Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

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Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

Anaximander: And the Nature of Science

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At first this seemed like hyperbole from someone championing a particular favourite, but by the end of the book I was convinced.

These factors have an urgent relevance, he suggests, for the scientists and citizens and policymakers of today. That something, physicist Carlo Rovelli argues in this enjoyable and provocative little book, occurred in the interaction between two of the place’s greatest minds. Rovelli has improved hugely since his early super-waffly titles - if you have an interest in where science came from, this is arguably his best so far. But this book teaches me that the answers will not be obtained from pure observation of physical phenomena. This literal groundbreaking idea – inventing at a stroke the idea of the cosmos – was, as the historian of science Karl Popper suggested, “one of the boldest, most revolutionary and most portentous ideas in the whole history of human thinking”.That process, the idea that knowledge was something not handed down by gods or elders, but evolving, something to be quickly interrogated and built upon, set in motion, Rovelli argues, what we understand as the scientific method. That message, as relevant in Rovelli’s native Italy as in contemporary Britain, is this: “Each time that we – as a nation, a group, a continent or a religion – look inward in celebration of our specific identity we do nothing but lionise our own limits and sing of our stupidity.

As a stand-alone proposition, it is the least bit enlightening, but after reading this book I can appreciate that Anaximander’s contribution to scientific inquiry and analysis was monumental, as Carlo Rovelli teaches. He attributes Anaximander’s analysis of the physical world as wholly devoid of a metaphysical or religious system as though Anaximander did not or could not attribute some aspect of his existence or existence in general to factors not fully attainable through observation of physical phenomena. Over two millennia ago, a Greek philosopher had a number of wondrous insights that paved the way to cosmology, physics, geography, meteorology and biology, setting in motion a new way of seeing the world. The next step Rovelli takes is to try to understand why 6th century BC Greece was pretty well the only such starting point.Given that these are different ISBN numbers, what has changed in this new version; the original was already 5 star. Carlo Rovelli’s first book, now widely available in English, tells the origin story of scientific thinking: our rebellious ability to reimagine the world, again and again. In this, Rovelli suggests, he sends perhaps his most potent message through the ages, “one that can serve as a warning to us today”. What Rovelli attributes to Anaximander are the idea of a non-flat Earth floating in space - surrounded by the heavens, rather than a flat Earth with the heavens above; building on Thales' example as the first known explanation for physical processes without divine intervention; introducing the concept of natural law; and challenging his master's ideas rather than simply building on them.

And it was no coincidence that Anaximander’s revolutionary thinking also coincided with the birth of the polis – the nascent democratic structures built on debate as to how best to govern society. I found this a lot less interesting, partly because I'd seen most of it before, and partly because it is more a matter of paddling in the murky waters of philosophy of science rather than the more interesting (to me) origins of the history of science. The first, Thales, one of the seven sages of ancient Greece, is often credited as the pioneer in applying deductive reasoning to geometry and astronomy; he used his mathematics, for example, to predict solar eclipses. The 103 third parties who use cookies on this service do so for their purposes of displaying and measuring personalized ads, generating audience insights, and developing and improving products. Anaximander assimilated Thales’s ideas, treated them with due respect, but then rejected and improved on them and came up with more exact theories of his own.Currently head of the quantum gravity group at the Centre de Physique Théorique at Aix-Marseille University, Rovelli became a household name after publishing his first books, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Reality Is Not What It Seems, which became international bestsellers. Published in English for the first time, Rovelli's fascinating debut work pays much needed tribute to the pioneering Ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander and the game-changing theories that wrestled science away from crude superstition.

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