1/07/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
pub: Prometheus Books. 293 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $27.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-217-9.
check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com
I guess to most of us, science was just there to be discovered and we rarely wonder who came up with it first, although considering the likes of Archimedes should make the Greek connection. Although it is the Greeks author Stephen Bertman focuses on, the opening chapter does point out that the Egyptians did make some breakthroughs in some areas like medicines, mathematics and astronomy but were truly awful at physiology thinking the heart was where the soul or intellect was, hence their disregard of the brain when they mummified the dead. Incidentally, mummification was done because they were horrified at body decay finding them after grave-robbers had been around. At the back of the book, the appendixes show other cultures developing in the sciences, especially the Chinese and Mayans in realising the Earth orbited the sun, but the cutting edge came from the Greeks, despite much of their books being destroyed when the Roman Empire fell. Bertman points out that the Greeks realised the Earth was a globe although mostly from maths more than travelling.
Did you know that the word ‘history’ in Greek means research? Me neither. But it does make sense. Indeed, a lot of science words noted in the book come from the Greek including deus ex machina.
A lot of the Greek discoveries and applications were for practical use like amphitheatres that could magnify stage actors voices so all could hear. Pulleys and levers enabled them to construct buildings out of marble. With their understanding of ballistics, giant ancient catapults could throw rocks at their enemies.
Although it was the Egyptians who saw pure gold as an element unlikely to rust which is why it was the metal of choice for armouring pharaoh mummies, the Greeks sought to mix it with other elements to make it go further. As mentioned before, the famous case of Archimedes of working out metal purity by volume displacement is known to all but came about because of such a blend and a need to discover how pure a crown was.
Bertman spends some time with the recognised mythological stories. I think he sees these as the means to convey knowledge verbally from generation to generation until writing developed but it might explain some of the exaggerations over the years. However, considering there is some basic first aid given in some of them, there are similarities to some of our medical dramas guiding its viewers in a medical crisis. The Greeks did recognise a lot of problems even if they didn’t necessarily have perfect cures. There were a lot of medical schools in their time. Those that are remembered the most belonged to Hippocrates and Galen.
This is a great book to get a grounding on the development of science and shows how much in later times things were restricted by the church. Knowledge is power. So is keeping it from people. It’s a shame that Bertman didn’t explore why after the Roman Empire so much was forgotten for so long but that’s a minor quibble. The important thing that comes out of this is just how smart earlier man was which makes this book worthy of study.
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