The giants upon whose shoulders we all are standing
Georgia Irby-Massie demonstrates how close Eratosthenes came to calculating the circumference of the earth using measurements from a pair of sundials, one on the Tropic of Cancer and another in Alexandria. His measurement was accurate to within 15 percent.
The bathtub scene made the cut...but just barely.
The most familiar story of ancient science relates Archimedes’ be-tubbed solution to a knotty problem requiring the nondestructive evaluation of a king’s crown that may or may not have been solid gold. The story concludes with a naked victory lap through the streets of Syracuse by the scientist-philosopher, punctuated by his shouting “Eureka, eureka!” The Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists is dismissive about the bathtub story, noting that it has “the ring of legend.” Georgia Irby-Massie doubts that it ever happened.
Irby-Massie, an assistant professor in classical studies at William and Mary, is one of the editors of the Encyclopedia, along with Paul Keyser. The work, in production at Routledge Press, contains around 2,000 entries on the leading (and lesser) lights of science from the ancient Mediterranean world. The entry on Archimedes asserts his status as “the most important scientist of antiquity,” his alleged bathing habits eclipsed by accounts of his seminal contributions to modern physics, mathematics and engineering. For example, his eponymous Principle is not only a staple of elementary-school science demonstrations, but also keeps submarines at the proper depth.
Mother of invention
There’s always been plenty of sources for information on Archimedes, Socrates, Aristotle and the other giants of the ancient scientific world, but how about people like Salpe of Lesbos or Andreas of Karustos?
Andreas was the personal physician to Ptolemy Philopator—the lackluster Egyptian king who lived centuries before the great geographer-astronomer Ptolemy. Andreas was mistaken for his patron and murdered in an assassination attempt, but not before he made a number of important medical discoveries, particularly in obstetrics and pharmacology. The work of classicists through a couple of millennia had not produced a single-source reference on ancient scientists, Irby-Massie said, even though more scientific texts survive antiquity than any other genre. Necessity, as Plato might say, became the mother of invention.
“Six or seven years ago, Paul and I were at a conference and we decided that what we wanted to see was an encyclopedia of ancient scientists,” Irby-Massie said. She pointed out that scholarly interest in scientists of the Classical Era is growing, and the Encyclopedia will fill a niche for those wanting a brief introduction to the work of philosopher-scientists from Thales of Miletus up through the Hellenistic and late-antique scientists, including the Greek-influenced Romans.
“What we want to do is provide as complete a snapshot as possible of what there was of ancient science,” Irby-Massie said. “Who was producing it, what texts were produced, what texts still survive, what the content of those texts were.”
Divide and conquer
They began their task by searching through existing texts, modern and ancient. The ancients had a working habit of citing previous authorities—much as today’s scholars—a handy point of reference for the encyclopedists.
“Pliny the Elder, for example, has lists and lists of people to whom he referred. Galen also has lists of physicians whom he consulted,” Irby-Massie explained. “So we compiled the list of names and divided them up by category as much as we could—say, for example, Hippocratic physicians—then we went through recent scholarships looking for names of people we thought could produce articles on these groups of entries.” In their matching process, they found and drafted a scholar who had recently published a book titled Plato and Science, but not all matches were so easily made.
As editors, Irby-Massie and Keyser assigned a number of entries to themselves. Irby-Massie has a background in mathematics, but it didn’t cause her to limit her scope of interest. “I have written entries throughout the gamut of Greek science, she said. “Mathematicians, astronomers, astrologers, architects—lots of medical people because there are just so many more of them than there are of anything else—biologists, mechanics.”
Astronomy, mathematics, engineering and other categories of science cited by Irby-Massie are more representative of today’s culture than the scientific world of the ancients. The scientific process of the age was based more on reason and argument and less on empirical observation—although she cautions that Classical science was not completely based on abstractions.
“They were philosophers as well as scientists,” Irby-Massie said. “They had a holistic outlook on the world and there was much less specialization. Take Archimedes, for example, who was renowned as a designer of bigger and better weapons to kill the enemy. He considered himself primarily a mathematician which meant that he considered himself a philosopher—a person who loved wisdom and knowledge for its own sake.”
Awe and shock
The beliefs and discoveries of scientists in the ancient world are still capable of delivering shock and awe in the 21st Century. Irby-Massie holds thumb and index finger an inch apart as she relates that Democritus “came this close to inventing integral calculus.
And then there was Zeno of Elea, famous for his mathematical paradoxes, whose precept “all is one” sounds tantalizingly Einsteinian. Was Zeno, back in the Fifth-Century B.C.E., standing near the door of relativity, if not knocking on it?
“I think he was. I really think he was. Zeno had a very unusual view of the world,” Irby-Massie said. Along with Zeno and other ancients who accurately mapped the neural system or wrote about atomic structure and evolution, there were plenty of people back then who believed what Irby-Massie describes as “a lot of crazy things.” People learned astronomy in order to practice astrology, for instance. The Etruscan “scientists” had bronze maps of pig livers for handy reference during acts of divination.
“One of my favorites was from Pliny the Elder, who prescribed a contraceptive that involves inserting a particular hairy spider into a piece of jewelry and wearing it around your neck,” Irby-Massie said. “That doesn’t sound the least bit scientific to me, and Pliny would have described it as folk magic.”
Anyone tempted to dismiss some of the oddities of ancient scientists should consider the four-humor theory founded by Hippocrates around 450 B.C.E. Hippocrates and his followers believed that health was maintained through a proper balance of the body’s four humors—blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. The Hippocratic four-humor school had rivals, such as the pneumaticist school, which believed that health was determined by the flow of breath through the veins, but eventually won out. Physicians were still basing their practice on the four-humor theory well past the Age of Reason and into the Industrial Age.
“Because, I think, the four-humor theory worked to some degree,” Irby-Massie said. “Hippocrates’ reputation just increased over the years. But it’s not just the philosophical framework of this theory. He and his students were observing the courses of disease and were writing case histories to the point where they were able to predict the course of a fever, whether a patient would come out of pneumonia, or at what point the patient would die.”