EPICURUS (341 – 270 BCE)

Third Century BCE

“Epicurus’s philosophy combines a physics based on an atomistic materialism with a rational hedonistic ethics that emphasizes moderation of desires and cultivation of friendships.”

Summarized by the Roman author Lucretius, who wrote ‘On the Nature of the Universe’ in 55 BCE – “The light and heat of the Sun; these are composed of minute atoms which, when they are shoved off, lose no time in shooting right across the interspace of air in the direction imparted by the shove”. This may be considered as accurate for the time, when most people thought that sight was associated with something reaching out from the eye (EMPEDOCLES) .

Plato wrote of a marriage between the inner light and the outer light.

Euclid worried about the speed with which sight worked. He pointed out that if you close your eyes, then open them again, even the distant stars reappear immediately in your sight, although the influence of sight has had to travel all the way from your eyes to the stars and back again before you could see them.

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A great deal of what we know about the ancient world and its scientific ideas has come to us from documents which were translated from ancient Greek or other ancient languages into Arabic, and later from Arabic into European languages. The material reached the Arab world in many cases through the Roman empire in the East, Byzantium, which survived until 1453, almost a thousand years after the fall of Rome, during the period known in Europe as the Dark Ages.
During this time the consolidating influence of Islāmic religion saw Arab Muslims begin to build an empire that was to stretch across the Middle East and across North Africa into Spain. At the heart of the Islāmic world the caliphs ruled in Baghdad. Arab scientists sowed the seeds that would later be reaped in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, especially under the Abbasid dynasty during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Mamun, and the Middle East became the intellectual hub of the World.

depiction of early islamic scholars at work at various scientific investigations

In the ninth century, at the House of Wisdom – a mixture of library, research institute and university – scholars worked to translate the great works of the GREEK thinkers. Muslim scholars of this golden age made important and original contributions to mathematics and astronomy, medicine and chemistry. They developed the ASTROLABE, which enabled astronomers to measure the position of the stars with unparalleled accuracy.Astrology & Astronomy in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia: Astrolabe: An ancient astronomical instrument
In medicine they made the first serious studies of drugs and advanced surgery. A number of mathematicians, including Habash al-Hasib (‘he who calculates’), Abul’l-Wafa al-Buzjani, Abu Nasr al-Iraq and Ibn Yunus formulated trigonometry (including all six trig functions [ sin, cosec, cos, sec, tan, and cot ]) at a level far above that introduced by the Greek astronomer-mathematician HIPPARCHUS in the second century BCE.
It is largely through such efforts that Greek ideas were preserved through the DARK AGES.


Eight hundred years before COPERNICUS, a model of the solar system was advanced with the Earth as a planet orbiting the Sun along with other planets.

A few centuries later this idea fell into disfavour with the early Christian Church, which placed mankind at the centre of the universe in a geo-centric model. The alternative teaching would be deemed heresy punishable by death and it would not be until the seventeenth century that the work of GALILEO, KEPLER and NEWTON gave credence to the ideas revitalized by Copernicus in 1543.

It is worth noting that even to-day at least half the named stars in the sky bear Arabic names (Aldebaran and Algol amongst others) and many terms used in astronomy, such as Nadir and Azimuth, are originally Arabic words.

 The Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

The elaborate observatory established by the Ulugh Begg in Samarkand in the fifteenth century appeared to function with a dictum meant to challenge PTOLEMY’s geocentric picture of the universe sanctioned by the Church in Europe. Arabic scholars had access to the early teachings of ARISTARCHUS, the astronomer from Samos of the third century BCE. (referred to by Copernicus in the forward of an early draft of De Revolutionibus, although omitted from the final copy)


AL-BIRUNI (973-1050)

The Persian scholar al-Biruni lived around the same time as ibn-Sina. He pioneered the idea that light travels faster than sound, promoted the idea that the Earth rotates on its axis and measured the density of 18 precious stones and metals.

portrait of al-biruni

He classified gems according to the properties: colour; powder colour; dispersion (whether white light splits up into the colours of the rainbow when it goes through the gem); hardness; crystal shape; density.
He used crystal shape to help him decide whether a gemstone was quartz or diamond.

He noted that flowers have 3,4,5 or 8 petals, but never 7 or 9.

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IBN SINA (AVICENNA) (980-1037)

‘al Qann fi al-Tibb’ (The Canon of Medicine), also ‘ The Book of the Remedy

Avicenna lived under the Sammarid caliphs in Bukhara. He identified different forms of energy – heat, light and mechanical – and the idea of a force.

drawing of Ibn Sina ©


Before GALEN, scientists describing nature followed the old Greek traditions of giving the definitions and following them up with the body of logical development. The investigator was then obliged merely to define the various types of ‘nature’ to be found. With Galen this procedure was changed.

Instead of hunting for these natures and defining more and more of them, reproducing ARISTOTLE’s ideas, AVICENNA, a Persian physician, planned inductive and deductive experimental approaches to determine the conditions producing observable results.

His tome surveyed the entire field of medical knowledge from ancient times up to the most up to date Muslim techniques. Avicenna was the first to note that tuberculosis is contagious; that diseases can spread through soil and water and that a person’s emotions can affect their state of physical health. He was the first to describe meningitis and realize that nerves transmit pain. The book also contained a description of 760 drugs. Its comprehensive and systematic approach meant that once it was translated into Latin in the twelfth century it became the standard medical textbook in Europe for the next 600 years.

Arabic Canon of Medicine by Avicenna 1632. Many physicians in the Islamic world were outstanding medical teachers and practitioners. Avicenna (980-1037 CE) was born near Bokhara in Central Asia. Known as the 'Prince of Physicians', his Canon of Medicine (medical encyclopedia) remained the standard text in both the East and West until the 16th century and still forms the basis of Unani theory and practice today. Divided into five books, this opening shows the start of the third book depicting diseases of the brain.

Arabic Canon of Medicine by Avicenna 1632

Avicenna thought of light as being made up of a stream of particles, produced in the Sun and in flames on Earth, which travel in straight lines and bounce off objects that they strike.

A pinhole in a curtain in a darkened room causes an inverted image to be projected, upside-down, onto a wall opposite the curtained window. The key point is that light travels in straight lines. A straight line from the top of a tree some distance away, in a garden that the window of the camera obscura faces onto – passing through the hole in the curtain – will carry on down to a point near the ground on the wall opposite. A straight line from the base of the tree will go upwards through the hole to strike the wall opposite near the ceiling. Straight lines from every other point on the tree will go through the hole to strike the wall in correspondingly determined spots, the result is an upside-down image of the tree (and of everything else in the garden).

He realized that refraction is a result of light traveling at different speeds in water and in air.

He used several logical arguments to support his contention that sight is not a result of some inner light reaching outward from the eye to probe the world around it, but is solely a result of light entering the eye from the world outside – realizing that ‘after-images’ caused by a bright light will persist when the eyes are closed and reasoning that this can only be the result of something from outside affecting the eyes. By effectively reversing the extro-missive theory of Euclid, he formulated the idea of a cone emanating from outside the eye entering and thus forming an image inside the eye – he thus introduced the modern idea of the ray of light.

The idea which was to have the most profound effect on the scientific development of an understanding of the behaviour of light was the thought of the way images are formed on a sunny day by the ‘camera obscura’.

AL HAZEN (c.965-1039)

Born in Basra and working in Egypt under al-Hakim, Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham was one of the three greatest scientists of Islam (along with al-Biruni and ibn-Sina). He explained how vision works in terms of geometric optics and had a huge influence on Western science. He is regarded as one of the earliest advocates of the scientific method.

The mathematical technique of ‘casting out of nines’, used to verify squares and cubes, is attributed to al-Hazen.

Al-Hazen dissented with the J’bir Ayam hypothesis of transmutation, thus providing two different strands for Alchemy in Europe from the Islāmic world.

diagram explaining the working of the eye

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bust said to depict a likeness of Socrates

The speculative Greek philosophers, considering the great overarching principles that controlled the Cosmos, were handicapped by a reluctance to test their speculations by experimentation.
At the other end of the spectrum were the craftsmen who fired and glazed pottery, who forged weapons out of bronze and iron. They in turn were hindered by their reluctance to speculate about the principles that governed their craft.

WESTERN SCIENCE is often credited with discoveries and inventions that have been observed in other cultures in earlier centuries.
This can be due to a lack of reliable records, difficulty in discerning fact from legend, problems in pinning down a finding to an individual or group or simple ignorance.

The Romans were technologists and made little contribution to pure science and then from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance science regressed. Through this time, science and technology evolved independently and to a large extent one could have science without technology and technology without science.

Later, there developed a movement to ‘Christianise Platonism’ (Thierry of Chartres).

Platonism at its simplest is the study and debate of the various arguments put forward by the Greek philosopher PLATO (428/7-348/7 BCE).
The philosopher Plotinus is attributed with having founded neo-Platonism, linking Christian and Gnostic beliefs to debate various arguments within their doctrines. One strand of thought linked together three intellectual states of being: the Good (or the One), the Intelligence and the Soul. The neo-Platonic Academy in Greece was closed by the Emperor Justinian (CE 483-565) in CE 529.
During the early years of the Renaissance, texts on neo-platonism began to be reconsidered, translated and discoursed.

Aristotle’s four causes from the ‘Timaeus’ were attributed to the Christian God, who works through secondary causes (such as angels).

Efficient Cause – Creator – God the Father

Formal Cause – Secondary agent – God the Son

Material Cause – The four elements: earth, air, fire & water.
Because these four are only fundamental forms of the single type of matter, they cannot be related to any idea of ‘elements’ as understood by modern science – they could be transmuted into each other. Different substances, although composed of matter would have different properties due to the differing amounts of the qualities of form and spirit. Thus a lump of lead is made of the same type of matter (fundamental form) as a lump of gold, but has a different aggregation of constituents. Neither lead nor gold would contain much spirit – not as much as air, say, and certainly not as much as God, who is purely spiritual. ( ALCHEMY )

Final Cause – Holy Spirit

All other is ‘natural’ – underwritten by God in maintaining the laws of nature without recourse to the supernatural.
Science was the method for investigating the world. It involved carrying out careful experiments, with nature as the ultimate arbiter of which theories were right and which were wrong.

Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253) Bishop of Lincoln (Robert ‘Bighead’) – neo-platonic reading of Genesis – emanation of God’s goodness, like light, begins creation. Light is thus a vehicle of creation and likewise knowledge (hence ‘illumination’), a dimensionless point of matter with a dimensionless point of light superimposed upon it (dimensions are created by God). Spherical radiation of light carries matter with it until it is dissipated. Led to studies of optical phenomena (rainbow, refraction, reflection).

stained glass window depicting Robert Grosseteste (created 1896)

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1621 – Holland

woodblock print portrait of WILLEBRORD SNELL ©


‘During refraction of light, the ratio of the sines of the angles of incidence ( i ) and refraction ( r ) is a constant equal to the refractive index of the medium’

In equation form: n1sini = n2 sinr 
where n1 and n2 are the respective refractive indices of the two media.

The refractive index of a substance is a measure of its ability to bend light. The higher the number the better light is refracted. The refractive index of diamond, 2.42, is the highest of all gems.

Refraction is the change in direction of a ray of light when it crosses the boundary between two media. It happens because light has different speeds in different media. A ray of light entering a medium where the speed of light is less (from air to water, for example) bends towards the perpendicular to the boundary of the two media. It bends away from the perpendicular when it crosses from water to air. Refraction was known to ancient Greeks, but Snell, a Dutch mathematician, was the first to study it.

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RENE DESCARTES (1596-1650)

1637 – France

Cogito ergo sum‘ – The result of a thought experiment resolving to cast doubt on any and all of his beliefs, in order to discover which he was logically justified in holding.

Descartes argued that although all his experience could be the product of deception by an evil daemon, the demon could not deceive him if he did not exist.

His theory that all knowledge could be gathered in a single, complete science and his pursuit of a system of thought by which this could be achieved left him to speculate on the source and the truth of all existing knowledge. He rejected much of what was commonly accepted and only recognised facts that could intuitively be taken as being beyond any doubt.

His work ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ (1641) is centered on his famous maxim. From this he would pursue all ‘certainties’ via a method of systematic, detailed mental analysis. This ultimately led to a detached, mechanistic interpretation of the natural world, reinforced in his metaphysical text ‘Principia Philosophiae‘ (1644) in which he attempted to explain the universe according to the single system of logical, mechanical laws he had earlier envisaged and which, although largely inaccurate, would have an important influence even after Newton. He envisaged the human body as subject to the same mechanical laws as all matter; distinguished only by the mind, which operated as a distinct, separate entity.

Through his belief in the logical certainty of mathematics and his reasoning that the subject could be applied to give a superior interpretation of the universe came his 1637 appendix to the ‘Discourse’, entitled ‘La Geometrie‘, Descartes sought to describe the application of mathematics to the plotting of a single point in space.

This led to the invention of ‘Cartesian Coordinates’ and allowed geometric expressions such as curves to be written for the first time as algebraic equations. He brought the symbolism of analytical geometry to his equations, thus going beyond what could be drawn. This bringing together of geometry and algebra was a significant breakthrough and could in theory predict the future course of any object in space given enough initial knowledge of its physical properties and movement.

Descartes showed that circular motion is in fact accelerated motion, and requires a cause, as opposed to uniform rectilinear motion in a straight line that has the property of inertia – and if there is to be any change in this motion a cause must be invoked.

By the 1660s, there were two rival theories about light. One, espoused by the French physicist Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) held that it was a stream of tiny particles, traveling at unimaginably high-speed. The other, put forward by Descartes, suggested that instead of anything physically moving from one place to another the universe was filled with some material (dubbed ‘plenum’), which pressed against the eyes. This pressure, or ‘tendency of motion’, was supposed to produce the phenomenon of sight. Some action of a bright object, like the Sun, was supposed to push outwards. This push was transmitted instantaneously, and would be felt by the human eye looking at a bright object.

There were problems with these ideas. If light is a stream of tiny particles, what happens when two people stand face-to-face looking each other in the eye? And if sight is caused by the pressure of the plenum on the eye, then a person running at night should be able to see, because the runner’s motion would make the plenum press against their eyes.

Descartes original theory is only a small step to a theory involving pulses of pressure spreading out from a bright object, like the pulses of pressure that would travel through water if you slap the surface, and exactly equivalent to pressure waves which explain how sound travels outward from its source.

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