Science in the Ancient World

Science in the Ancient World

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When we look at the heavens on a clear moonlit night, the twinkling stars and the silvery moon seem to be staring at us. Some acquaintance with astronomy might make us reflect on the incredible distances that separate us from the celestial bodies. We may have heard, for example, that the Pole Star, which is visible in the northern hemisphere, is some four hundred plus light years away: that is to say, that light from that star reaching us this night began its journey more than four hundred years ago.

It is no less exciting to reflect upon the fact that millennia ago, in China and India, in Babylon and Northern Africa, in ancient Greece and North America, and elsewhere human beings like ourselves gazed at that same star and wondered about it also. The same human spirit, encased in different frames, scanned the same skies and made very similar efforts to understand what it was all about. It is the elaboration of how this was realized over the ages that constitutes the history of science.

Thus, like all history, the history of science is an exploration into past events and accomplishments. It is also a recalling of the glories and blunders of our ancestors. But unlike most other histories, the history of science transcends (or ought to transcend) national boundaries. In its more universal aspects, it searches for the trials and triumphs of the human mind, rather than for national pride and cultural boasting, though this latter urge takes over now and again.

Science in various forms and shapes found expression and developed in a hundred ways in different cultures at different times. Therefore, it is difficult to dissociate this study from specific peoples and periods. This is inevitable in the context of ancient times when there was far less communication and collaboration among peoples and cultures, and the scientific enterprise grew in different ways in different regions of the world.

In the next few entries I will reflect on some of the legacies of ancient science, and also some elements in the worldviews of ancient peoples. A recalling of these is important for recognizing that we are not the first or the only ones to engage in science, and also for appreciating the differences between the pre-modern and the modern in their ways of apprehending the world, while remembering that both modes are very much present in our own times.