Continuing Legacies of Ancient Science

Continuing Legacies of Ancient Science

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Science, in the sense of serious efforts to understand and explain the world, has existed in all cultures. The ancients offered explanations for natural phenomena and for origins. Sometimes their explanations were in terms of invisible beings. Sometimes they were in terms of non-anthropomorphic forces and principles like water, fire, and breath.

Technology has also been there since ancient times. Human beings have been trying to harness matter, motion, water and fire for their own safety, convenience, and betterment since time immemorial. As Jacob Bronowski said, “Man survived the fierce test of the Ice Ages, because he had the flexibility of mind to recognize inventions and to turn them into community property.” Understanding and explanation on the one hand (science), and contrivances of useful devices and techniques (technology) on the other, have been there in all human cultures.

The achievements in thought and deed of ancient peoples were considerable. Indeed, it is fair to say that we are descended, not just from apes, but from thinkers and philosophers, from poets and artists, from creators and investigators as well. The ancients not only invented wheels and pulleys, built towns and cities, constructed structures and buildings that have lasted for centuries, but also initiated writing and counting and formulated laws and ethics.

Planets, stars, and constellations were named by the ancients who also recognized their periodicities. The units of time we use, from minute, hour and day to week, month and year emerged from ancient astronomers. We remember the Egyptians as progenitors of our hour which arose from their careful observation of the pre-dawn rising of the star Sirius. We owe our seven-day week to ancient Babylonians (Iraqis) who dedicated each day to one of (what they regarded as) the seven planets: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Their convention has stuck with us to this day. David Duncan described it all picturesquely: “Today almost everyone takes the precision of our calendar for granted, unaware of the long threads spooling out from our clocks and watches backward in time, running through virtually every major revolution in human science, all linked to the measurement of time…..”

We owe to ancient science the bases of mathematical computation, geometrical results and proofs, as well as the place value system in arithmetic. Every culture counted and calculated, and geometrical proofs go back to the time of Euclid. Of Euclid’s methods it has been said: “Greek mathematics can boast no finer discovery than this theory, which put on a sound footing so much of geometry as depended on the use of proportion.” The decimal system, so valuable in the development of mathematics, had its origins in ancient India. E. T. Bell underscored its importance this way: “The introduction (at some date before 800 C.E.) of zero as a symbol denoting the absence of units or of certain powers of ten in a number represented by the Hindu numerals has been rated as one of the greatest practical inventions of all time.”

The ancients also introduced many valuable technologies, which have undergone modifications and sophisticated improvements. These range from splints and arrows, through the harnessing of fire and the construction of the wheel, to the building of massive structures like pyramids, temples and cathedrals, the invention of plowshares, windmills, paper, gunpowder, and much more.

Consider, for example, the obelisks of ancient Egypt. Carved out of a single stone, each obelisk is a tall pillar, usu­ally erected on a square base and with a pyramidal top. The top of some of them is coated with an alloy of gold and silver to reflect sunlight. As with the pyramids, the geometry and symmetry of the obelisks are a blending of art, science, mathematics, and engineering. Obelisks rise to more than a hundred feet in height and could weigh many tons.

How such massive stones were brought hundreds of miles is still a mystery. T. G. H. James has explained the engineering complexity in the construction of something of such grandeur. “The successful completion of the whole complex operation of installing a pair of obelisks,” he says, “included the selection of suitable lengths of stone in the bed of the quarry, their extraction, their removal from the quarry to the river, their transference to barges for the journey to the temple sight, their conveyance from the barges to the site, and the ultimate erection and carving.”

From the investigations of ancient medical practitioners we have come to know about the curative qualities of herbs. The system of medicine in India known as Ayurveda is of great value and relevance in our own times. The hope has been expressed “that research in the sphere of Ayuvedic medicine could well prove to be both a bridge and the vehicle by which a truly effective rationalization of the health services could be achieved.”

The ancient world initiated some of the major institutions that have served civilization well. These include centers of learning, libraries, governments, worship-centers, as well as monetary systems.

Then again, not just our individual lives, but society and civilization also rest upon much more than manipulation and explanation of the physical world around us. Some of these, like love, ethics, and aesthetics, are related directly to everyday living, while others, like notions of God and of states after death, are conceptually significant factors in civilization. The ideas and visions of trans-physical reality, whether they are looked upon as revelations from a supernatural source, or as the penetrating speculations by very keen minds, have found expression in all religions. These exerted, and continue to exert, enormous influence on human thought and culture to this day.