This is part 4 of an intermittent yet always enjoyable series:
• Part 1: the rise of the ancient Puebloan civilization in the American Southwest from 10,000 BC to 750 AD.
• Part 2: the rise and collapse of the ancient Puebloan civilization from 750 AD to 1350 AD.
• Part 3: a simplified model of civilizational collapse.
This time let’s look at the collapse of Greek science and resulting loss of knowledge!
The Antikythera mechanism, found undersea in the Mediterranean, dates to somewhere between 200 and 60 BC. It’s a full-fledged analogue computer! It had at least 30 gears and could predict eclipses, even modelling changes in the Moon’s speed as it orbits the Earth.
What Greek knowledge was lost during the Roman takeover? We’ll never really know.
They killed Archimedes and plundered Syracuse in 212 BC. Ptolemy the Fat—”Physcon” —put an end to science in Alexandria in 154 BC with brutal persecutions.
Contrary to myth, Library of Alexandria was not destroyed once and for all in a single huge fire. The sixth head librarian, Aristarchus of Samothrace, fled when Physcon took over. The library was indeed set on fire in the civil war of 48 BC. But it seems to have lasted until 260 AD, when it basically lost its funding.
When the Romans took over, they dumbed things down. In his marvelous book The Forgotten Revolution, quoted below, Lucio Russo explains the evil effects.
Another example: we have the first four books by Apollonius on conic sections—the more elementary ones—but the other three have been lost.
Archimedes figured out the volume and surface area of a sphere, and the area under a parabola, in a letter to Eratosthenes. He used modern ideas like ‘infinitesimals’! The letter was repeatedly copied and made its way into a 10th-century Byzantine parchment manuscript. But this parchment was written over by Christian monks in the 13th century, and only rediscovered in 1906.
There’s no way to tell how much has been permanently lost. So we’ll never know the full heights of Greek science and mathematics. If we hadn’t found one example of an analogue computer in a shipwreck in 1902, we wouldn’t have guessed they could make those!
And we shouldn’t count on our current knowledge lasting forever, either.
Here are some more things to read. Most of all I recommend this book:
• Lucio Rosso, The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born In 300 BC And Why It Had To Be Reborn, Springer, Berlin, 2013. (First chapter.)
Check out the review by Sandro Graffi (who taught me analysis when I was an undergrad at Princeton):
• Sandro Graffi, La Rivoluzione Dimenticata (The Forgotten Revolution), AMS Notices (May 1998), 601–605.
Only in 1998 did scholars get serious about recovering information from the Archimedes palimpsest using ultraviolet, infrared and other imaging techniques! You can now access it online:
Here’s a good book on the rediscovery and deciphering of the Archimedes palimpsest, and its mathematical meaning:
• Reviel Netz and William Noel, The Archimedes Codex: Revealing the
Secrets of the World’s Greatest Palimpsest, Hachette, UK, 2011.
Here’s a video:
• William Noel, Revealing the lost codex of Archimedes, TED, May 29, 2012.
Here are 9 videos on recreating the Antikythera mechanism:
• Machining the Antikythera mechanism, Clickspring.
The Wikipedia articles are good too:
• Wikipedia, Antikythera mechanism.
• Wikipedia, Archimedes palimpsest.
• Wikipedia, Library of Alexandria.