Ancient and modern

The Egyptians knew the value of accidental discoveries

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

The government has plans to fund a new research agency to back ‘cutting-edge science’. Ptolemaios (Ptolemy) I (367-282 bc), the first Greek king of Egypt, had a similar idea.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 bc, his ramshackle ‘empire’ fell apart, and the generals he had left in charge of each region promptly turned themselves into autonomous kings. Egypt’s new king Ptolemy I decided to make Egypt’s ‘capital’ Alexandria the greatest cultural and scientific centre in the world, and the resultant ‘Museum’ became the world’s first scientific research institute. Wielding their cheque-books, the Ptolemies persuaded the finest minds of the day to sign up.

These included Euclid, who invented geometry from simple axioms; Archimedes, who anticipated integral calculus, invented hydrostatics and produced a formula for measuring the volume of a sphere; the geometer Apollonius (conic sections); and the astronomer Aristarchus (the Earth spins around the sun). Herophilus first made the connection between the heartbeat and the pulse and distinguished between arteries and veins. Erasistratus realised that every organ in the body was plumbed into the system by three sets of vessels — veins, arteries and nerves, which he divided into sensory and motor nerves.

But there was another side to the work there: seeing how far applied mechanics could improve on nature. Cogged gears, pulley systems, machines working under air, water or steam pressure — a form of jet propulsion — were invented, among them a water clock, a water organ, a vending machine, a fire-engine pump, a machine-gun for shooting arrows in rapid succession and so on.

That shows what enquiring, immensely creative minds could do 2,000 years ago. But while the advances in mathematics and medicine were triumphs, the mechanisms were merely ingenious toys (with a few exceptions, e.g. stopwatches to count pulse and heartbeats, and the pedometer) and mocked by intellectuals. Even the serious work done on military ballistics and siege works were ignored. But their time would come.

Our modern research agency will have a very different, highly practical agenda, but one which must also allow it to produce the completely unexpected, whose time also will come.

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