The birth of the scientific method

By | February 20, 2023

Tim Adams writes:

Something very startling happened in Miletus, the ancient Greek city on the modern Turkish coast, in about 600BC. That something, physicist Carlo Rovelli argues in this enjoyable and provocative little book [Anaximander and the Nature of Science], occurred in the interaction between two of the place’s greatest minds. The first, Thales, one of the seven sages of ancient Greece, is often credited as the pioneer in applying deductive reasoning to geometry and astronomy; he used his mathematics, for example, to predict solar eclipses. Wondrous as this was, it was the reaction of the second man, Thales’s fellow citizen, Anaximander, 11 years his junior that, Rovelli argues, changed the world. Anaximander assimilated Thales’s ideas, treated them with due respect, but then rejected and improved on them and came up with more exact theories of his own.

That process, the idea that knowledge was something not handed down by gods or elders, but evolving, something to be quickly interrogated and built upon, set in motion, Rovelli argues, what we understand as the scientific method. If Newton characterised himself as “standing on the shoulders of giants”, then the two men near the very base of that human pyramid were Anaximander and Thales of Miletus. In evolving the thinking of Thales, we’re told, Anaximander was not only the first human to argue that rain was caused by the observable movements of air and the heat of the sun rather than the intervention of gods – the kind of “natural wisdom” that was heretical enough to lead to the trial and death of Socrates 200 years later – he was, crucially, also the first thinker to make the case that the Earth was a body suspended in a void of space, within which the sun and stars did not form a canopy or ceiling but revolved. This literal groundbreaking idea – inventing at a stroke the idea of the cosmos – was, as the historian of science Karl Popper suggested, “one of the boldest, most revolutionary and most portentous ideas in the whole history of human thinking”. [Continue reading…]

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