Fun Facts: Ancient Greek Science and Philosophy
"No fact is so simple that it is not harder to believe than
to doubt at the first presentation."
For ancient Greek games
, see Sports and Games
The Ancient Greeks were the first people to systematically examine the
world to attempt to discover why it worked the way it appeared to. Their
ideas were so influential that, for two millennia, Western science was
influenced almost entirely by Greek ideas. The later Romans, Arabs, and
medieval Europeans did little more than enlarge on Greek ideas.
The Greek philosopher Thales (624–546 B.C.) is generally considered to be
the first philosopher. He was the first man in recorded history to ask
questions such as "Of what is the Universe made?", and to answer
without introducing gods and demons. In later centuries, when the
Greeks constructed lists of "seven wise men", Thales was always
The Lydians, who were allies of the Greek Spartans, and the Medes,
who were dominated
by Cyrus of Persia, had been locked in a five-year war in Asia Minor on
May 28th, 586 B.C., when the two armies were again preparing
for another battle. At this point a solar eclipse happened, one that is
believed to have been predicted by Thales, a Greek mathematician.
When the Medes and Lydians observed the eclipse, they stopped fighting
and signed a peace treaty.
Incidentally, this is the earliest event in human history to which an
exact date can be assigned, due to the eclipse.
The first person we know who realized the Earth couldn't be flat was
the Greek philosopher Anaximander. Around 560 B.C., he suggested that
the Earth had a cylindrical shape. By 350 B.C., the concept of a
spherical Earth was so satisfying and free of paradox that it was
generally accepted by scholars even in the absence of direct proof.
Eighteen more centuries would pass before there was a direct proof, in the form of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition to circumnavigate the globe.
The true size of the Earth was known seventeen and a half centuries
before it was first circumnavigated. In 230 B.C., the Greek philosopher
Eratosthenes worked out its circumference of 25,000 miles by studying
shadows cast by the sun in both Alexandria and Syene on the day of the
In the sixth century B.C., a half-mile tunnel was dug on the Aegean
island of Samos under the supervision of the Greek architect Eupalinus.
Though the tunnel was started at both ends and worked toward
the middle, the two halves met only a couple of feet off centre - a
stunning achievement for those days.
When Greek mathematicians first proved the the square root of two
is an irrational number, they celebrated by sacrificing 100 oxen.
In 435 B.C., the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras suggested that the
sun was not just a small glowing circle of light. He maintained that
it was a glowing rock larger than the Peloponnesus. For maintaining
such beliefs (and, to be fair, for political reasons too), he was
exiled from Athens.
Euclid is the most successful textbook writer of all time. His
Elements, written around 300 B.C., has gone through more
than 1,000 editions since the invention of printing.
The greatest contribution of the Phoenicians, a group of seafaring
Canaanites who lived on the eastern Mediterranean seacoast, was an
alphabet that was later adapted by the Greeks.
Socrates was said to have always worn an old, worn-out coat,
gone shoeless, and to have been ugly.
The nature of sound was one area of physics in which the ancient Greeks made
significant progress in understanding. Around 400 B.C., Archytas of Tarentum
stated that sound was produced by bodies striking together, with swift motion
producing high pitch and slow motion low pitch. Later, Aristotle included air
as a body that produces sound when struck, stating that sound was propagated by
one part of the air striking the next until it reached the ear, and also
correctly noted that, without a medium such as air or water, man could not hear
The Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460–ca. 377 B.C.) taught,
among other things, that south winds cause deafness, dimness of vision,
heaviness of the head, and torpor.
Socrates, one of the greatest Ancient Greek philosophers, was forced
to commit suicide by drinking hemlock after being found guilty of "corrupting
the youth of Athens."
The ancient Greeks ground lenses out of quartz crystals and used them
for kindling fires.
A northeastern spotted dolphin.
Aristotle noticed that dolphins give birth to live young who were
attached to their mothers by umbilical cords, so
he classified dolphins as mammals in Generation of Animals. Not until the nineteenth century did modern science confirm his statement.
Aristotle believed that a body falls at a speed in proportion to its
weight (so that a ten-pound weight would fall ten times faster than a
one-pound weight), and that the speed of a falling body is inversely proportional
to the resistance of what it falls through (so that a body falling in a
vacuum would fall at an infinite rate).
Aristarchus of Samos.
The first Greek astronomer to suggest the sun was the centre of
the solar system was Aristarchus of Samos, around 290 B.C. No one
took him seriously, and most of his writings were lost. We know of him
today primarily because Archimedes (whose writings do exist)
referred to Aristarchus as holding this apparently nonsensical notion.
The Greek scientist Aristarchus believed that the motions of the
heavenly bodies could easily be understood if it were assumed that
all of the planets, including Earth, revolved around the sun and that
the stars must be infinitely far away because they seemed motionless.
Copernicus knew of Aristarchus' views and mentioned them in a
passage in De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium that he
later eliminated, as though not wishing to compromise his own
The first Greek to observe ocean tides, in the Atlantic in the early
third century B.C., was the navigator and astronomer Pytheas, who also
produced the correct explanation for them. He was 2,000 years ahead of
his time, for it took that long for tides to be attributed (by Newton)
properly to the influence of the moon. Until Newton's time, most
scholars refused to believe that the moon could have any effect on the
ocean, especially because one tide each day took place when the moon
was not even visible in the sky.
The best-known story about Archimedes is that when he discovered
the principle of buoyancy in the bathtub, he ran naked through the
streets of Syracuse, shouting "Eureka! Eureka!" ("I have
found it! I have found it!"). That was not a very astonishing thing for him
to have done. The Greeks habitually exercised in the nude, and the
sight of a naked male figure meant little to them.
The Greek engineer Hero invented a primitive steam engine in the
first century A.D. The principle behind it is still used today in
the rotating lawn sprinkler.
Electrical shocks given by torpedo fish were used for medicinal purposes
by the ancient Greeks and Romans. From the fifth century B.C. the Greeks
applied torpedo fish on the thorax of sick people in order to stimulate their
vital reflexes, and the Roman doctor Scribonius Largus mentioned the
efficacy of the fish's shocks in treating chronic diseases.
Hypatia (ca. 355 or ca. 370–415 A.D.) was
a soaring figure of beauty, eloquence, and learning,
and the last recorded member of the great
Alexandria and the only noted woman scholar of antiquity. She
taught Neoplatonism (hence, she was a pagan) and helped to demonstrate
Although Christian bishops were among her pupils, she was the
subject of violent antagonism on the part of zealots. She was murdered
in 415 by rioting fanatic monks, under the leadership of bishop Cyril, who
brutally sliced her body to pieces with oyster shells gathered from the
Twenty-three centuries passed between the Greek philosopher Xenophanes'
surmise that mountains on which seashells were found must originally have
been covered by the sea and the Scottish geologist James Hutton's
scientific deduction that made sober sense of what had seemed lunacy.
The first person to propose that everything is made of atoms was the Greek
philosopher Democritus, around 440 B.C. He reasoned that, if he were to attempt
to cut an object in half over and over again, he would eventually reach a tiny
grain of matter that could not be cut in half. Democritus called these hypothetical
building blocks of matter "atoms", after the Greek atomos, "uncuttable".
The ancient Greeks constructed pyramids of porous rocks in desert
climates, which were used as water catchers. They could capture and
condense surprisingly large quantities of water. A group of 13 pyramids
at Theodosia in the Crimea that were built around 500 B.C. averaged
almost 40 feet high and were placed
on hills around the city. As the wind moved through the stones, the
changing temperatures throughout the day caused moisture to condense,
run down, and feed a network of pipes.
Claudius Ptolemy, a second-century astronomer working in Alexandria,
Egypt, wrote thirteen volumes on his observations that were so influential
that they came to be known as the Almagest, Arabic for
"the greatest". Ptolemy's theories, which held that the Earth
stood still in the heavens while the moon, sun, and planets moved around
it and that the stars sat in a concave dome that arched over the universe,
were completely wrong; however, the influence of these theories held back
the science of astronomy for nearly 1,500 years.
Aristotle believed that swallows passed the winter buried in heaps
at the bottom of rivers.
Archytas of Tarentum, is reported, around 400 B.C., to have made a pigeon that could fly.