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Eureka! The Birth of Science – Andrew Gregory *****

“Oh, no, not the ancient Greeks? Yawn, yawn, what a bore.” If this is your natural reaction to a book on the ancient Greek origins of science, hold on there. It’s easy enough to think of the Greeks as a bit of a bore because they tended to be long winded and philosophising (and they foisted geometry on us, for goodness sake) – but the fact is that their work, mostly wrong though it may be, is the foundation of all of science.
What’s more, Andrew Gregory makes the whole business interesting, without resorting to any fancy literary tricks – it’s a straightforward historical tour of the Greek prehistory of science that is simply bursting with insight. If you’ve ever wondered why it was such a big deal that Galileo and others should suggest that the Earth wasn’t at the centre of things, here is part of the explanation. It’s not just a matter of selfish assumption, but the entire Aristotelian physics depended on it. Without the Earth at the centre of things, his equivalent of gravity simply wouldn’t work.
Because so much of the actual detail is wrong, it’s also easy to dismiss the ancient Greeks’ input to science – but, as Gregory emphasizes, it was a huge leap to move from the assumption that the cause of natural events and objects was mythological and down to the intervention of gods, to a rule-based cosmos where it was possible to deduce a logical explanation for events. He contrasts, for instance, the Babylonians and Egyptians, who achieved great technological feats, and were quite capable of recording and predicting natural events, but who resolutely put the explanation of why down to supernatural intervention, and who consistently resorted to inconsistent myth to explain how the cause was working.
Some would argue that Gregory has been a little premature – that the ancient Greeks weren’t so much the earliest part of the history of science, but the prehistory of science. To make this distinction, what the Greeks did is often called natural philosophy, based on observation and argument, as opposed to science, based on observation, experiment and the development and refinement of theory from those observations and experiments. So it’s worth taking a look at least three other books that ascribe the birth of science to later midwifes:
  • Medieval friar Roger Bacon in my Roger Bacon: The First Scientist
  • Leonardo da Vinci in Michael White’s Leonardo, and
  • Galileo in John Gribbin’s Science: A History
but even they would agree with Gregory how significant the ancient Greeks foundations are, and the great thing is to get a very effective grounding in these Greek ideas in a single, compact and enjoyable book. Nice one.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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