ANCIENT SCIENCE : Great minds do not think alike : ANAXIMANDER, By Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg.

OF THE THREE MEN usually credited with founding the disciplines of philosophy and natural science, Anaximander comes second, sandwiched between his teacher, Thales, and his student, Anaximenes.

Being second, it turns out, was crucial. Though the polymath [who was born around 610 BC] admired his teacher. Thales sought the origin of all things in water ; Anaximander preferred as his first principle the less tangible apeiron, the ''indefinite'' or ''infinite''.

A willingness to take the master down a peg or two, according to Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist, is key to the practice of science.

Lacking the deference a disciple owes to a prophet, but without the bitter contempt of an apostate, '' Anaximander '' discovered a third way,'' he writes,  and '' modern science in its entirety is the result of this third way.''

Mr. Rovelli's book, first published in French in 2009 and newly translated into English, is not a straight biography, as little is known of Anaximander's life and hardly any of his original writing survives.

Instead, it focuses on his revolutionary idea  that the best way to uncover nature's secrets is to question everything. Anaximander built his own cosmology on the work of past sages, interrogating their theories and making corrections where needed.

He invented a process that allowed knowledge to grow from generation to generation, and enabled humanity to reap the benefits.

The consequence of Anaximander's irreverence was uncertainty. Mr. Rovelli argues that is a price worth paying : '' The reliability of science is based not on certainty but on a radical lack of certainty.''

Anaximander and his followers rejected mythological explanations. They replaced revelation with observation and faith and scripture with reason.

As a result, Mr. Rovelli avers, they set civilisation on a new course, one in which progress is made less by accumulating facts than by knowing what is it that you do not know.

For Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all citizens of Miletus, a Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia, doubt was a birthright. 

Positioned between the more ancient civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and possessing all the cultural curiosity of a young, mercantile society, the residents of Miletus were exposed to a variety of beliefs.

'' Our knowledge, like the Earth, floats in nothingness,'' Mr.Rovelli says. '' Its provincial nature and the underlying void do not make life meaningless, they make it more precious.''

The book offers a timely rebuttal to those who would sacrifice the vital legacy of Western science - and the progress that comes with it - on the altar of cultural sensitivity or by retreating to the safety of metaphysical revelation.

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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