The First Scientist: Anaximander and his legacy

  1. marcus

    marcus 24,542
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    A new book in the history of science.

    Delving into the first glimpses of physical law. The idea that nature and experience could be explained by (semi-quantitative) laws instead of by myths and gods.
    What is the root of scientific explanation? How did the idea of it arise?

    The history is developed by focusing on a person, a student of Thales, in the Ionian city of Miletus, and the events surrounding his life circa 610-546 BC.

    Humanity took a significant step forward around that time, I think
    The book is scheduled to go on sale in May 2011, so just a couple of months.
  2. jcsd
  3. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    That sounds intersting, thanks Marcus!
  4. marcus

    marcus 24,542
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    Evo, I know very little about Anaximander but I did hear something amusing.

    Apparently he knew the earth was spherical, so then the question everybody asks is "what holds it up?"

    This is hearsay, I should check it, but anyway other people thought up explanations like it was held up by a Giant, or by Turtles, or floated on the surface of an infinite ocean.

    But apparently Anaximander thought a little more deeply and said: Yes the round earth is situated in the midst of empty space but it does not fall...because there is no preferred direction for it to fall in!

    That is, he used a symmetry argument to show that there is no need for the earth to be suspended from anything or supported on any base.

    Much of contemporary physics is saying that things are the way they are because of symmetries of various sorts. So in that way the reasoning of the physicists is anaximandral.

    He didn't have the idea of an (algebraic) equation---but much of physics as we know it involves balance, equilibrium, opposing forces, resolution achieved by the equals sign. He didn't have that, but instead the equation he used the idea of Justice. Different opposing principles resolved by Justice. Just like a Greek.

    And so he made up Laws, instead of Turtles and Giants.

    Cute old guy. One could get to like Anaximander, I guess.

    I have started to wish that I could go to Miletus, that city on the coast of Turkey that was once a city of the Ionians. I imagine looking out from Miletus, onto the Aegean, and I imaging there are islands visible out to sea. I actually don't know whether there really are islands in sight from Miletus.
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2011
  5. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
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    Anaximander most likely proposed that the earth was drum shaped, a squat cylinder, rather than a sphere. The other side being of course the Antipodes. And following the view of his time, the surface of the drum was perhaps a little concave so that the Mediterranean formed a puddle at its centre.

    Yet it is true that Anaximander used the principle of indifference to explain why the earth could just hang at the centre of its world. He also believed many others worlds would exist, generated from the unbounded apeiron.

    But it would be a shame for Anaximander to be remembered for just a simple bit of cosmology and his real significance overlooked. He had a theory of causality as a complex process of development - of symmetry-breaking, indeed - that was far more important.

    I wonder if Rovelli will have cottoned on to this? Probably not as it sounds as though he wants to assimilate Anaximander to the "modern scientific tradition" - the rival view of causality drawn up by the Greek atomists.
  6. I'm not sure everything has been translated correctly? My understanding (from time spent in Greece) was that Anaximander described the Earth as cylindrical (as you've described) but an unbounded Apeiron as having sperical properties? All I could find was this (2 Articles):

    I look forward to the book - good find marcus!
  7. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
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    What are "sperical properties"?

    But surely you had no trouble googling apeiron (1.28 million hits)? What are you trying to say here?
  8. I remember the Greeks speaking of "Apeiron" meaning all surrounding and round or all around(?) - again, I lost a lot in the translations (and over 20 years ago).

    (that should have been spherical - not sperical)
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2011
  9. This is a little closer to the stories I recall from the Plaka: my bold

    "The apeiron has generally been understood as a sort of primal chaos. It acts as the substratum supporting opposites such as hot and cold, wet and dry, and directed the movement of things, by which there grew up all of the host of shapes and differences which are found in the world.[21] Out of the vague and limitless body there sprang a central mass — this earth of ours — cylindrical in shape. A sphere of fire surrounded the air around the earth and had originally clung to it like the bark round a tree. When it broke, it created the sun, the moon and the stars.[22] The first animals were generated in the water.[23] When they came to earth they were transmuted by the effect of the sun. The human being sprung from some other animal, which originally was similar to a fish.[24] The blazing orbs, which have drawn off from the cold earth and water, are the temporary gods of the world clustering around the earth, which to the ancient thinker is the central figure."
  10. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
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    Your link does not seem to work unfortunately.

    I would say that it is wrong to focus too much on the quaint archaic cosmological thinking, the spheres of fire and fish hatching from mudballs, as it was Anaximander's underlying causal model that was deep and still relevant.

    Anaximander told a story about development by dichotomisation. A symmetry breaking of states of potential.

    So it was a really deep view of symmetry principles, not just a simple understanding about spherical symmetry for instance.

    Of course, this was also pretty much the causal model of the Theogony. So Anaximander did not invent it outright. He just stripped away the gods and dealt in pure abstractions.
  11. fuzzyfelt

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    I don’t know what would be visible from Miletus, but this shows Turkey in the background from Posidonio beach, Samos Island, which I think might be near.



    It looks inspirational, as does the book.
  12. marcus

    marcus 24,542
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    Hi fuzzyfelt, apeiron, whowee...
    Nice pictures!

    It turns out that because of silting (or some reason) the shoreline has changed and Miletus is now INLAND. It is no longer on the coast. Maybe I was the only one who didn't know that.

    There still are some Ionian greek ruins there.

    The book "The First Scientist" is scheduled to go on sale 25 May, a little over a week now!

    Éditions Dunod published the French version in 2009. It won a French prize for non-fiction: the Prix du Livre Haute Maurienne de l’Astronomie.

    Here is the publisher's page for the 2009 French edition:

    Here is the book's page:ée-scientifique/dp/2100529390/

    The publisher of the English version (Westholme) doesn't seem to be giving much advanced publicity. Here are the Amazon listings for Usa, Canada, UK:

    Some promotional material (provided by Westholme) reflects critical acclaim received by the 2009 French edition of the book:

    ==quote ==

    Carlo Rovelli, a leading theoretical physicist, uses the figure of Anaximander as the starting point for an examination of scientific thinking itself: its limits, its strengths, its benefits to humankind, and its controversial relationship with religion. Anaximander, the sixth-century BC Greek philosopher, is often called the first scientist because he was the first to suggest that order in the world was due to natural forces, not supernatural ones. He is the first person known to understand that the Earth floats in space; to believe that the sun, the moon, and the stars rotate around it—seven centuries before Ptolemy; to argue that all animals came from the sea and evolved; and to posit that universal laws control all change in the world. Anaximander taught Pythagoras, who would build on Anaximander’s scientific theories by applying mathematical laws to natural phenomena.

    In the award-winning The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy, translated here for the first time in English, Rovelli restores Anaximander to his place in the history of science by carefully reconstructing his theories from what is known to us and examining them in their historical and philosophical contexts. Rovelli demonstrates that Anaximander’s discoveries and theories were decisive influences, putting Western culture on its path toward a scientific revolution. Developing this connection, Rovelli redefines science as a continuous redrawing of our conceptual image of the world. He concludes that scientific thinking—the legacy of Anaximander—is only reliable when it constantly tests the limits of our current knowledge. Praise for the French edition (Éditions Dunod, 2009)...


    The publisher also has a kind of sound-bite from Lee Smolin:

    "At this point in time, when the prestige of science is at a low and even simple issues like climate change are mired in controversy, Carlo Rovelli gives us a necessary reflection on what science is, and where it comes from. Rovelli is a deeply original thinker, so it is not surprising that he has novel views on the important questions of the nature and origin of science.”—Lee Smolin, founding member and researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and author of The Trouble with Physics
    Last edited: May 17, 2011
  13. marcus

    marcus 24,542
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    I checked French Amazon today and Anaximander was doing OK. The book ranked 30,383 amongst all books sold. For a book by a non-celeb physicist about a 6th century Ionian...well maybe it deserves better but it's not so bad.

    Does the book have a chance in the US market? The publisher Westholme is small and not mainstream. The French publisher was Dunod, which is more central to the industry, and the book won a prestige prize for science popularization. What will happen in Usa?

    I decided to transcribe (maybe later translate) one of the French Amazon comments.
    The title is "The logic of scientific discovery--made easy."

    5.0 étoiles sur 5
    La logique de la découverte scientifique ... en plus facile
    Par Jean-paul Lacharme (Marseille, France), 19 septembre 2009

    L'intérêt de ce livre tient d'abord à la personnalité de son auteur: un chercheur en physique, (spécialiste de la gravitation quantique, l'une des matière les moins accessibles pour le citoyen lambda) possédant cependant une bonne connaissance en culture gréco-latine. La chose n'est pas si courante dans ce milieu. Le sujet, Anaximandre de Milet n'est pas très connu car il ne reste plus grand chose de ce qu'il a écrit. C'est toutefois un auteur important car pour la première fois dans l'histoire, un penseur essaye d'expliquer le fonctionnement du monde par des lois immanentes et non par l'intervention des dieux. Ici, Rovelli nous montre simplement comment la connaissance scientifique s'est déployée en occident et pourquoi elle n'a pas connu un même épanouissement dans d'autres grandes civilisations comme celle de la Chine. Ça ne vaut pas Karl Popper ou Max Weber, bien sûr, mais c'est plus accessible, et c'est le point de vue d'un scientifique de base. Un regret : les nombreuses références bibliographiques données en annexe sont souvent non-françaises, ce qui leur ôte beaucoup d'intérêt pour un lecteur strictement francophone.
    Last edited: May 18, 2011
  14. marcus

    marcus 24,542
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    The initial publication date was not met, as often happens, but I've learned that the book is definitely in the works and will soon be out.

    My understanding is it will be about 200 pages (some of that TOC, biblio, index) and written for a wide audience. Short and sweet in other words, bringing the humanities viewpoint and scientist viewpoint together with interesting personalities, stories, historical detail, and quotes from ancient writings...

    I think it will be the kind of thin book that can sometimes help change our outlook, because asking who was the first scientist can serve as a concrete way of asking "what, really, is science?" and of exploring how those habits of mind and community peculiar to it arise and are sometimes nourished, sometimes repressed.

    US publisher Westholme's page for forthcoming English edition
    Amazon pages

    French publisher's page for the 2009 edition pageée-scientifique/dp/2100529390/
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2011
  15. marcus

    marcus 24,542
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    The new publication date is August 11, 2011. I feel fairly sure that they will make this one.
    We can tell a fair amount about the book from information already available here:
    French publisher's page for the 2009 edition
    about the French edition. Here is the French TOC:

    Sommaire Introduction.

    1. Le VIe siècle.
    Un panorama du monde.
    Le savoir du VIe siècle : l’astronomie.
    Les dieux.

    2. Les contributions d’Anaximandre.

    3. Les phénomènes atmosphériques.
    Le naturalisme cosmologique et biologique.

    4. Flotte la Terre.

    5. Entités invisibles et lois naturelles.
    Y a-t-il dans la nature quelque chose que nous ne voyons pas?
    L’idée de loi naturelle : Anaximandre, Pythagore et Platon.

    6. Quand la révolte devient vertu.

    7. Écriture, démocratie et mélange des cultures.
    La Grèce archaïque
    L’alphabet grec.
    Science et démocratie.
    Le mélange des cultures.

    8. Qu’est-ce que la science?
    Penser Anaximandre après Einstein et Heisenberg.
    L’effondrement des illusions du XIXème siècle.
    La science ne se réduit pas à des prédictions vérifiables.
    Explorer les formes de pensée du monde.
    L’évolution de l’image du monde.
    Règles du jeu et commensurabilité.
    Éloge de l’incertitude.

    9. Entre relativisme culturel et pensée de l’absolu.

    10. Peut-on comprendre le monde sans les dieux?
    Le conflit.

    13. La pensée pré-scientifique.
    La nature de la pensée mystico-religieuse. Les différentes fonctions du divin.

    14. Conclusion : l’héritage d’Anaximandre

    Don't put too much weight on this. This is just the TOC of the French version which has been out since 2009. It would be natural for changes, revisions, additions to occur, that appear first in the English edition.
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2011
  16. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
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    Thanks for pasting the contents page.

    I would say that unfortunately a proper understanding of Anaximander's philosophy would indeed be outlook-changing for most, but Rovelli's book looks like it is going to be about something else. He will be celebrating Anaximander for his intellectual method...but ignoring the metaphysical results. :frown:

    Hopefully I will be proved wrong, but the pre-publicity suggests otherwise.
  17. Thank you for the updates Marcus!
  18. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
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    While we wait for Rovelli, this paper by Arran Gare is a useful backgrounder on how Anaximander was the original process philosopher (taking a unified systems view of nature) and then thinking went either towards a simpler substance ontology (standard issue atomism/reductionism) or Platonic dualism.
  19. marcus

    marcus 24,542
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    Apeiron, Whowee, you are both most welcome!
    Here is an online intro to Anaximander from Dirk Couprie a guy in the Netherlands who I think does history of science/philosophy and is something of an expert in this area

    Apeiron I think you are right---likely more emphasis on innovation of method and the remarkable scientific insights arising therefrom.

    But don't you think that raising interest in Ionian Sixth Century BCE will make it more likely that we will see more written about A. including his metaphysics? Also the scientific concepts are they not aspects of the metaphysics? Do they not play a role?
    For example in Chapter 5, the French edition discusses the idea of a natural substance which we do not see. A substance X. Which we infer by reason to exist and use to explain phenomena that we do see. Somewhat like quarks, which we believe exist but cannot isolate.
    It seems that Thales, the teacher of Anaximander, proposed that the world was made of Water, or that it arose from the principal of Water. Anaximander took the original step of criticising his teacher's doctrine (which was not the custom in those days) and reasoning that Water was unsatisfactory and a fundamental principal/substance. He instead proposed a Substance X. An unknown indefinite something.

    I think the Ionian Sixth is an amazing period, like the Italian Renaissance. The more written about it the better, and the more I read about it the more remarkable I find it.

    It seems to reveal the beginnings of both critical philosophy on the one hand
    and naturalistic science on the other.

    You evidently know considerably more about A's thought than I. I like it that he managed to figure out that the sun's heat drives the water cycle, i.e. where rain comes from, and proposed a natural cause for thunder. He argued that all land animals (including humans) developed from sea life, and that the earth floats in emptiness so that the stars can pass beneath it. It does not rest on turtles or elephants, in other words.

    Since he was born ca. 610 BCE, Anax could have met Sappho ( b. circa 620 BCE ) she was only a few years older. and the young Pythagoras (b. ca. 570 BCE) could well have come to Miletus to visit with him. These remarkable people lived on nearby islands---close to Anax in space and time.
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2011
  20. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
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    What would be great is if Rovelli twigs that Anaximander had the original background independent model of the universe. :smile:

    The apeiron was not really a substance but a pre-substance state. Other philosophers talked about air, water, etc, but Anaximander was doing his best to get away from anything concrete or essential at all. So this "stuff" was not a substance but instead just an unbounded potential, a vagueness.

    So just as we are trying to do today with LQG for instance, Anaximander was trying to imagine a cosmos boot-strapping out of simple possibility.

    Yes, everyone talks as though Anaximander just had a different kind of substance in mind. But he in fact went beyond the creation of substantial being.
  21. marcus

    marcus 24,542
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    I really like this post. There is a lot of truth to it. The Undefinedness of the Apeiron "primal principle" is remarkably close in spirit to the Background Independence first realized in a universe model by Einstein in 1915 General Rel. General Relativity has no prior geometry that it is built on.

    In GR, the geometry comes into existence in dynamic interaction with matter in motion.
    The geometry, represented by a distance relation or "metric" defined at each point of an otherwise formless set of points, is a solution to the equation, not a fixed premise. There is no "background" metric fixed ahead of time.

    So there is a formlessness that indeed is reminding us of the apeiron of Anax'er. A geometric backgroundlessness.

    This is an intriguing post. I was reluctant to cover it up with my own post, so I just did not say anything for a few days.

    I too wonder what Rovelli would say if he saw this. (Since he writes about both background independent quantum gravity and about Anax'er.)
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2011
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