. By the sixth century b.c., Egyptian priests used crude instruments to measure the transits of stars across the night sky, and observations of the Sun allowed for accurate predictions regarding annual Nile flooding.

Writing in the ancient world let people codify and calculate many things. Alongside the laws of Lipit-Ishtar and the Amorite king Hammurabi (the first codes of law in world history) are remnants of ancient religious beliefs and primitive medical practices. Mummies, medicines, and ointments provide first-hand testimony of primitive medical practices in ancient Egypt. In China, the development of acupuncture marked a systematized and well documented integration of anatomy and physiology that persists today. Codified Hebrew dietary laws still reflect early religious practice and practical health concerns.

Mesopotamian mathematicians were able to construct base-60 systems, rudimentary uses of π, quadratic equations, and techniques that foreshadowed the Pythagorean theorem to influence the mathematics of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and China. Advancements in mathematics provided tangible progress. The counting board and abacus became important everyday tools to aid the development of trade. Priestly concern for the development of an algorithmic calendar needed for religious practice also allowed the development of mathematical methods for the accurate apportionment of foodstuffs. The incorporation of the Indian concept of zero provided a much-needed boost for theoretical and practical development in mathematics. Of utilitarian value, these workable mathematical systems utilizing the null or zero concept were nearly duplicated in ancient Chinese and Mayan cultures.

The Science of Greece and Rome

In ancient Greece, the cradle of classical civilization, human understanding of the physical universe and the mathematical laws that governed its behavior reached intellectual heights that would not be scaled again until late in the Renaissance.

Modern atomic theory and the logical divisions of matter trace back to Democritus and the pre-Socratic philosophers. The assertion that matter had an indivisible foundation made the universe finite and knowable within developing systems of logic by Zeno and other Greek philosophers. Early theories of the nature of matter became the subject of intellectual and societal discourse. Ideas of atomism and the nature of the elements were developed and argued in Plato's Timaeus, Aristotle's writings, and in the assertions of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

Trade contacts and the march of Alexander the Great's armies helped advance knowledge in ancient Greece by bringing scientific knowledge from early Egypt, Babylon, India, and China. In addition, the ancient world had a confluence of intellectual needs that did not require physical contact. The need to develop accurate calendars in China, for example, stimulated the development and use of many of the same astronomical and astrological techniques in Mediterranean cultures. Regardless of the culture, within these societies independent observations of the celestial sphere slowly yielded a firm foundation for the advancement of astronomy.

The assimilation of science and culture also provided a powerful drive in the evolution of cosmological and theological systems that associated the wanderings of the planets with the whims of gods and goddesses. Although the interpretation of celestial events as signs from the supernatural persisted well into eighteenth-century Europe, early myths and legends are replete with references to the prediction and observation of both solar and lunar eclipses. Beyond their importance in local religious festivals, interpretations of the heavens became, if not actual, at least legendary explanations for the birth of kings and the fall of dynasties. The prediction of a 585 b.c. solar eclipse by Thales, for example, is held to have led to the cessation of war between the Medes and the Lydians.

The Foundations of Modern Science

Aristotle's theories regarding chemistry and the four elements (e.g., earth, air, fire, and water) fostered an elusive and futile search for a fifth element (the ether) that would vex scientists until the assertion of relativity theory by German-American physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in the twentieth century.

Until the collapse of the Western Roman civilization, there were constant refinements to physical concepts of matter and form. Yet, for all its glory and technological achievements, the science of ancient Greece remained essentially nothing more than a branch of philosophy. Science would wait almost another 2,000 years for experimental methodology to inject its vigor.

In some very important ways Roman civilization returned science to its Egyptian and Mesopotamian roots. The Romans, like those earlier civilizations, subordinated science to the advancement of architecture and engineering. Accordingly, Roman achievements were tangible: aqueducts, bridges, roads, and public buildings that were the finest and most durable to be built until late in the Renaissance.

Neither were the ethics of science much advanced in the Roman Empire. The very structure of Roman society retarded the growth of science because of continued reliance upon slave labor, a resource that provided little incentive to develop labor-saving technologies. The value of scientific thinking is also put in perspective when considering that although the nature of matter was called into question, the ancient social institutions of slavery remained largely unchallenged.

If science was little more than a handmaiden to the Roman arts of military tactics and weaponry, it was swept from the philosophical stage during the decay and fall of the Roman Empire, the beginning of the Dark Ages, and the rise of Christianity. Objective evidence regarding the universe became increasingly sifted through theological filters that demanded evaluation of observation and fact in theological terms. As new theologies ascended over old, societies that had relied upon ancient unifying political and social structures became fragmented and intellectually isolated. These divisions not only hampered further advancements in science, they led to a loss of much of the intellectual wealth of the classical age. Although Arab scientists managed to preserve a portion of the scientific knowledge and reasoning of the ancient and classical world, the fall of the Roman Empire plunged Western civilization into the Dark Ages and medieval era in which science was to fitfully slumber for seven centuries.


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Introduction: 2000 B.C. to A.D. 699

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Introduction: 2000 B.C. to A.D. 699