The Genesis of Science: The Story of Greek Imagination


Historians often look to ancient Greece as the wellspring of Western civilization. Perhaps the most ingenious achievement of the Hellenic mind was the early development of the sciences. The names we give to science’s many branches today—from physics and chemistry to mathematics, biology, and psychology—echo the Greek words that were first used to define these disciplines in ancient times and remain a testament to the groundbreaking discoveries of these pioneering thinkers. What was it about the Greeks, as opposed...
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Historians often look to ancient Greece as the wellspring of Western civilization. Perhaps the most ingenious achievement of the Hellenic mind was the early development of the sciences. The names we give to science’s many branches today—from physics and chemistry to mathematics, biology, and psychology—echo the Greek words that were first used to define these disciplines in ancient times and remain a testament to the groundbreaking discoveries of these pioneering thinkers. What was it about the Greeks, as opposed to the far older civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, that gave rise to the uniquely Western, scientific mindset? This author explores this intriguing question in this authoritative yet accessible and eloquently told story about the origins of science. Going beyond individual Greek discoveries in the various branches of science, Bertman emphasizes why these early investigators were able to achieve what they did. Among the exceptional characteristics of Greek culture that created the seedbed for early science were:
• the Greek emphasis on rationalism—a conviction that human reason could successfully unravel the mysteries of nature and make sense of the cosmos
• an early form of humanism—a pride and confidence in human potential despite the frailty and brief tenure of individual lives
• the drive to excel in every arena from the battlefield to the Olympic games and arts competitions
• an insatiable curiosity that sought understanding of both human nature and the world
• a fierce love of freedom and individualism that promoted freedom of thought—the prelude to science.
Focusing on ten different branches of science, the author shows why the Greeks gravitated to each specialty and explains the fascinating theories they developed, the brilliant experiments they performed, and the practical applications of their discoveries. He concludes by recounting how these early insights and achievements—transmitted over the course of two thousand years—have shaped the scientific attitude that is the hallmark of today’s world. This lively narrative captures the Greek genius and demonstrates the indelible influence of their discoveries on modern science and technology.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Classicist Bertman (Doorway Through Time) examines the scientific legacy of ancient civilizations with an emphasis on Greece. Bertman catalogues an impressive set of Greek scientific firsts, and he does so by straightforwardly organizing the science into optics, acoustics, mechanics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, meteorology, psychology, and geography. There are many familiar names (Euclid, Pythagoras, Aristotle), with familiar stories attached; Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment is particularly well told. There are unfamiliar names, too: alchemist Maria the Jewess, who invented “perhaps the first still in history”; mapmaker Anaximander; and Eratosthenes, who around 200 B.C.E. calculated with surprising accuracy the polar circumference of the earth. Bertman explains the cultural reasons for the Greeks’ remarkable scientific accomplishments in a fairly cursory fashion as resting on their belief in an ordered universe, whose rules “can be discovered by the human mind,” and a “compulsion to see and understand....” He adds a deep belief in rationalism, humanism, and a desire to excel at all things as additional driving forces. Bertman is an unabashed admirer of the ancient Greeks, and his depiction of their scientific accomplishments gives readers a reason to share his admiration. Illus. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Modern science isn't just built on gifts from the Greeks, it is Greek to the core. In The Genesis of Science, Stephen Bertman demonstrates the core principle by breathing life into the ancient Greeks and skillfully tracing their contribution to a wide variety of disciplines, which, though altered, retain the Greek ideal and all that came with it. Moreover, Bertman does so with a humanistic, visually enhanced flair that makes the story accessible to a wide audience in an age of fear, distrust, and misunderstanding of science's goals and methods. We need more books like this one."
--Anthony F. Aveni, Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy,
Anthropology, and Native American Studies, Colgate University
Library Journal
Bertman (classics, emeritus, Univ. of Windsor) asks, "Who invented science?" and answers, "The Greeks." He then tours the ancient Greeks' contributions to various branches of science, including astronomy, biology, chemistry, and more. He also touches on the scientific achievements of non-Western cultures, such as those of the Maya and the ancient Chinese. Bertman's knowledge of the classics and interest in Greek science is apparent. His book is easy to read and covers much ground, but those well versed in its topic will find little that is new—it primarily presents previous scholarship for a popular audience. Also, the unsuspecting reader must beware reading too much into Bertman's occasional anachronisms. He periodically compares Greek achievements to those of modern science and often refers to Greek "scientists," a term not coined until the 19th century, to denote a role that did not exist until recently. Readers who find this book interesting should explore its recommended readings, especially David C. Lindberg's The Beginnings of Western Science. Verdict Recommended for the general reader with a burgeoning interest in the origins of Western science.—Jonathan Bodnar, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib. & Information Ctr., Atlanta

(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616142179
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 12/15/2010
  • Pages: 300
  • Sales rank: 701,595
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Bertman, PhD, professor emeritus of classics at Canada’s University of Windsor, is the author of seven books, including Doorways through Time (featured by the Natural Science Book Club), The Eight Pillars of Greek Wisdom, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, and Erotic Love Poems of Greece and Rome.
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Table of Contents


Prologue. The Essence of Science....................13
Chapter 1. The Genius of Greek Civilization....................17
Chapter 2. Science before the Greeks....................21
Chapter 3. The Language of the Universe....................43
Chapter 4. Optics....................49
Chapter 5. Acoustics....................67
Chapter 6. Mechanics....................75
Chapter 7. Chemistry....................95
Chapter 8. Geography and Geology....................109
Chapter 9. Meteorology....................119
Chapter 10. Astronomy....................125
Chapter 11. Biology....................139
Chapter 12. Medicine....................153
Chapter 13. Psychology....................169
Chapter 14. Greek Science in Roman Hands....................185
Chapter 15. The Transmission of Greek Science to Later Ages....................197
Chapter 16. Sky Watchers of Central America....................211
Chapter 17. Secrets of Stonehenge....................221
Chapter 18. Science in Ancient China....................227
Epilogue. The "Untravell'd World"....................239
The Hellenic "Hall of Fame"....................243
Recommended Readings....................267
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First Chapter

The Genesis of Science

The Story of Greek Imagination

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 Stephen Bertman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-217-9

Chapter One


    ... 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."

          —Tennyson, Ulysses

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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2011

    For the scholar or the layman - an outstanding foundation

    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!

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  • Posted February 26, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    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.)

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