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... that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
Why the Greeks? Why was science—the methodical investigation of the physical universe and the living beings within it—a Greek invention and not the creation of some other civilization?
It is a question of profound significance and it goes to the very heart of this book. For if we satisfy ourselves with making a mere compilation of separate discoveries rather than seeking the unifying genius behind them, we will have settled for the "what" or "how" of history and never touched the "why."
French scientist Louis Pasteur once declared: "Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind."' Pasteur's point was that only those who are mentally ready will recognize the significance of what lies on the ground before them. Others can walk by and never notice, or—worse—never care, preoccupied as they are with mundane concerns or blind to the possibilities that lie undisclosed beneath the surface of what most might call reality. Therefore, truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder—not because it is subjective, but because it can so easily be overlooked. Unlike others who came before them, the ancient Greeks recognized that truth for the first time and thus more passionately and more critically observed the world around them.
What was it that made the Greeks this way, that allowed them to see—and impelled them to search for—what millions of others had missed for millennia?
Surely the land of Greece itself was an unlikely mother of geniuses. Its soil was rocky and poor, lacking the fertility and abundant water that had long before blessed the river valleys of the Near East where civilization itself had been born. Scattered on islands or separated from each other by mountains, the Greek people would seem to have been too fragmented to ever have left a collective and decisive mark on history. The miracle is that they did, not by drawing upon the resources around them but by maximizing the potential that lay within. From a critical examination of their surviving literature and art, we can reconstruct the unique traits of personality that made the ancient Greeks who they were, and from these ethnic characteristics we can trace the genesis of the scientific attitude that has come to define the modern world.
First among these traits was rationalism, a reliance on the intellect to find answers and solve problems. Rather than prayerfully turning outward for help, the Greeks instead persistently turned inward and used their brains, convinced that the mind was a fit instrument to accomplish any task. While not underestimating the capricious power of the gods, they looked upon the universe, however complex, as a fundamental expression of order accessible to the mind. If the universe was a lock, then intelligence was the key that could open it. Their leaders in this enterprise were philosophers, not "wise men" but "lovers of wisdom," as the word's etymology shows. Indeed, ancient Greece produced the world's first philosophers, men aggressively dedicated to the rational pursuit of truth.
It was their rationalistic "ear" that enabled the Greeks for the very first time to hear the language of the cosmos. That language was mathematics—a mathematics beyond the mere measurement or calculation of particular things but dependent upon immutable laws to which all the phenomena of this world were, are, and forever will be, obedient. In learning this universal language of space and time, the Greeks became conversant with nature's most fundamental relationships.
Though not averse to applying their knowledge to the everyday world, Greek thinkers more often than not preferred the development of theories to their practical application, enamored as they were with reason's abstract purity.
The rationalism of the Greeks was combined with humanism, a pride and confidence in their own human potential. This pride was in part born of their successful struggle to survive, but in larger part it was engendered by the firm conviction that humanity can possess an experience no god could ever have: the thrill of victory won by risking everything against great odds. Such a thrill was reserved for mortals precisely because their lives were inherently so fragile and their powers so finite. It was a thrill the Olympian gods, omnipotent and immortal, could never share, for because man had to die, only man could most fully live. Thus, confronted with the choice of becoming a god or remaining human, the hero Odysseus (fig. 1, above) chose to retain his humanity, even though it meant he had to eventually relinquish his life.
The Greek zest for living was driven by a compulsion to excel. Knowing they could not exist for all time, they determined to achieve a different kind of immortality by performing deeds that would ensure their being remembered forever. Thus the hero Achilles was willing to die young on the battlefield of Troy as long as his name remained indelibly impressed on the minds of future generations. In addition to pursuing excellence on the battlefield or, more peacefully, in the Olympic Games, the Greeks also pursued it by creating enduring works of literature and art, and by reaching new heights in the search for knowledge, never retreating in debate from the battleground of ideas. Their pursuit of excellence was also marked by a passion for perfection and a dedication to detail that would eventually contribute to the precision essential both to the fine arts and to science.
Another of their distinguishing traits was restless curiosity, an insatiable hunger to understand themselves and their world. This trait would not only prove instrumental in making the Greeks the world's first scientists, but it also explains their achievements in other fields. Drama, for example, itself a Greek invention, represented the quest to understand the motivations for and the consequences of individual human behavior. The field of history, another Greek innovation, examined the implications of that behavior on a wider stage. Indeed, the very word history in Greek means "research." Even democracy, yet another Greek invention, was compatible with objective science, for as critic Mary McCarthy once observed, "In science, all facts, no matter how trivial or banal, enjoy democratic equality."
Underpinning all of these national characteristics was a fierce love of freedom and of individualism. Without freedom of thought and unfettered imagination, science could not exist. And without heroic individualism, the bastions of stultifying convention could never be breached.
All these distinctive national characteristics would set the Greeks apart from the earlier civilizations of the ancient world.
Excerpted from The Genesis of Science by STEPHEN BERTMAN Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Bertman. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 20, 2011
Irrespective of one's field of interest, in the Sciences or the Humanities, for the scholar or the layperson, this book will enhance anyone's understanding of and appreciation for the brilliance of the minds that made possible the developments in the world of math and science that we know today. The Genesis of Science reinforces the importance of the integration of all of our learning. A fascinating book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 26, 2011
Stephen Bertman's The Genesis of Science: The Story of Greek Imagination is a remarkable book--remarkable, not only because the author accomplishes precisely what he promises the reader, but remarkable because he goes far beyond that. What he promises the reader is to describe in considerable detail the extraordinary contributions the ancient Greeks made to our modern sciences, but also to descrive the characteristics of the Greek attitude of mind that made such contributions possible. Given that, he first shares his extensive knowledge of the mind-set of the ancient Greeks, especially their openness of mind and inexhaustible curiosity, all of which was truly unhibited by superstition and religious dogma--such characteristics being refreshingly new to the ancient world. Then, with equal clarity, he provides a separate chapter on each of our modern sciences--Optics, Acoustics, Mechanics, Chemistry, Geography/Geology, Meteorology, Astronomy, Biology, Medicine, and Psychology--describing in carefully documented detail the specific contributions made by Greek thinkers to each of these fields.
Beyond his stated purpose, however, Dr. Bertman outlines a context that begins with discoveries, or lack thereof, by Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Isralite cultures, and extends to chapters on the sky-watchers of Central America, the mysteries of Stonehenge, and the accomplishments of the ancient Chinese. In brief, this context--coupled with the chapters on ancient Greek science--constitutes a complete survey of contributions made to modern science by our ancient kinsmen from around the world.
Toward the end of the book and in keeping with his thorough and reader-friendly approach, Dr. Bertman establishes a Hellenic "Hall of Fame." In this "hall" he lists the major Greek scientific thinkers in chronological order--beginning with the mythic designer Daedalus in approximately the fifteenth century BCE and ending with Hypatia, the daughter of the Alexandrian mathematician Theon, who was herself a mathematician and editor in the fourth or fifth century CE--cataloguing for each their main contributions.
Those of us who are familiar with Dr. Bertman's earlier books will not be disappointed, for here we find just what we have come to expect: carefully researched scholarship that is without pretension, poetic prose that is not without clarity, and a breadth of mind tht encompasses the whole scope of history, literature, and science, but also includes an empathic understanding of our modern dilemma to put such knowledge into a fruitful perspective for today's world.
Those who are unfamiliar with Dr. Bertman's earlier writings will find here a true smorgasbord of ideas--ideas that, although little known, have been influencing our sciences for decades, even centuries.
Given that, this book is surely not only a landmark contribution to the field of ancient science, it is a special gift to the modern reader--an invitation (and challenge) to exhibit the same kind of curiosity about the world as did the ancient Greeks. (Lois Parker, Ph.D., Director Emerita of Counseling Services, University of Nevada, Reno.)