Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Anaximander Puts Earth in Space

The word philosopher means “lover of wisdom,” which accurately describes the passion of the Greek philosophers. These were not idle thinkers eating grapes in secluded gardens. These were men who observed the world around them and wondered how the elements that made up the earth worked together and how human beings fit into the resulting grand scheme. For some eight centuries, Greek philosophers confronted some of the most fundamental questions in the natural sciences. What is the smallest division of matter? What are we and the world made of? How big are the earth and the universe? Beginning with Thales, the first of the important Greek philosophers (born about 624 B.C.E.), and culminating with Ptolemy (who died about C.E. 180 and whom we’ll meet in the next chapter), a series of Greek philosophers thought most intensely about the sky and the wonders it presented. Thales’ junior colleague and student, Anaximander (610–546/545 B.C.E.), is often called the founder of astronomy. He might even more accurately be called the father of a particular branch of astronomy, cosmology, which deals with the structure and origin of the universe. Anaximander theorized that the world and everything in it were derived from an imperceptible substance he called the apeiron (unlimited), which was separated into various contrasting qualities and eventually differentiated into all matter, including the earth. Importantly, Anaximander rejected what was then the prevailing notion that the earth was suspended from or supported by something in the heavens. He held that the earth floated freely in space at the center of the universe. Without reason to move anywhere, the earth, shaped like a short cylinder (we’d call it a soup can today), floated motionless. As for the stars, they were fiery jets, and the sun a chariot wheel whose rim was hollow and filled with fire.

No comments: