By Simone Witney
On the west coast of Turkey, near the town of Balat, lie the ruins of Miletus, which in the 6th century BCE, was the most important city in the Greek world. Here Anaximander was brought up, in a city teeming with traders from Ethiopia, the Ukraine, Italy, France, Asia Minor and the rest of Greece. Political power passed between merchants, craftsman and aristocrats, while the Persian Empire with its static structure of divine kings, priestly caste and civil service was an ever present threat. The times were ripe for a new kind of thinking: scientific thinking.
Anaximander was the first person to say the world floated freely in space. Nor was it flat, but cylindrical. It makes perfect sense because you can see the stars disappearing, then reappearing, but no-one had thought of it before, because it required a complete disruption of a world view which had been in place, working quite well, for centuries. He overturned this by posing a different question: not what stops the earth from falling, but why should it fall?
He thought that the world began from a natural phenomenon which was ‘apeiron’ which means without limits, or undifferentiated. This might sound vague and archaic, but frankly it’s not dissimilar to our expression ‘dark matter’. He’s imagining a concept which makes it easier to construct an explanation of the world, whilst acknowledging that it isn’t knowable through direct experience. Significantly, it’s natural, not divine, it has no limits, it isn’t something familiar: water, or air. Centuries later, Faraday posited the existence of electric and magnetic fields. It’s an approach which has served science well.
Anaximander imagined, at the very beginning of things, that fire surrounded the earth like bark around a tree. The fire then split off and was contained in wheels of air which had apertures like the holes in a flute through which the stars and planets are visible. Not right, but to conceive of air as a force which can contain fire on a cosmic scale is extraordinary. The term ‘dark matter’ was invented to explain what stops speeding stars from escaping from their galaxies. It’s the same kind of thinking.
He understood that the sun evaporates water from sea and rivers and returns it as rain, and concluded there were natural laws keeping the world in balance through a process of constant exchange. He said thunder was caused by clouds colliding, earthquakes were fissures created by excess heat. He thought life originated in the sea. These are new concepts developing out of a process of observation and intelligent imagination.
He had a mentor, the engineer and philosopher Thales, who said that water was the primary matter in the universe. He took this idea on board but completely reconfigured it. This is ‘third way thinking,’ a kind of respectful rebellion, in which old theories are built on, or stimulate alternatives.
It’s the opposite of ‘ binary thinking’ in which a small flaw destroys the whole. This makes compromise or adaptation so threatening it results in entrenched, inflexible thinking: ” If Trump says immigration must stop, it’s a job that needs doing.”
Fascinatingly, the history of scientific discovery constantly refines and reshapes our concept of reality. It’s truths are always questionable, but even theories that are proved incorrect, can have validity; and this all began with Anaximander. Of course he’s been misunderstood, but personally I think a posthumous Nobel Prize is in order.
* Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, one description of the content of dark matter.