Friday, December 16, 2011

Anaximander of Miletus as First Scientist

Carlo Rovelli at Scientific American writes

Modern science is a vast activity which has many fathers. Many could be named “the first scientist,” and I am sure you have your favorite one. By focusing on Anaximander, I wish to illustrate and emphasize one characteristic of scientific thinking that is even more fundamental, I believe, than Galileo’s introduction of modern experimentation, or Newton’s dynamical laws, or even Ptolemy and Ipparchus’ predictive mathematical astronomy or Aristotle’s keen observation of nature. What Anaximander started is the process of questioning common knowledge in depth, subverting the shared vision of the world, and proposing a novel conceptual structure for understanding reality. Observed from the particular perspective of a scientist of today, the ideas of Anaximander acquire a new sense, and the immensity of their legacy becomes evident.

Anaximander lived 26 centuries ago in Miletus, a Greek city on the coast of modern Turkey. He understood a surprising number of facts that we consider obvious today, but which had taken humanity millennia to figure out. Foremost, he is the one that first realized (and who was able to convince the world) that the Earth is not lying on something else (columns, turtles, an ocean, earth down forever), bur rather it floats free in space. The sky is not just above our heads: it is all around us, including under our feet.

Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of science, called this idea “one of the boldest, most revolutionary, and most portentous ideas in the whole history of human thinking.”
There is much more at the link explaining why Rovelli considers Anaximander to be exemplary of the core of the scientific endeavor ("the process of questioning common knowledge in depth ... and proposing novel re-conceptualizations of the world"; "a deep acceptance of our persisting uncertainty, and our vast ignorance").

Rovelli covers the topic in even greater depth in his newly released book The First Scientist: Anaximander and his Legacy.

As an aside, note that Rovelli draws a link between the birth of science and democracy

[S]cience started precisely at the same time when democracy was being born. Anaximander was a contemporary of Solon, who wrote the first democratic constitution in Athens. Anaximander’s Miletus was part of the Ionian league, whose delegates met in the Panionium sanctuary: perhaps the first parliament in the history of humanity. At the very same time when they get rid of kings and emperors, people started looking the world with new eyes and discovered something very new about it. The idea that common decisions are better found in an open discussion where everybody can listen to others and is ready to change his (and, later, her) mind was born together with the idea that we can increase our knowledge by observing, discussing and by changing our minds about the world. Democracy and science are close sisters.
Timothy Ferris argued a similar point in his excellent The Science of Liberty, but focused on the modern birth of democracy at around the time of the scientific revolution.

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