Whoosh! Issue 30 - March 1999


IAXS project #129
By Carolyn Bremer and bongo_bear@rocketmail.com
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
3672 words

Introduction (01)
Rationalism (02-09)
Astronomy and Mathematics (10-21)
Medicine (22-37)
Conclusion (38-39)

Ancient Greek Science: Mathematics, Astronomy, and Medicine

I assure you, studying Centaur mating habits is strictly educational!

An early application of telescope technology.


[1] This is the story of a time long ago, a time of myth and legend, when the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued humankind with suffering. Only one hero dared to challenge their power: Greek science. Were you expecting Hercules or Xena? Sorry, those two are the stuff of legends and screen writers. This is about the history of ancient Greek science and the legacy it has left the modern Western world.


[2] In an article about science, you might be wondering why it begins with an "-ism". Rationalism played an extraordinarily important role in how the Greek scientists thought and worked. A concise definition of Rationalism is "a theory that reason is in itself a source of knowledge superior to and independent of sense perception; a reliance on reason" (Webster's Dictionary). In other words, d*mn your intuition, logic rules all.

[3] The idea of science being a separate and distinct entity from other bodies of knowledge is a modern convention and not one that the ancient Greeks of the sixth century BCE would have recognized. The terms philosopher, scientist, and thinker are used in this essay interchangeably to demonstrate this lack of distinction between the disciplines. For the ancient Greeks, the very act of observing natural phenomena and creating theories that explained what they saw was an expression of a bold new way of thinking called Rationalism.

[4] While some of the conclusions reached by early Greek scientists regarding Rationalism seem wildly outrageous to modern readers, they still exhibit a remarkable set of thought processes. These ancient scientists laid the foundation for a body of knowledge that is still used by modern society, although it is found primarily in 20th century configurations. It is difficult to imagine how little had been thought out and accepted 2500 years ago. Considering they worked from a completely blank slate, their limited accomplishments are easy to hold in high regard, even the strangest of their findings.

[5] For example, Parmenides, who lived around 500 BCE, tried to reconcile the very strict notion of Rationalism that everything is based on logic, with a world that is full of ideas begotten from experience and intuition. He concluded that since reality was based on logic and logic never changes, the world was static. Zeno, who lived some two hundred years later, took this a step further. He claimed that anything moving would have to pass through an infinite number of points and that, therefore, nothing could ever reach its goal, nor even move at all. Although he could perceive movement, logic said it did not occur. Zeno chose to side with logic. Movement was an illusion.

[6] What was it about rational thinking, as the ancient Greeks understood it, which distinguished it from other ways of understanding the world? First, a rationalist rejects supernatural explanations for observed phenomena. Anaximander of Miletus (ca. 610-540 BCE) attributed inclement weather to natural causes. For example, the wind caused thunderbolts and clouds splitting into two caused lighting. Popular supernatural beliefs attributed lighting bolts and thunder to Zeus' displeasure with some mortal transgression.

[7] Secondly, a rationalist examines particular instances of a phenomenon and derives a general conclusion about all similar phenomena. When he sees buildings fall down and tidal waves forcefully wash away shore lines and coastal habitats, he compares notes of this great disaster with other people who experienced similar events in other places and times. He tries to find out what these events have in common and derive a reason that accounts for all of them. Considered the first rational philosopher, Thales of Miletus (ca. 585-? BCE) said that the earth was an island that floated upon an enormous body of water. Therefore, earthquakes were caused by an island rocking upon the waves and not from a personal attack from Poseidon against a particular city.

[8] Thirdly, rationalist philosophers independently develop their own explanation for why things happen or are as they are. Then they debate the logic of their conclusions, believing there can be only one true explanation among the many false or illogical reasons for any specific observation. For example, there are two schools of thought regarding the location of the soul within the human body: the cerebrocentrists, for whom the soul resided in the brain, and the cardiocentrists, who said the soul resided in the heart. Each was in the unfortunate position of lacking enough physical evidence to prove their side, yet each side argued passionately.

[9] These three characteristics of Rationalism are precursors to the modern scientific method of observing natural phenomena, deducing a reason for why such behavior occurs, predicting future behavior from the reason, and validating the prediction with experiments. The Greek philosophers did not invent the scientific method, but they did develop a logical way of thinking that eventually led to it. In fact, they were so enamored of the purity of logic that they often gave short shrift to experimentation. Aristotle (ca. 384-322 BCE) specifically rejected experimentation because he thought that investigators could more easily understand natural phenomena in its native state as opposed to an unnatural laboratory environment. Therefore, their theories and conclusions were usually debated in the abstract only. Not surprisingly, they often produced hypotheses and rules of nature that seem quite fanciful today.

Astronomy and Mathematics

The ancient fish constellation is only visible in the Southern hemisphere

Xena and Gabrielle contemplate the stars in FFG.

[10] Picking on Anaximander again, he postulated the first mechanical model of the solar system as being three misty rings paired with rings of fire. The misty rings had holes in them through which the flames could be seen. These holes were the stars, the moon, and the sun. The earth was a stubby, flat-topped cylinder situated in the center of the rings. Note how his explanation does not account for the five planets that can clearly be seen with the human eye. Just because Anaximander was a rationalist does not mean he was right. Of course, he can be forgiven for his error because he lacked the means to observe the solar system more clearly with optical telescopes and other such devices. Hopefully our successors will also generously understand that our errors were not due to some lack of vision, but to comparatively primitive instrumentation.

[11] Similarly, the ancient Greek philosophers who did conduct experiments did so on phenomena that could easily be reproduced, controlled, and measured. Ptolemy (ca. 2nd. century BCE) studied how light refracts through the interface of transparent materials of different densities, i.e., water/air or air/glass. Pythagoras (ca. 6th. century BCE) plucked strings of varying lengths to determine the effect on pitch.

[12] What little experimentation that went on was only done to confirm a theory rather than to check its validity. Often the experiments had an air of child-like fascination about them. The scientists simply wanted to see what would happen.

[13] Not all Greek thinkers developed their ideas based purely on observation and logic. As philosophers, they attached moral and aesthetic values to their theories. Plato (ca. 4th. century BCE) regarded studying the regular movement of the planets to be a meditative exercise that calmed and ordered men's souls. He also believed that geometry, as taught in Euclid's late 4th century BCE work, The Elements, promoted logical thinking, which in turn disciplined the mind and built character. The continued high regard for Geometry in academia was evident in the traditional liberal arts curriculum: the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the Quadrium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy).

[14] Another philosopher, Pythagoras, was famous for his work with right triangles. Just about any student of geometry has seen his proof for the relationship between the two sides of a right triangle and the hypotenuse. In Pythagoras' spare time, he and his followers postulated a non-geocentric model of the universe. The stars, sun, moon, earth, and the other planets orbited a fiery celestial body called Hestia or the Hearth. A counter-earth that occasionally came between Hestia's light and the earth explained solar eclipses.

[15] Moral and aesthetic sensibilities dictated this model rather than a good explanation of planetary motion. The Pythagoreans believed that humanity was too flawed and base for the earth to occupy the center of the universe. Furthermore, ten was the magic number. The counter-earth was added to the visible celestial bodies so the total added to ten. The five planets, the sun, the moon, the earth, and the "sphere of stars" were grouped as one to make nine visible celestial bodies.

[16] In fact, Ptolemy's geocentric model better explained the observed planetary motion, though he admitted and agonized that his model could not explain all celestial observations, namely that the planets appear to reverse course and change their speed. Despite the acknowledged shortcomings, his geocentric model held sway until Copernicus' heliocentric model was eventually accepted 18 centuries later.

[17] The Pythagorean solar system illustrated a principle doctrine that things were numbers and numbers were things. In the search for a numerical basis for all things, he discovered the mathematical relationship of musical harmonics in which the intervals of an octave, a fifth, and a fourth can be expressed as simple ratios, 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4.

[18] Believing that mathematical relationships should be found everywhere, he declared that the celestial bodies had "a musical scale and a number". As these heavenly bodies moved, they produced a conveniently inaudible, but melodic sound, the famed "music of the spheres". He further applied numerology to humans. Women were two, men were three, and their sexual union made five. Aristotle understandably questioned the Pythagorean preoccupation with numbers asking, "Why need these numbers be causes?"

[19] Aristotle's mentor, Plato, encouraged astronomers to record their observations using geometric figures, essentially creating a mathematical model of the known universe. Unlike Pythagoras, he understood that the model was not the universe itself.

[20] Lest you leave thinking Pythagoras was a quack, he and Plato left a profound contribution to science: numbers and their properties can provide a foundation for understanding the physical world. This concept exists today in the form of mathematical correlations and models that simulate the weather, the extent of a chemical reaction, and the path of a ballistic missile. Like Plato, modern scientists and engineers know that the mathematics is not reality, but it is a powerful tool that approximates and predicts the real world.

[21] The hallmark of Greek philosophy was that nature is neither random or the arbitrary will of angry gods. According to this view, the universe is orderly, predictable, and therefore beautiful. This belief, this cosmology, applied to all forces of nature, to all living things, and to bodies both celestial and human.


Like HMOs today, Ancient Greece was great for health care

Some doctors, some waiting in IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE.

[22] While the ancient Greeks were known for their extensive medical knowledge, we would regard their expertise, tools, and diagnostic techniques barbaric. Nevertheless, what the Greeks learned set into motion the study of medicine, and some of their findings remained in use, without revision, for over 1,500 years. The ancient Greek physicians kept one foot in philosophy, using rationalist methods to "reason" their advances in medicine.

[23] The earliest extant references to medicine are in Homer on the treatment of battle wounds. Homer accurately described spear and arrow wounds, mentioning in some cases the specific organ injured. There was knowledge about which wounds were likely to be fatal and which non-fatal, but as for the actual treatment, there was much to be desired. When Machaon, the son of a legendary healer, was wounded in battle, he was given a cup of hot wine sprinkled with goat cheese and barley.

[24] Prior to the 5th Century BCE, medicine was not unlike that portrayed in IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (24/124), at least before Xena showed them a thing or two. As mentioned in DOCTOR, Asclepius was the god of healing, though in some versions of the myth he was a mortal. After the first temple for Asclepius was established in Thessaly, over 300 temples, or Asclepion, cropped up around the Mediterranean. They were usually built around or near a natural mineral spring. The sick or wounded were taken to the temples, bathed in the healing waters, and made to undergo various rituals often involving the healing waters [Note 01]. The sick were then left to rest on a pallet near the altar. During the night, Asclepius might visit and cure them, if they were lucky. Of course, such cures are still common place and readily available at a health spa near you.

[25] Hippocrates, whom we met in DOCTOR (24/124), is considered the father of medicine. He was born in 460 BC on the Greek island of Cos. How important was Hippocrates? Carl Sagan wrote that Hippocrates was responsible for taking medicine from superstition into the realm of science [Note 02]. Hippocrates said it was necessary to build on past knowledge, not create anew every time. He believed the body was an organism, a "whole". He differentiated between acute and chronic diseases. Medical personnel still use Hippocrates' method for treating a dislocated shoulder.

[26] Some 60 documents by Hippocrates are extant. They became part of a large collection of medical references called "The Hippocratic Collection" or "Corpus Hippocraticum". Scholars believe that they constituted the library at the medical school on Cos (Hippocrates' home), and then later they became part of the great Library at Alexandria.

[27] Before the fifth century BCE, almost all gynecology was handled by midwives. By the time of Hippocrates, male physicians replaced midwives. Men were suspicious of women's reproductive abilities. There are discussions of this in the Corpus Hippocraticum, which states that women could sabotage the husband's production of an heir.

[28] Menstruation was viewed as a defect cured through intercourse. In fact, the word "hysteria" stems from the Greek word for the womb. Ancient Greek physicians believed the movement of the womb caused hysteria, and it was therefore relegated to women.

[29] What did Hippocrates have to say about medicine? He spent a great deal of time discussing diets. He claimed that soups were invented for the sick, "abstracting that which was strong in them by dilution and boiling" [Note 03]. For those who were too sick for soup, eating solid food was ten times worse. He believed that intense foods, such as bitter, salty, acidic, or sour, should be avoided unless they were mixed in breads or cakes. Yet, he recognized that not everyone reacted to foods in the same way. He was particularly adamant about cheese not "proving equally injurious to all men".

[30] Hippocrates did not write the Hippocratic Oath, though it was apparently a part of the Corpus Hippocraticum. Some medical schools still require their students to take the oath upon graduation. The oath consists of a promise to pass on medical knowledge to all worthy students and never to prescribe treatment that will harm a patient.

[31] Like Empedocles' principle of four elements (earth, fire, air, and water), Hippocrates postulated there were four humors in man: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. For a body to be healthy, these elements had to remain in balance. In addition, a balance of hot, wet, cold, and dry was necessary. Diagnoses and treatments were often geared towards this model, and they attempted to right the ratios.

[32] The elder healer in IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (24/124), Galen, was actually 500 years younger than Hippocrates and a skilled doctor in his own right. Though a Greek by birth, he lived and worked in Rome for the emperors as their physician. He made a name for himself with public demonstrations of his vast knowledge of anatomy and by dint of his wealthy family and highly placed social contacts. He was also a skilled speaker, which did not hurt.

[33] His work was based on the principles of anatomy; knowing how the body worked made it possible to diagnose illnesses. He viewed the body as consisting of three systems: the brain and nerves, which handled sensation and thought; the heart and arteries, which were responsibility for energy; and the liver and veins, which contributed to nutrition and growth. He also discovered that arteries carried blood, not air, as had been believed for hundreds of years.

[34] He worked under difficult conditions, however, for autopsies on humans were taboo. He worked only with animals, sometimes conducting cruel vivisections in which he tied the ureters to show how kidneys and bladders functioned, or cut the spinal cord to discover the functions of specific spinal nerves. Relying solely on animals also led him to incorrect conclusions about how the human body worked. Women were subjected to gynecological science that was based on the uteruses of dogs.

[35] Women were all but excluded from the medical profession. There is a story, generally regarded as myth, of a maiden named Agnodice who entered the study of medicine disguised as a male. As a doctor, she once went to the aid of a crying woman who had refused the assistance of male doctors. Agnodice lifted her clothes and showed the patient she was a woman herself and was therefore able to treat the patient. The male doctors accused Agnodice of seducing the patient, driving the patient to feign illness in order to receive visits from Agnodice. These male doctors, apparently, could not come up with any other reason why Agnodice would be allowed to help the patient. Then, surprise of surprises, Agnodice lifted her clothes and revealed she was a woman!

[36] The male doctors were even more outraged, for Agnodice had broken the laws forbidding a woman to study medicine. Finally, the wife of one of the leading doctors spoke up and told them they "weren't spouses, but enemies", for the male doctors (AKA husbands) were condemning one who had brought good health to women. I guess the hint of mass divorce or at least a pack of angry wives was enough to set politics in motion. It is said that the laws in Athens were then amended to allow freeborn women to study medicine.

[37] Still, Galen's remarkable discoveries about human anatomy were shared with medical students for hundreds of years. Even in the 1400s, his manuscripts were being translated. In the 1500s, they were printed. It was not until the mid-sixteenth century that significant advances were made on Galen's work in anatomy.


Location, location, location

The Acropolis, the Parthenon at centre.

[38] Rationalism gave the Greek philosophers the confidence to carve out a natural world from the supernatural. A natural world can be understood and made predictable. With knowledge and understanding, it was possible to begin the process of working toward a better world, one that could cure illness or aid in navigation at sea.

[39] Although the Greeks studied nature for the sake of knowledge, eventually with understanding comes the power to manipulate nature to one's own ends. How exhilarating and frightening it must have been to be at once freed from the arbitrary whims of the gods and burdened with creating one's own fate. As Xenophanes of Colophon (ca. 580-480 BCE) said, "The gods have not revealed all things from the beginning to mortals, but, by seeking, human beings find out in time what is better".


Note 01:
Kasas and Struckmann: Important Medical Centers In The Antiquity: Epidaurus And Corinth (Materia Medica Nordmark, 1978).
Return to article

Note 02:
Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World (Ballantine Books, 1997).
Return to article

Note 03:
Hippocrates: On Ancient Medicine. Translated by Francis Adams.
Return to article


Bazopoulou-Kyrkanidou, Euterpe. "Genetic Concerts in Greek Literature in the Eighth to the Fourth Century BC". Human Genetics. Spring 1992.

Hippocrates. On Ancient Medicine. Translated by Francis Adams.

Kasas and Struckmann. Important Medical Centers In The Antiquity: Epidaurus And Corinth. Materia Medica Nordmark. 1978.

Lloyd, G.E.R. Early Greek Science: Thales To Aristotle. W.W.Norton & Company. 1970.

Lloyd, G.E.R. Greek Science After Aristotle. W.W.Norton & Company. 1973.

Martin, Thomas. "Overview of Archaic and Classical Greek History". Perseus Project, Tufts University Website

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. Ballantine Books, Reprint edition. 1997.

Various essays from Antiqua Medicina: Aspects In Ancient Medicine.

Various articles from Britannica Online.

Various articles from The Internet Classics Archive.

Various essays from The Perseus Project, Tufts University Website.

Kym Taborn's useless degree.


Carolyn Bremer Carolyn Bremer
Carolyn Bremer is a composer of issue-oriented, experimental and political music, and head of the composition program at the University of Oklahoma.
Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
Favorite line: Picking just one out of the plethora of deserving candidates is utterly impossible.
First episode seen: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
Least favorite episode: FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (40/216) And I'm really hoping that doesn't get bumped out of the bottom spot by a fourth season Joxer bumble.

bongo_bear@rocketmail.com bongo_bear@rocketmail.com
Bongo Bear is not really bear, but a fan fiction writer turned Whoosh! contributor. Moving up in life.
Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215) and BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302)
Favorite line: "That's my piece of meat you're reaching for." Thunk. THE DEBT II (53/307)
First episode seen: THE GAUNTLET (H12/112)
Least favorite episode: FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (40/216)

Ms. Bremer has previously written for Whoosh!:

"Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography. Part I: Timetable And Overview", Whoosh! #26 (9811)
"Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography. Part II: The Intersection Of Myth And History", Whoosh! #27 (9812)
"Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography. Part III: The Ancient Greek Arts", Whoosh! #29 (9902)
"Duality and Completeness: An Analysis of the Xena: Warrior Princess Theme Music", Whoosh! #20 (9805)

Bongo Bear was interviewed in Whoosh!:

"Twenty-Seven Grilled Bards and One Reviewer: Rare, Medium, and Supertoasty", by J. C. Wilder, Whoosh! #25 (9810)

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