Thales of Miletus

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Thales of Miletus

630?-547 b.c.

Greek Engineer

Thales is remembered as a founder of rational scientific inquiry and one of the first in a long and distinguished series of Greek scientists in the ancient world. Interested in virtually everything, he was perhaps the first person to try to postulate rational reasons for the phenomena he saw in the world, rather than relying on superstition or religion to explain everyday occurrences. In so doing, he helped set the stage for the great flowering of Greek science and philosophy that was to come, and he left his imprint on many of the Greek scientists who were to follow his example.

Thales was the son of Examyes and Cleobuline, themselves members of a distinguished family. Although Thales was likely born in the Greek city of Miletus, his parents may have been Phoenicians who lived in Miletus. However, Thales was Greek by upbringing if not by ethnicity, and he spent most of his life in Greece or its territories.

Among other things, Thales is credited with making significant contributions to geometry. For example, he was one of the first to accurately measure the height of the Egyptian pyramids, and he is frequently cited as one of the first to develop some of geometry's most basic theorems. In addition, many claim that he was the first to arrive at the concept of a logical mathematical proof, which forms the basis of much of mathematics and geometry today. However, for each such claim, there is a counter-claim that Thales was an empirical scientist who made use of a number of rules of thumb and observations, but did not necessarily understand why they worked.

These claims are difficult to sort out today, partly because none of Thales own writings have ever been found and partly because of the tendency of the ancient Greeks to attribute much more to him than he ever could have actually accomplished. One example of this is his purported prediction of a solar eclipse in 585 b.c. Given the fact that solar eclipses affect only a very small part of Earth, it is now considered highly unlikely that one could have been predicted so long ago, especially in light of that time's astronomical knowledge. It is thought more probable that Thales's contemporaries reasoned that so intelligent a man must have foreseen the eclipse, and never told anyone. Over the years, this transformed into the belief that he, in actuality, had predicted the eclipse.

However great such doubts, it is certain that Thales was highly respected during his time and for many centuries after his death. There can also be no doubt that this respect was deserved. Perhaps the best example of Thales's contribution to Greek science is his own particular cosmology. He felt that Earth consisted of a disk floating in water, and that some aspects of this setup also could be used to explain earthquakes. Of course, this explanation is wrong, but that is not important. What is important is that this marked the first time in recorded history that a person tried to explain Earth using a rational physical explanation rather than resorting to superstition. In this, Thales made a huge conceptual step, believing that a fallible human could explain concepts that were formerly the sole domain of the gods.

On a somewhat lighter side, Thales may also have given rise to a new form of humor. Walking along one evening, staring at the stars, Thales fell into a ditch. When he was helped out by an attractive servant girl, she is said to have asked him how he could possibly understand the heavens if he couldn't even see what was at his feet. This could well be the first absent-minded professor joke ever told.