The Flame of Miletus – John Freely ***

It is fashionable to play down the importance of the ancient Greeks, noting that other civilizations – China, for instance – we also cradles of scientific thought. But that misses the point. Modern science has a clear ancestry: ancient Greeks, Arab world, Europe, Worldwide. There is no doubt that amazing work was done elsewhere, and to some extent (e.g. with Indian mathematics) has been a side feed to this process, but most of the early development of science that occurred in parallel with the ancient Greeks proved to be evolutionary dead ends.

The fact is, tracing back where our modern science came from, the ancient Greeks were the first in that family tree to shift from what they called the work of theologi (theologians) to physikoi (physicists) – from a worldview where things happened because the gods willed it, to one of natural explanations for the world around us. And so we really ought to be better acquainted with what went on back then.

Like most popular science writers I usually give a hat tip to the ancient Greeks, but in a decidedly summary fashion. In The Flame of Miletus, John Freely sets out to give us chapter and verse.

For the first few chapters I was rather excited and prepared to give the book a solid four stars, as it really sets the scene well with the early folk like Thales, Anaximander and Pythagoras. Unfortunately as we get further in, it all gets a bit samey. With philosopher after philosopher we get a quick bit of historical context and then a rather plodding description of what’s in their books. That early promise isn’t carried through. Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of good stuff in here, and it gives an excellent background to the different ideas that came out of Greece and influenced scientific thought for over 1500 years. But it becomes more of a dull reference and less of an interesting read.

I also wish Freely had stuck to the ancients. In a couple of final chapters he carries things forward to the renaissance and this is inevitably rushed. Though not too bad on the Arab scholars and Galileo, it’s fairly sketchy on everything else (Roger Bacon, for instance, isn’t even mentioned). This effective appendix seemed unnecessary: I would rather the author had used the effort put into it to get more life into the important chapters.

Overall, then, a valuable insight into this period, but could have been more readable.

Hardback:  

Review by Brian Clegg

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