Almost every written record of their work (the Greeks) has been lost, but what little we know is mind-boggling. Anaximander invented the idea of a map — hence quantifying our notion of space — and drew the first known map of the world. He is also credited with introducing to Greece the gnomon, an instrument for quantifying time, consisting of a rod set vertically in the ground so that its shadow showed the direction and altitude of the sun. Anaximander apparently used the gnomon, in combination with his knowledge of geometry, to accurately predict the equinoxes. He also seems to have been the first to develop the concept of infinity, and he concluded, although we do not know how, that the universe was infinite. He seems to have proposed an early version of biological evolution, holding that human beings and other animals arose from fish in the sea. Anaximander was taught by Thales, and he seems to have taught Pythagoras. Thus was built the scientific tradition of training students and passing along knowledge.
Just think of these phenomenal achievements for a moment, and imagine the transformations they eventually brought about. How often have you arrived in a strange city or neighbourhood without a map or a picture of your location? With nothing but your immediate surroundings, with no mental image of their context, you are lost. Each new turn you take brings something unexpected and unpredictable. A map brings a sense of perspective, and lets you anticipate and choose where you want to go. It raises new questions. What lies beyond the mapped region? Can we map the world? And the universe?
And how would you think of time without a clock? You could still use light and dark, but all precision would be lost in the vagaries of the weather and the seasons. You would live far more in the present, with the past and the future being blurred. Accurate measurements of time allowed precise navigation using the sun, moon and stars. Yet these matters were probably not Anaximander’s primary concerns. He seems to have been more interested in the big questions, such as what happened if you traced time back into the distant past or far forward into the future.
Excerpt from pages 54-55 of The Universe Within © 2012 Neil Turok and CBC.
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