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The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn

Lucio Russo
Publication Date: 
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[Reviewed by
Samuel S. Kutler
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Everything in the 400 pages of Russo's "The Forgotten Revolution" is aimed at explaining and justifying his sub-title. Fortunately, the author tells us what he means by science:

  1. The statements are about theoretical entities, not actual objects.
  2. The exposition is rigorously deductive.
  3. To test the theory in practice, there must be correspondence rules.

Russo has achieved and exhibited an extensive survey of science in the Hellenistic world at the time after Aristotle, which is intended to show that, at the time of the founding of Alexander's empire, there was not only scientific mathematics, say in Euclid and Archimedes, but there were also the sciences of optics, geodesy, mechanics, hydrostatics, astronomy (including heliocentric), etc., and that there was extensive technology to complement it.

Russo considers that the ancients had trigonometry: the only difference that he finds is that we use the sine of an angle of a triangle and they used the chord of the circle in which the triangle is situated. But while the ancients had tables of arcs and chords, we use continuous trigonometric functions. Since Euler, analysis is dominated not only by the limit notion, but also by the notion of a function.

Another example: Russo has a section on dream theory. He finds it "fascinating to reconstruct what was thought in Hellenistic times about the analysis of the psyche" (page 214). Since none of the writings of Herophilus of Chalcedon are extant, we have no access to anything that he wrote on dreams, so that Russo must use whatever fragments we do have that refer to those writings in order to believe that Herophilus had a science of dream interpretation. What Russo has going for him is that Freud himself mentions Herophilus as an interpreter of dreams. However, even if there were ancient writings on dreams that were as 'scientific' as those of Freud, should we consider Freud himself as scientific, especially since his writings do not meet the rigorous standards that Lucio Russo demands that a science have?

Russo finds Hellenistic interpretations everywhere, and where there is no text to back him up, he speculates that such a text is lost. Nevertheless, there is great value in "The Forgotten Revolution," for there is not enough appreciation of the achievements of these Hellenistic writings.

In any case, the Hellenistic scientific enterprise became dim, and the understanding of it lost. Is our modern science also susceptible to fading? Perhaps it is chiefly a matter of numbers. There were not enough scientists to form a critical mass so that science could be counted upon to continue.

As Russo interprets the facts, science could only be re-born because enough of ancient science remained intact to make a renaissance possible. Otherwise modern science would have been delayed and off to a shakier start.

The treat in store for the reader of this book is the vast learning that Lucio Russo has acquired, which he explains with lucidity. What is hard for the readers, however, to judge is to what extent the ancient world had true science in Russo's sense. What is definitely so is that the Alexandrine world had great accomplishments to excite our wonder.

This book has two uses. On the one hand, it is useful for private study, for one's own enlightenment; on the other it will enrich every science course and every history course that involves these time periods.

It would be wonderful to read this book in connection with two others: The Mathematics of Plato's Academy (2nd Edition), by David H. Fowler (Oxford, 1999), and The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics, by Reviel Netz (Cambridge, 1999).

At the turn to the 21st century, we are fortunate to have works that suggest new ways to view, and thus review, the origins of modern mathematics and science.

Samuel S. Kutler ( teaches at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD.

Introduction.- 1 The Birth of Science.  The Erasure of the Scientific Revolution. On the Word "Hellenistic". Science. Was There Science in Classical Greece? Origins of Hellenistic Science.- 2 Hellenistic Mathematics. Precursors of Mathematical Science.Euclid's Hypothetico-Deductive Method. Geometry and Computational Aids. Discrete Mathematics and the Notion of Infinity. Continuous Mathematics. Euclid and His Predecessors. An Application of the "Method of Exhaustion". Trigonometry and Spherical Geometry.- 3 Other Hellenistic Scientific Theories. Optics, Scenography and Catoptrics. Geodesy and Mathematical Geography. Mechanics. Hydrostatics. Pneumatics. Aristarchus, Heliocentrism, and Relative Motion. From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. Ptolemaic Astronomy.- 4 Scientific Technology. Mechanical Engineering. Instrumentation. Military Technology. Sailing and Navigation. Naval Architecture. The Pharos. Hydraulic and Pneumatic Engineering. Use of Natural Power. The Antikythera Mechanism. Heron's Role. The Lost Technology.- 5 Medicine and Other Empirical Sciences.  The Birth of Anatomy and Physiology. Relationship Between Medicine and Exact Sciences. Anatomical Terminology and the Screw Press. The Scientific Method in Medicine. Development and End of Scientific Medicine. Botany and Zoology. Chemistry.- 6 The Hellenistic Scientific Method. Origins of Scientific Demonstration. Postulates or Hypotheses. Saving the Phainomena. Definitions, Scientific Terms and Theoretical Entities. Episteme and Techne. Postulates and the Meaning of "Mathematics" and "Physics". Hellenistic Science and Experimental Method. Science and Orality. Where Do the Clichés about "Ancient Science" Come From?.- Some Other Aspects of the Scientific Revolution. Urban Planning. Conscious and Unconscious Cultural Evolution. The Theory of Dreams. Propositional Logic. Philological and Linguistic Studies. Science, Figurative Arts, Literature and Music.- 8 The Decadence and End of Science. The Crisis in Hellenistic Science. Rome, Science and Scientific Technology. The End of Ancient Science.- 9 Science, Technology and Economy. Modernism and Primitivism. Scientific and Technological Policy. Economic Growth and Innovation in Agriculture. Nonagricultural Technology and Production. The Role of the City in the Ancient World. The Nature of the Ancient Economy. Ancient Science and Production.- 10 Lost Science. Lost Optics. Eratosthenes' Measurement of the Meridian. Determinism, Chance and Atoms. Combinatorics and Logic. Ptolemy and Hellenistic Astronomy. The Moon, the Sling and Hipparchus. A Passage of Seneca. Rays of Darkness and Triangular Rays. The Idea of Gravity after Aristotle. Tides. The Shape of the Earth: Sling or Ellipsoid? Seleucus of Babylon and the Proof of Heliocentrism. Precession, Comets, etc. Ptolemy and Theon of Smyrna. The First Few Definitions in Euclid's Elements.- 11 The Age-Long Recovery. The Early Renaissances. The Renaissance. The Rediscovery of Optics in Europe. A Late Disciple of Archimedes. Two Modern Scientists: Kepler and Descartes. Tides, Gravitation and Terrestrial Motion. Newton's Natural Philosophy. The Rift Between Mathematics and Physics. Ancient Science and Modern Science. The Erasure of Ancient Science.-11 Recovery and Crisis of Scientific Methodology.- References.- Index of Ancient Passages.- Subject and Name Index.