To what do we owe the ‘Greek Miracle’?
Perhaps to fish.
A new exhibition at London’s Science Museum presents the contribution of Greek thinkers, scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
The exhibition is small and only has space to touch upon key areas but it still covers engineering, navigation, astronomy, zoology and mathematics. Walking through the well designed exhibition, it is immediately noticeable just how many of these disciplines link back to the sea. Indeed, much of the items explored in the exhibition had practical applications.
If the Greeks brought something new to ‘science’, it was a search for first principles. To quote the captions, they ‘systematically sought to uncover and understand the workings of our world in a logical and mathematical way’.
Aristotle epitomises this new approach best. Although not the first person associated with Greek science, he was an important scientific thinker both in antiquity and beyond. He wrote on many subjects including animals. He studied sea life in the Gulf of Kalloni, closely observing the animals and dissecting their body parts and writing up his findings in the multi-volume History of Animals.
This was an almost unique work of biological enquiry. Other writers of animal life took a more, how do we say, poetic or symbolic approach. For example, the poet Oppian’s epic Halieutica about fishing, uses marine life as a metaphor to analyse morals and behavior. Whilst Aelian in his Nature of Animals, takes a similar approach using animal behaviour to derive moral and mystic meaning.
Yet Aristotle was largely more interested in what we would understand as animal biology.
Was there actually a ‘Greek miracle’?
The idea that the Greeks were responsible for the birth of Western Civilization has been criticised from different angles, yet remains a popular concept for many people. For years scholars have demonstrated the links between Greeks and other cultures.
For example, Pythagoras’ theorem, the bane of many people’s childhoods, was not discovered by Pythogaros. It was known to the Babylonians one thousand years before Pythogaros was born. Yet, Pythogaros is one of the most fascinating figures of Greek culture. A mystic who believed the universe followed mathematical rules and harmonies. His followers lived ascetic lives, avoiding meat and beans.
The Science Museum investigates this complexity by avoiding triangles all together and instead exploring music. The Aulos, or twin pipes, were a popular musical instrument. Musicians covered finger holes to create different musical notes. Pythagorean thinkers analysed the length between finger holes and the notes produced in order to understand music mathematically and vice versa.
This was not just a search for guiding principles.
Pythogaros was said to believe that the planets move to mathematical equations which could be understood or even heard as music, the so-called Harmony of the Spheres. The idea that the planets created a symphony of sound was an important influence on later astronomers.
The mathematically defined music of the aulos, could offer an insight into cosmic sounds.
The captions noticeably avoid grand statements about the importance or uniqueness of Greek scientists. This is laudable, but ‘nature hates a vacuum’ as Aristotle is said to have written. By not creating a more nuanced counter narrative, the curators implicitly promote this belief.
Visitors will fill the gaps in captions with their own knowledge and assume the centrality of Greek science. A little more could have been done to contextualise what was happening in the Eastern Mediterranean and also to make the chronology a little clearer.
It is easy to criticise what is missing, but perhaps unfair for such a small space. Any one of the sub-disciplines could have formed the subject for a much larger exhibition. This exhibition is a very top level approach. What it misses in depth, it makes up for in breadth.
A small and well laid out exhibition, this will not answer all your questions about ancient Greek science but it will encourage you to find out more.