Thales

Although his accomplishment may be apocryphal, Thales (645-625 BC) is credited with stating mathematics first theorems, founding physics by searching for a physis (primary element), and predicting the eclipse of the sun of May 28, 585 BC.

Although Aristotle called him the first philosopher, Thales of Miletus is better known as the first scientist. He was one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece and noted for his knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and physics. 

Located approximately 25 miles south of Aydin, Turkey, Miletus was a large, prosperous city with 4 harbors. The city sat on the end of peninsula and was a prominent center of Ionian culture and commerce. Miletus later became the home of Homer and where Hippodamus introduced the idea of a planned city grid. In close proximity, the city sported a 5000 seat theater (which the Romans later expanded to 15000 seats) and natural springs (which Emperor Marcus Aurelius built into a bath complex for his wife Faustina). Today, the city is a landlocked site of ruins but still a popular tourist attraction.

Only slightly younger than Solon, Thales came to notoriety for correctly predicting an eclipse of the sun. Although he probably only predicted a solar event would occur sometime during the year of 585 BC, his accomplishment reached mythological proportions because the eclipse of May 28, 585 BC was nearly total. In addition, it occurred during a battle which Greece eventually won. 

It’s not clear whether his prediction was based on astronomy and geometry or by dumb luck, but Thales became a prominent figure of his day, and, as was the custom many apocryphal accounts of amazing accomplishments were attributed to him. For example, Thales is said to have cornered the market in olive oil because of his ability to accurately predict the weather. He also was credited with falling into a well because he was too intent on looking at the stars, measuring the pyramids of Egypt by their shadow, introduced geometry, calculated the sun’s course, believed that the earth was flat, divided the year into 365 days, and discovered the seasons of the year.

It is difficult to differentiate man from myth. Although 300 fragments of Solon’s poems have survived, none of Thales writings have survived. He apparently founded no major school, yet his reputation as a thinker and scientist is substantial. Aristotle called him the first philosopher but his philosophy had more to do with what today would be called science (the nature of the universe and its origins). The mathematical principles attributed to him may well have imported by Thales from Egypt, not personally discovered independently. But these principles, sometimes called Thales’ Theorems (e.g., opposite angles are equal, circle is bisected by its diameter, etc.), form the basis of modern geometry.

In many ways, the primary contribution of Thales was his approach questioning, not the answers themselves. He wanted to find the basic elements from which the complex universe had been derived. Perhaps it was the proximity of Miletus to the sea or the influence of Egyptian thought, but Thales maintained that the cosmos could be reduced to water. Everything comes from water and eventually returns to that fundamental state.

Surprisingly, Thales did not rely on mythical explanations or refer to the powers of pantheistic gods. It was a materialistic explanation that tried to explain the world with simple, natural phenomena.

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