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Physics of the Greeks


Physics of the Greeks

Aristotle, by Francesco Hayez, 1811

Physics of the Greeks - Index

  • Before Aristotle
  • Physics of Aristotle
  • Archimedes, Hipparchus, & Ptolemy


    Ancient Physics

    In ancient times, the systematic study of fundamental natural laws was not a huge concern. The concern was staying alive. Science, as it existed at that time, consisted primarily of agriculture and, eventually, engineering to improve the daily lives of the growing societies. The sailing of a ship, for example, utilizes air drag, the same principle that keeps an airplane aloft. The ancients were able to figure out how to construct and operate sailing ships without precise rules for this principle.

    Looking to the Heavens and the Earth

    The ancients are known perhaps best for their astronomy, which continues to influence us heavily today. They regularly observed the heavens, which were believed to be a divine realm with the Earth at its center. It was certainly obvious to everyone that the sun, moon, and stars moved across the heaven in a regular pattern, and it's unclear whether any documented thinker of the ancient world thought to question this geocentric viewpoint. Regardless, humans began identifying constellations in the heavens and used these signs of the Zodiac to define calendars and seasons.

    Mathematics developed first in the Middle East, though the precise origins vary depending upon which historian one talks to. It is almost certain that the origin of mathematics was for simple recordkeeping in commerce and government.

    Egypt made profound progress in the development of basic geometry, because of the need to clearly define farming territory following the annual flooding of the Nile. Geometry quickly found applications in astronomy, as well.

    Natural Philosophy in Ancient Greece

    As the Greek civilization arose, however, there came finally enough stability - despite the fact that there still frequent wars - for there to arise an intellectual aristocracy, an intelligentsia, that was able to devote itself to the systematic study of these matters. Euclid and Pythagoras are just a couple of the names that resonate through the ages in the development of mathematics from this period.

    In the physical sciences, there were also developments. Leucippus (5th century B.C.E.) refused to accept the ancient supernatural explanations of nature and proclaimed categorically that every event had a natural cause. His student, Democritus, went on to continue this concept. The two of them were proponents of a concept that all matter is comprised of tiny particles which were so small that they could not be broken up. These particles were called atoms, from a Greek word for "indivisible." It would be two millennia before the atomistic views gained support and even longer before there was evidence to support the speculation.

    Physics of the Greeks - Index

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