Prompt: Many historians characterize early Greek science, from the Presocratics to Aristotle, as a golden age of physics (despite the fact that early Greek physics was not quantitative in character). For the Hellenistic period, in contrast, the discoveries of mathematicians (including mathematical astronomers and mathematical geographers) stand out more than those of the physicists. Do you agree that there was a general shift from physics to mathematics in the Hellenistic period? If so, what might have caused or contributed to it, and why is it significant?
The Hellenistic period was the time when the Greek influence was spread furthest across the globe. From Egypt to India to Italy sprang a new melding together of cultures. With the death of Alexander the Great the power of Greece shifted from the home peninsula and the city-states to Alexandria of Egypt and Ptolemy. With this shift thousands of families took up root from the homeland and traveled to Egypt and elsewhere. In their new cities they began correspondence with their new neighbors. Those with backgrounds in philosophy and education surely met up in societies and compared notes and ideas. The intermingling of differing cultures seems to result in the exchange of applicable ideas much more so than theoretical ones. Mathematics has many uses in engineering, astronomy, sociology, statistics, cartography and geography, while physics is only useful to a select few and only often times with the assistance of mathematics. I believe that the dominance of mathematics in the Hellenistic period is due to the fact that an exchange of application worthy ideas is much more beneficial in the short term, whereas something like the study of physics requires a stable base like that held by the city-states for centuries. The factions of the Hellenistic period were constantly warring with one another and that fact alone is fairly prohibitive of theoretical studies even today. More emphasis is placed on crunching the numbers of how one would be able to fit ten times more troops on the battle field than developing a new metal which MAY one day have a use in battle. Even one of the most popular works of the time period, Euclid’s Elements, is much more a pamphlet for engineers than the thesis of a doctoral candidate.
The Egyptian people never long lived in peace. There were constant upheavals of the ruling class, future pharaohs assassinating sitting pharaohs. The collapse of the Old Kingdom in the 22nd century B.C.E. saw the local governments rise up and take control resulting in many smaller warring communities which lasted until about 2055 B.C.E. when one clan finally grew stronger than the rest and asserted themselves rulers of all the land initiating the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom was fairly stable until around 1650 B.C.E. when a group of Asiatic settlers seized control of the delta in Egypt eventually forcing the ruling powers out for nearly a century. The New Kingdom would see the pharaohs make militarization a great priority. The New Kingdom was a period of constant change for Egypt. Some decades saw three different pharaohs, all of whom instituted differing law. Egypt had expanded further than ever before into the Middle East but would see the strife on the people of the death of Ramesses II lose the area to the Libyans. After the death of Ramesses XI in 1078 B.C.E. the priest class, who had attained much wealth through corruption, rose up and took control of true Egypt, while Egypt saw its borders constantly shrink due to the invasions of the Libyans and Assyrians. The Persians would follow later annexing Egypt from 6th century to 4th century B.C.E when they would hand it over to Alexander without a fight. The Greeks would then of course lose the area to the Roman Empire three centuries later. Four more civilizations would seize control after the Romans until we’d finally reach the modern era.
If Egypt had been a more stable state, perhaps the focus of study would have been on more theoretical science such as physics. Being as it has always been and will always be in relative turmoil, that study which is most beneficial in the short time of things is most likely to be that which is enacted.
This article originally written September 27th, 2008 for OU HSCI 3013 - History of Science to Newton.