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The universe of the Greeks: from the 6th century BC

The Greek interest in scientific speculation is first seen in the city of Miletus, in Ionia. Here the philosopher Thales acquires fame by predicting a solar eclipse in 585 BC. None of his works survive, but his reputation among Greeks in the following centuries is that of a man who takes a reasonable or 'scientific' approach to the mysteries of the natural world.

This reputation seems to be supported by the achievements of his pupil Anaximander. He is credited with being the first man to attempt a map of the world, and he offers a bold explanation of the origin of the universe.

In Anaximander's theory the cosmos results from a struggle between the opposites of heat and cold. In the vast unlimited beginning of time the two begin to separate, resulting in a ball of fire surrounded by mist. The hot ball contracts and hardens, forming a solid sphere at the centre - the earth.

But the separation is not perfect. Some outer rings of fire trap layers of mist within them. The mist is our atmosphere. Through gaps in it we catch glimpses of the surrounding fire, in the form of sun, moon and stars.

The Pythagoreans and astronomy: 5th century BC

Followers of Pythagoras, in the 5th century, are the first to produce an astronomical theory in which a circular earth revolves on its own axis as well as moving in an orbit. The theory derives in part from the need to locate the great fire which they believe fuels the universe.

The Pythagoreans place this fire at the hidden centre of things, with the earth revolving round it more closely than any of the other bodies visible in the sky. The reason why we never see or are scorched by the fire is that we live on only half the sphere of the earth, and the earth revolves so that our half is always turned away from the flames.

Moving outwards from the earth in the sequence of heavenly bodies, they place the moon next, then the sun, the planets and finally the stars, which are unlike the others in being fixed on an outer sphere.

Heavenly spheres: from the 5th century BC

This theory introduces the concentric circles which become the false orthodoxy of the next 2000 years, as eventually enshrined by Ptolemy. It also starts a wild goose chase which will exercise many brilliant minds: what mechanical model can explain the erratic motion of the planets? Eudoxus of Cnidus, in the 4th century, is the first to propose a series of transparent spheres in the heavens, carrying the heavenly bodies at different speeds in linked groups with slightly varying centres.

To make such machinery conform to what can be observed in the sky, ever more complex arrangements are needed. Later in the 4th century Aristotle believes he has solved it. He requires no fewer than fifty-five transparent spheres.

The Pythagoreans are too far ahead of their time in proposing their one central grain of truth - the revolving globe of the earth. But Copernicus, developing this idea, will acknowledge them as his earliest predecessors.

For most Greek astronomers there seems to be overwhelming evidence that the earth is stationary and the heavens move. This is true even of the greatest among them, Hipparchus. Like his predecessors, he believes that it must be possible to analyze the movement of the spheres. He finds the available data inadequate, so devotes himself not to cosmology but to the prime task of an astronomer - observation of individual stars.

Democritus and the atom: c.420 BC

In the late 5th century BC Democritus sets out an interesting theory of elemental physics. Notions of a similar kind have been hinted at by other Greek thinkers, but never so fully elaborated.

He states that all matter is composed of eternal, indivisible, indestructible and infinitely small substances which cling together in different combinations to form the objects perceptible to us. The Greek word for indivisible is atomos. This theory gives birth to the atom.

Democritus describes an extraordinary beginning to the universe. He explains that originally all atoms were whirling about in a chaotic manner, until collisions brought them together to form ever larger units - including eventually the world and all that is in it.

His theory will find few followers over the centuries. But his imagination provides an astonishing first glimpse of the Big Bang.

The earth and the sun: a heresy of the 3rd century BC

A lone voice on the Greek island of Samos. In about 270 BC Aristarchus is busy trying to work out the size of the sun and the moon and their distance from the earth. His only surviving work is on this topic, and his calculations are inevitably wide of the mark.

But references in other authors make it clear that his studies have brought him to a startling conclusion.

Aristarchus believes that the earth is in orbit round the sun (quite contrary to what is plain for anyone to see). There is an attempt, which comes to nothing, to have the man prosecuted for impiety. His idea joins the many other dotty notions which enliven the history of human thought, until Copernicus mentions him, in an early draft of his great book, as someone who had the right idea first.

On reflection Copernicus drops the name of Aristarchus from later versions of the text.

The influential errors of Ptolemy: 2nd century AD

Ptolemy, working in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD, is one of the great synthesizers of history. In several important fields (cosmology, astronomy, geography) he brings together in encyclopedic form an account of the received wisdom of his time.

His influence derives from the accident that his predecessors' works are lost while his have survived. Their achievements are known only through him, and when he disagrees with them it is usually he who is wrong. Just as in astronomy he wrongly adjusts the degree of precession of Hipparchus, so in geography he rejects Eratosthenes, whose calculation of the circumference of the earth is very close, and prefers instead another estimate which is 30% too small.

Ptolemy's astronomical work is divided into thirteen books. The first proves that the earth is the immovable centre of the universe; the last five describe the movement of the sun, moon and five planets, each attached to its own crystal sphere. By adding adjustments to reflect the erratic behaviour seen in the sky, Ptolemy achieves a system capable of satisfying scientific enquiry in the unscientific centuries of the Middle Ages.

His book becomes known as Ho megiste astronomas (Greek for 'the greatest astronomer'), or Megiste for short. The Arabs call it Al Megiste (the Megiste). Reaching northern Europe through the Arab civilization in Spain, it acquires its eventual title - as Ptolemy's Almagest.

In practical terms the Ptolemaic system proves adequate for everyday purposes. Indeed its very complexity makes it attractive to the exclusive minority of learned men. The details may be hard to master, but once understood they will reveal future positions of the planets. Ptolemy himself prepares charts of the moon's behaviour, more accurate than any previously available, which remain in everyday use until the Renaissance.

But in the long run the complexity is unconvincing (the alternative proposed by Copernicus is simpler); and the orbiting planets of Jupiter, revealed by Galileo's telescope, inconsiderately smash through one of Ptolemy's crystal spheres.

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