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Time and the Ancient World

After nearly a year of writing, rewriting, reflecting, a great deal of reading and pondering, I am looking forward to beginning a PhD in October with the wonderful Open University.

In a sense it was born out of my MA, but also out of a lifelong fascination with the concept of time. So this will be a study which will be concerned with ancient ideas about time, and some very specific ways in which it was thought about, experienced and written about. I’ll be studying this part time, and am greatly looking forward to beginning officially.

To kick off this research, I’d like to start with one of Plutarch’s writings, De Defectu Oraculorum, Reference at the end of this post) which is found in Plutarch’s Moralia. At the centre of this particular account, found within the text, is a man called Cleombrotus. This section is narrated by Lamprias, also the name of Plutarch’s father and brother. Cleombrotus is described by Lamprias as a ‘revered man’, who was ‘wealthy enough’, and did not see any point in having more than enough. He liked “seeing things and acquiring great knowledge” and to this end he used his wealth to travel to many different places for the purpose of being able to form a history, and from this basis he planned to form a theology. From the story he recounted and the way he recounted it, I would suggest that he really enjoyed what today we might today call ‘out of the box’ thinking.

The scene that Lamprias give us, is that Cleombrotus had met up, either by intent or unintentional coinciding, with another revered man called Demetrius, who was on his way home from Britain back to Tarsus. Demetrius, we are told, was a grammarian. He serves here as the person to whom Cleombrotus first tells his story.

Cleombrotus’ Account

Lamprias tells us that Cleombrotus had recently visited the Shrine of Ammon (in Egypt, known as the Oracle of the Libyan deity Ammon). He apparently was not too impressed with most of what he saw there, but one thing stood out. The testimony of the priests. Their story as told by Cleombrotus, was as follows,

“…but in regard to the everburning lamp he related a story told by the priests which deserves special consideration ; it is that the lamp consumes less and less oil each year, and they hold that this is a proof of a disparity in the years, which all the time is making one year shorter in duration than its predecessor ; for it is reasonable that in less duration of time the amount consumed should be less.”

Lamprias narrates that Demetrius immediately reacted by ridiculing such a thing, stating that,

“…a wick and lamp postulating a mutation in the heavens and the universe, and doing away completely with mathematical science.”

…is to be obviously dismissed.

Here though, is the interesting thing, Cleombrotus argues back really rather expertly. He gives three different arguments, first arguing that ‘these men’ the priests would consider it much easier to determine with accuracy, the time for a lamp to burn and oil to be burned, than mathematicians can measure accurately the cycle of the celestial objects. He emphasises the accuracy of the measurements the priests make. Then he argues without giving an example that to dismiss small things goes against many examples of when small things are used to indicate great things. He then addresses Demetrius and the company with him (it seems there are at least two or three others listening in to this), as “You people…” and so it would seem setting himself outside of this company in some way. He criticises and perhaps even makes fun of their own logic giving three examples of how they take single instances in Homer and turn each into a generalisation. Then he continues by giving five different examples of medical science and science where small things are observed and given to be indicators of great things. It could be thought that Cleombrotus was arguing not on behalf of the priests but in his own thinking. This, I think becomes parhaps more apparent when a philosopher who we are told is present, speaks up, His name is Ammonius and he gave an astronomical reason for the year appearing to be shorter, saying that the mathematicians tend not to mention this apparent disparity of the duration of the Sun’s cycles, due to this then throwing all the celestial mechanics into unnecessary confusion. Cleombrotus gives at this point his final argument, and this is the point which I would suggest shows that Cleombrotus has become convinced by the priests. He says,

“I myself actually saw the measure; for they had many of them to show, and that of this past year failed to come up to the very oldest by not a little.”

The final word goes to Ammonius who then suggests that there is more likely to be another reason then, such as a difference in cold or heat, such as, he suggests, fire burning better in the winter. Cleombrotus does not get an opportunity to reply to Ammonius,

Lamprius at this point interrupts and says,

“why don’t you tell us about the oracle instead Cleombrotus…”

for which Cleombrotus gives no answer, for reasons we can only conjecture.

There are fascinating aspects of this account. One is that it could be argued that this was a discussion about the nature of time, and whether there were strange goings on in the Cosmos with years becoming shorter. Another aspect is the way the arguments were set out for and against. It reads rather like something out of a modern debating society, until finally Lamprius seemingly gets fed up and changes the subject. What it clearly shows though is how difficult it clearly was to determine a duration of time. The celestial objects moving through the heavens, the rising and setting of the Sun at different times of year being in different places, and the oil which burned in lamps were all changeable because of either unknown outside influences or complexities of the celestial cycles. Underlying all of this discussion was the idea that one year had the same duration as the previous year, in other words that there was such a thing as predictable time, but there was it seems a challenge here from the priests that something was amiss, and that no matter what the mathematicians and philosophers had worked out, they didn’t know everything. This is rather like many of today’s science and faith debates. I always find it quite reassuring to see how so much of what we think is new today, is actually simply history repeating itself. I think often of the words of Ecclesiastes when he says,

“There is nothing new under the Sun” (Ecclesiastes chapter 1, verse 9)

This narration Lamprias gives, is often seen to be a discourse though which attempts to unite ‘religion’ and science, and this can be seen throughout the rest of De Defectu Oraculorum, the next part which I will be returning to in a future post.

I have come to like Cleombrotus, I like that he does not crumble under the weight of Demetrius’ ridicule, and that he shows an independence of thought. He also has some well thought out counter arguments and these arguments draw out an acceptance that the priests observations were perhaps accurate, but their interpretations according to Ammonius, incorrect. It is Ammonius who takes up the possible causes for this. It is he who takes Cleombrotus seriously. This is the point where Lamprius brings this discussion to an end and the account moves on to other things.

There are questions to be asked here though, such as the relationship to the priests’ belief that the quicker burning oil was an indication of the shortening of the year, with their god Ammon. Did they cast this as an ominous sign, or merely a sign that it was the god or gods who controlled time, as can be seen in Homer and Hesiod for example? Is there an answer to this question if we read further in this text? Were these priests likely to be dismissive of the mathematicians or would they have argued back in the style Cleombrotus did, or was he putting into their mouths his own words?

Plutarch is brilliant at creating characters who have discussions. It has been suggested that Lamprias is actually Plutarch himself here.

Concepts of time are foundational to science, perhaps especially cosmology. This little foray listening in to their discussion, is the beginning of many. There is nothing quite like reading the whole thing for yourself though, because it is in reading these texts which lead to other texts and before you know it, you’ve had ten cups of tea/coffee and the day has gone…but what more pleasant a way of spending time.

If you would like to read the text, you can find it here, I would start at section 2, here is the link,

If this does not work, then go to Perseus Digital Library ( and do a search for Plut. De Defect. 2 and this whole section should appear. I’ve just tried it and it does.

The text is from Plutarch. Moralia. with an English Translation by. Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1936. 5.

What’s next?

Here is an update about what has happened since achieving my MA.

On the 12th March I was asked to give a talk to the Society for the History of Astronomy (SHA) on my dissertation. This was a privilege although I was pretty nervous, even though I have done a lot of public speaking in various forms, there is something about attempting to summarise 13000 words (yes I took almost all my 10% extra for my dissertation) into a PowerPoint presentation and a 45 minute talk and deliver it to an audience made up of specialists in the field, many of whom had PhDs and have written books. However, I managed to overcome my nerves and did the deed and happily it seemed to go well and everyone made very kind comments. Now I have been asked to write it up for the 2023 annual SHA publication The Antiquarian Astronomer.

As well as this, the call was put out for volunteers to give 20 minute talks on 29th June via Zoom this time – phew (parking in the middle of Birmingham was a nightmare, in fact finding the middle of Birmingham was a nightmare) and because there was a section of my dissertation I didn’t have time to talk about on 12th March I volunteered…so here I am last minute preparing for that…even though I’ve had 2 months…

So then, what next? Well it may come as no surprise to learn that I am now in the beginning stages of writing an initial PhD proposal. I have no idea whether this will happen or not, but I am compelled…as for the subject matter…if it goes through then I will be sharing all on here. It may also come as no surprise that it is also related, albeit indirectly with cosmology, but digging very deep into roots of things in Ancient Greece and Rome. It would very much be a Classics PhD with a touch of current cosmological reception.

My subject matter and research hope is deeply embedded in me from a conversation I once had with my Dad (dearly departed) when I was about 10 years old, and I asked him a question. His reply was a “Ahh interesting question, let’s see what the New Standard Encyclopaedia and World Atlas (pub. 1937) has to say about this shall we?” and he picked this wonderful book (which now resides proudly in one of my bookcases) from the 4th shelf in our sitting room, put his glasses on, and I can remember him now, standing in the middle of the room, flicking the pages to the word in question, and then reading what it said. Here I am going to pause, until I can say more…

I made it!

This is really just a short post (actually turns out quite long) to celebrate that I achieved my MA in Classical Studies with the OU, back at the end of November and the certificate came at the end of December. I achieved a merit overall and for my dissertation I scored 85% which just tips over into the distinction category for which I have to be thankful to Aristarchus of Samos, who was the subject of it. I also am hugely thankful to the brilliant and inspiring Dr Cora Beth Fraser who was my tutor and great encourager.

What next? Well first up is a talk I have been asked to give on Aristarchus. I have been a member of the Society for the History of Astronomy (SHA) for several years now and feel very honoured to be asked to give such a talk at their Spring Conference. I am pretty nervous about this, and hope I can argue my case for Aristarchus in an interesting and persuasive way. Perhaps a good practice for what is to come next…well hopefully.

I am in the process of putting together a PhD proposal (there, I’ve said it now, so I have to go for it) I am taking this very slowly and my aim is that I hope to begin it next year, either February or October of next year – we will see. I would be studying part time with the OU. Watch this space. I have my proposal all in my head, it is just when I try to put it down on (virtual) paper something gets all scrambled…if I could just have an image taken of what’s in my head…mind you that could be pretty scary to look at…

So, what am I about to delve into researching. I was already beginning to research this when also writing my MA dissertation. Writing and researching for my MA dissertation led me right to it. I am compelled. It may come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog over the months and even year(s) that it has to do with how ancient scientific concepts have influenced modern cosmological concepts. I have a hypothesis which, so far, I can’t find anywhere else, except for one teeny tiny comment in a paper which was an ‘in passing’ sort of way without any of the significance noted or even it seems noticed. When I found this teeny tiny comment I was both hugely excited and amazed that nothing followed from it! It seemed to me and still does seem incomprehensible. This one apparently trivial (but really not) aspect, is alluded to so often, yet…the significance it seems, is missed, not even a thought it seems in anyone’s head. So…onwards and upwards. It has a scary feel to it now, what if it all hinges on this one teeny thing, this one unnoticed apparently trivial teeny aspect of a thing…and then…what if? Well, here goes anyway, nothing ventured nothing gained…because how this may have influenced modern cosmology and one particular cosmological aspect is extremely significant and awareness of it could even change cosmological understanding in the future.

My fascination with this ‘thing’ all began when I was around ten years old and I asked my Dad a question. His reply was to go to one of the two tall bookshelves in our sitting room, and reach up for The New Standard Encyclopaedia and World Atlas, (published in 1932 by Odhams Press Limited, London). He stood there, turning the pages, to the entry which he was looking for. He read it out to me, and I have always remembered it. I have this same encyclopaedia on one of my many bookshelves now, still intact, though the golden brown spine and cover are a little worse for wear, but the pages feel as if just turning them will impart wisdom, and as if I am in a cave somewhere and I have come across this treasured book telling me the secrets long forgotten things. This entry, that my Dad read out to me, made total sense then and still does today. The curious thing is, that I have noticed that little by little various cosmologists on the cutting edge of all that can be currently known, have begun to say very similar things that this ninety year old encyclopaedia says, about this one aspect of cosmology. I think that is both extraordinary and as you shall eventually see as I begin to post again, nothing short of deeply ironic.

I shall be starting to look at various aspects around what I propose, in this blog in the coming weeks and months until I gradually spiral in to the ‘thing’ itself’. I know, what a cliff hanger eh?

I may start by looking at the Roman god Janus…

The end of the beginning as they say…

I am extremely chuffed to bits to have passed my MA with merit overall. I am very thankful to my tutor/supervisor Dr Cora Beth Fraser, and for many others along the way who encouraged me, listened to my continuous ramblings about Aristarchus, including too many to mention without accidentally leaving someone out.

My dissertation especially was the culmination of many years of reading and researching about Aristarchus, and the journey is far from over. I’m sure he would be quite astonished at a woman being an advocate for him and his heliocentric proposal, but I like to think his out-of-the-box thinking would have allowed him and inspired him to be excited and glad to realise that about 2300 years after he had proposed the Earth orbiting the Sun, the common narrative about it being quickly dismissed and forgotten, has been thoroughly challenged.

What next? Well first up is that I have been invited to give a talk about this to the Society of the History of Astronomy, which will, covid restrictions or rather unrestrictions permitting, be in March 2022.

Currently I am pondering a great deal. Pondering about the historical novel which I began about Aristarchus several years ago, and came to a grudging pause because I realised I needed to know more, and access to a university library and so began the MA, as part of this journey. Now I know how much I really don’t know…but, I do feel slightly better equipped to return to that novel…encouraged by a writer’s seminar at Gladstone’s Library several years ago, delivered by Patricia Bracewell, who encouraged me so much and continues to do so, whose own writing and sharing of how she writes, was so significant for me. Her books, the Trilogy of our very own Queen Emma, and the era of the Viking invasions of Britain, drew me into and caught my interest leading to reading about an era of British history I had never truly appreciated or or interested enough to read specifically about before then. I thought then, as now, if an historical novel can do that, (though it has to be said it is Patricia’s tremendous writing skills) then perhaps this is what Aristarchus needs. Do go and take time to read her books and her blog, they are really a wonderful read and you won’t be able to put them down. Thankfully also, it looks as if there may be more from Patricia’s pen, to look forward to in the coming years.

Then there is the question of whether to put forward a PhD proposal, which I know is a long and potentially complex process, and even if accepted, would be a task I am not at all sure I want to put myself through, but,I know I am being drawn, compelled…. There is, however, only one person I would really want to be my supervisor, at least as one of the two supervisors…so we will see…I shall give myself time and space to ruminate and ponder and read and think. I would do it part-time. I do have a proposal in my head, in fact it has been one that has been with me for decades, a question about one single aspect of current cosmology which has its roots and influence in ancient cosmology. In fact it has connections with Aristarchus, and there is at least one quote I used in my dissertation which stood out to me, but more of that in a future post… Many people have written about this, and it isn’t at first site as obscure and unknown a topic as Aristarchus’ Heliocentric Proposal, but the angle I am coming at it, seems to be, as far as I have found so far, not considered, anywhere… This fact itself intrigues me, because it, as the narrative of Aristarchus’ Heliocentric Proposal has done, directly impacts current cosmological theory.

So I shall leave you on this cliff hanger for now, while I think some more… All the reading I have done so far, has reinforced and confirmed my theory…

Aristarchus on the Moon

Since my previous post I finally submitted my dissertation. In celebration of this, I am posting here an image of the crater on the Moon which is named Aristarchus, after the great mathematician and astronomer.

Aristarchus Crater is around 1.7 miles deep (About three times the height of Snowdon) at the centre, and has a diameter of around 25 miles. So imagine somewhere 25 miles away from where you are reading this, and that’s the distance from one edge of the rim to the opposite side. For me, that’s about how far it is from here to Manchester Airport…about 40 minutes away.

It lies on a plain which is also named after Aristarchus, known as the Aristarchus Plateau.

It is the small bright crater near the top of this image, in fact it is hard to see that it is a crater because the reflected light is so bright from that particular spot.

I took this photo using the Liverpool Robotic Telescope, ( which is free for schools and colleges to register with, and as far as I know Universities (must check that one) but also anyone can now register as an individual user. I am thinking of delivering a free course in how to use it for anyone who is interested who is studying classics if you would like a little dip into the world of astronomy. There are so many craters named after those who lived in Ancient Greece and Rome… Aristarchus is one of the brightest craters – much brighter than Plato…just saying…

The Liverpool Telescope works by setting up an account, and then telling it what you would like it to take an image of. Then you just need to download a piece of software – I can guide you through that – and then you are all set up to enjoy the images the telescope sends back as soon as it has taken the image. Astronomers tend to talk about images rather than photos, simply because it is a complex set of data which is sent from the telescope back to the observer, which is why a piece of software is needed to convert the data to an image, the image which the telescope observed.

This image was taken on 21st September at 11.30pm. I have changed the colour to a purplish hue just to highlight the craters and because I like the Moon wearing purple 😀

Of a new love of footnotes…

I am drawing near to the end of my dissertation now, well in theory anyway…as it has to be submitted rather soon…and even at this stage I have just discovered that part of a passage from Plutarch is key to one of my arguments. I had overlooked it because it isn’t the part where the much discussed scholarship focusses…however, that will be for another post, because what I want to talk about here is my new love of footnotes.

Before that, just in case this is the first post you have read in this blog, it is mainly about a mathematician astronomer called Aristarchus, who lived around 310 BC to 230 BC and who is the first person known to have proposed a heliocentric model of the then known Universe, placing the Sun not the Earth in the centre. However, his proposal, whether it was a single manuscript, or several, or a series of diagrams, has been lost. There is one extant work, called On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon in which there are hints and clues to his lost Heliocentic work. Archimedes’ treatise The Sand Reckoner is the main primary source which tells us about Aristarchus’ proposal, and there are other primary sources which refer to his genius and views of the cosmos. Aristarchus’ lost work, is the focus of my Open University Masters dissertation. This blog has been a way of being able to write down some of my thoughts as I have been writing the dissertation over the last several months. I am hoping that it (my dissertation) will make some sense by the time I have submitted it, though I have to admit having to stave off panics this week. Anyway, that aside, let’s plunge into the sixteen hundreds…come with me to somewhere in Paris, where…

There are two manuscripts in The Bibliotheque Nationale de France, one of these is described as…

“…a large format manuscript made with high quality parchment and a binding consisting of thick wood covered by red leather. The binding is secured by a metallic band with no title, and the only decoration is a golden garland in the centre… Its script is composed with elegant lower-case letters, supplemented by the infrequent use of sophisticated, red-ink capital letters.” (Garriga, L.L (2018))

If that doesn’t sound like some kind of magical thing straight out of Narnia I don’t know what does. It has to be one of the best descriptions I have ever read of a manuscript. I can smell that wonderful old and treasured musty book smell from here, I can almost reach out and touch it. One day, I hope to see them in person as it were. For now I have to be content with knowing that it has Aristarchus in the nominative and Cleanthes in the accusative. This small tiny detail, is a possible key to how Aristarchus is thought of today.

Here’s why…

Plutarch wrote a discussion about the Moon, called Concerning the Orb that Appears in the Face of the Moon, which basically is a set of characters, some based on real people some fictional, all discussing the markings on the face of the Moon as seen from Earth. Today, these features have mainly been referred to especially in our childhood as being in the West, the ‘Man in the Moon’. in China they see a Rabbit in the Moon, and in Plutarch’s De Facie (the abbreviated name) they see all sorts of interesting things and ponder about them and many other things. I am heartened to know that Plutarch had his characters discuss these things with such fascination and enthusiasm. I have come to enjoy reading Plutarch during my studies for this dissertation.

During Section six of this discussion, a reference is made by one of the chief characters, Lucius, about Cleanthes having wanted to have Aristarchus summoned for impiety, on account of his setting the Earth in motion and placing the Sun at the centre of the then known universe. In the Loeb Classical Library version and in the Perseus Digital Library version and in fact every version that is printed, published or online today, Aristarchus has an accusative ending and Cleanthes has a nominative ending. Aristarchus was the accused.

Except that, in all these versions, there is a footnote, Menage, Paris E and B, or Sextus Empiricus, Paris E and B. or another name followed by Paris E and B.

These refer to the two manuscripts which are held in the National Library of France and described above. Both manuscripts have Aristarchus with a nominative ending and Cleanthes with an accusative ending. What does this mean? It means the text has been changed somewhere between the fourteenth century and now. It was Gilles Menage, a lawyer, who witnessed the trials of Galileo and Bruno, changed the text and swapped the endings around from these Paris manuscripts. Why he did that, and why Sextus Empiricus followed suit and why everyone else followed suit and have ever since accepted Menage’s altered text, is a fascinating story and one in which I have spent hours, days and weeks studying. Who wrote the manuscripts which now reside in France is another significant part of the story, how much can be or can not be assumed, and/or conjectured about this swapping of name endings is mind-blowing really. Why is it so significant? It is significant because it is part of a larger story about a man who scientists say had his theory dismissed because he was considered heretical. This footnote, throws all of that into question. Every word of this particular passage has significance, even “then Lucius laughing said…” is significant. Why did he laugh, what was so funny? Well that is perhaps for another post…

For those of you who like to read the context of my quotes, the manuscript description was from the Doctorial Thesis referenced below. If you copy and paste into google it will appear top of the list. It is worth reading. Also very useful for anyone wanting to have an idea of the work involved for a PhD. I felt thrilled that someone else is out there who is as fascinated by such things as I am, to the point of doing a PhD. Who knows, maybe there is hope for me yet in that direction…

I will attempt to post a little more regularly though I keep saying that don’t I? Thanks for bearing with me.


(p9, Luisa Lesage Gárriga’s PhD thesis on Plutarch’s De Facie Quae in Orbe Lunae Apparet, Universidad de Malaga 2018)

Ancient and modern

This post will be a little different, in that, in order to explain it, I need to take you back to my very young childhood, and history of my life with astronomy a (cough) few years (ok, decades) ago…as I have come to realise the matter in which I am investigating is more serious than I realised.

Some years ago, and even further back than that, I did an Astronomy and Astrophysics Honours degree. I have been fascinated by the Moon and stars (and later on the Sun (and that’s another story)), since I was four years old. I remember it vividly, I was in a break time at my Infant School (before they were called Primary Schools) and I hated break times with a passion because I didn’t know how to talk to other children or whether I even wanted to, and I didn’t know where to sit, stand, or be, and in fact, I constantly wondered whether I even existed at all or at least had come from another planet. Apparently my Dad had reassured me on this point when I was five years old. He said, well a great philosopher called Descartes said “I think therefore I am”, and somehow it seemed to me that if Dad was reassured by such a certainty then I should be too. (Just to a mention, if you haven’t read my ‘About’, that I was finally diagnosed as Autistic back in 2006, much to my relief that my ‘normal’ was actually perfectly fine. A child like I was, (and still am the adult version of, because autism doesn’t go away, it is who I am, and who I am glad to be) would be, I am certain, quickly diagnosed these days, hopefully.)

The first astronomy book I read was a picture book. It was in a big cardboard box in the corner of the classroom where I would hide during any breaktime. There it was, a large nice satisfying square shaped book, with a picture on the front cover, of the sandy-grey surface of part of the Moon from the perspective as if I was standing on it. It had lots of different sized craters on it, that looked terribly exciting, and there, right there in the centre of the picture was a spaceship. The most amazing thing about this front cover was the delighted expression on the face of a young boy who was grinning at me through his goldfish bowl type helmet, and wearing a bright red space suit which looked like something from the Michelin man advert (that dates me rather). Behind him, were two spacemen, also grinning, with similar space suits on and goldfish bowl helmets. All I knew when I saw this book was that I wanted to be there too, because it didn’t have any other people on it, and it looked exciting, and a happy place to be. I opened the book and read how this young boy had actually been brave enough to stow away, and he didn’t even get into trouble for it, and they all got home in time for tea and cake. (These are my very favourite kinds of stories, when they all get home in time for tea and cake.)

My interest began there, and progressed rapidly to wanting only astronomy books, maps, charts, and other astronomy related gifts for birthdays and Christmases, and the odd telescope or two. Well there were other things but these were the main ones. My first look through a telescope came when I was ten years old. My Auntie Nicki’s (not a blood relative but just as much family) relative Godfrey brought his telescope and set it up in their garden and I saw the Moon. It looked enormous and I could see individual craters, their shapes and shadows. I could hardly contain myself with excitement. So it went on, my love of the stars, and especially the Moon. Perhaps everyone has a special place in their heart for the Moon. Bear with me, I’m nearing the point of this nostalgic delve into my childhood.

I do of course have to mention Apollo 11. I got up at 3 am and woke my Grandma up who was sleeping on our sofa. We watched Neil take his first steps together, with Grandma saying “that’s not the Moon, that’s the middle of the Sahara desert”, but it simply made me laugh because really I knew she was as amazed as I was. I still miss her, her humour, wit and wisdom, and most of all the time she gave to me, and the fact she didn’t complain of being woken up at 3am by “Grandma, can I put the telly on to watch the man on the Moon?” The end of the 1960s and the following decade were enthralling, the Apollo missions still overwhelm me with a deep sense of the courage of those astronauts and sadness for those who died too soon in tragic accidents during and after those years.

I went to University of St. Andrews to do my degree, then years later (skipping several years because in those years I did some other things which are also relevant but I will tell in a later post) I did some astronomy courses with UCLAN to update my knowledge as so much more had been discovered and learned since achieving my degree.

Then fourteen years ago I began to look at the Astronomy GCSE specification after being asked to teach it the following year in my local FE College in North Wales. The purpose of telling you all this, is that not once, in all the years that I studied astronomy and astrophysics, as first a hobby, then a serious interest, then at the start of my teaching profession, did I ever hear or read the name of Aristarchus of Samos from the astronomy books and courses I read and did. Not once.

I did hear of him eventually, but by chance when reading a book about Copernicus. He was mentioned in a referral to a footnote. That was it, Aristarchus was a footnote. This was a mystery that for me needed solving. Who was he, and why had he effectively been written out of history? This mystery is continuing for me, in the form of this MA in Classical Studies. This MA of course has given me many more mysteries, as I have begun to learn all the things I realise I don’t know.

I taught astronomy GCSE from 2007 until 2020 (I am preparing to teach it again hopefully in September in some form or other). In every one of those years my astronomy students had to listen to me talk endlessly about Aristarchus and how he little known he was, and still is, until 2017, when he finally made it into the astronomy GCSE specification, and therefore any of the GCSE resources the exam board suggested reading, though he would not be in the examinations until 2019.

This is not the end of the shock. He is not in the specification for his heliocentric theory, which is actually the most solid and sure work that we know he produced. He is in the specification for his extant work called ‘On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon’. It is fairly certain he wrote this work, but there is some doubt. This extant work has become the victim of a mostly inaccurate narrative, by many of the resources which the exam board advises students to read as well as other astronomy books. Claims are made in some resources, about how Aristarchus calculated absolute distances, how he used trigonometry, neither of which occurs in the extant work, only relative sizes and distances and certainly not by using trigonometry. His heliocentric system is alluded to, within the specification, in the implicit assumption that he placed the Sun at the centre of the known Universe, which, interestingly, in this particular work, he didn’t.

In one article, I read that credit is generally given to Copernicus for the heliocentric theory. Then, in what seems to be a grudging after thought, Aristarchus is given a mention, as being someone who also placed the Sun at the centre of the solar system, but his very mention as ‘an ancient astronomer’ seems to discredit him, simply by being in the ‘ancient’ category. In fact, reading about him is rather like reading about Narnia, and ancient magic. It is as if he is from before the realms of time, before anything was real and solid and proper science, and he was some mythical figure like a sort of Gandalf of an ancient past, who bore no relevance to modern cosmology or even sixteenth century astronomy, or in fact, even to first century astronomy. BC you see, is before time began, at lease that’s how it often seems when reading about how so many scientists perceive the ancient world, and in BC world of course, everyone had to count backwords so obviously this was a kind of mystical magical time.

The one book that has ever been written about him, with any real thoroughness as I have mentioned before, by Sir Thomas Heath, Aristarchus, the Ancient Copernicus is the main source that most of the articles, research papers, and chapters in books about Aristarchus refer to. The significant thing to realise in this, is that Sir Thomas himself, made certain assumptions which scholars it seems, have assumed are correct, small details which have become part of the larger narrative, and which, when I have studied them in detail, have found that the assumption is based on very little and that some of these assumptions could be wrong. If so, then this would change the way ancient astronomy is perceived and understood, really quite dramatically.

I have become increasingly convinced that in reality, it is Copernicus who should have the title, Copernicus, the sixteenth century Aristarchus.

My MA dissertation is about Aristarchus. There is a research proposal which I am in the process of refining, but essentially, it is about him, his work, what we really know, and how we know what we think we know, and how false or inaccurate narratives develop and have done, until they appear, with great claims and authority and a dash of artistic license, on the pages of astronomy books and GCSE resources.

For the last fourteen years I have had part of me living in Aristarchus’ world, as I have read, imagined, got to know his contemporaries, and more recently got to know what they might have worn, eaten, drank, and how they understood their own bodies, their health, and how they thought eyes worked, and light, colour, sound, taste, smell and touch. All these things are starting to come together to build something like a gigantic jigsaw in my mind, but there are many missing pieces of very irregular shapes still to find. I need a Tardis to go back and have a cup of ancient Greek tea – or its equivalent – with my astronomy hero? If only this were possible. I do have a book all about how the Tardis works, so…oh, and there will be cake! Who’s coming with me?


Philolaus the Pythagorean

Philolaus of Croton was born around 470 BC and died around 385 BC, at least these are the generally accepted dates that have travelled down to us. More on how we know when people lived and died in the next blog.

If we accept that this is when he lived, then the other part of his life is that he was born in a Greek community in Italy and eventually moved to Greece, and at one time lived in Thebes. The main sources where we get this information from are ones who I will mention increasingly, Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius, (there are 2 dots above the ‘e’ in Laertius but I have yet to find a way of typing that, though I am sure there probably is one).

There are other sources such as Stobaeus (I will say more about him another time), and in fact some suggest  that Plato wrote most of his work Timaeus, influenced by Philolaus, but that is another story.

Philolaus is the first person that is known or rather is currently known to have proposed that Earth is not at the centre of the known Universe. You can check back to my first blog for the diagram which gives his proposed cosmology. Essentially, he placed a Central Fire (which was not the Sun) in the centre of the Cosmos and had the Earth orbiting it. The extremely relevant and fascinating aspect of this new system was that it included all five of the known planets also orbiting this Central Fire of the gods, or Hearth of the gods. It is of course, very difficult to get into the minds and work out exactly what these early cosmologists actually meant, and every translation is really more of an interpretation of what they meant, which of course is interpreted through a couple of thousand years of what we think we know about the last two thousand years…and not only that, but what everyone in various times during these last two thousand years (give or take a few hundred years or so) also thought, and what we think those who thought, thought…which makes it all really quite a complex kind of thing.

Anyway, as far as we currently understand it, Philolaus set the Earth in orbital motion. This was a pretty radical thing to do, and he also made up a tenth planet – who needs to look for one when we can just make one up – but this planet was special as it was pretty much the same size and had the same qualities as the Earth we know (or think we know) and they called it, ‘Counter-Earth’ which is quite an easy-to-remember name really, (unlike the latest moon of Jupiter which has just been announced as S/2003 J24 which is not as memorable, and is the 80th moon that has been discovered orbiting Jupiter. Galileo would have been amazed). One of the very particular details about Counter-Earth was that no one on Earth could see it as it was facing the side of Earth where it was believed no one on Earth lived.

He made up this extra planet because 10 was the Pythagoreans’ perfect number, and so if everything went around the Central Fire, then there had to be ten things that went around it for a perfect Universe (this was an excellent example of how easy it is to get stuck in ideas and make stuff up just to fit what we think is right even when there is no evidence for it). The ten celestial ‘things’ were, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Counter-Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun, the Moon and the stars (try to forget for the moment that in reality there are about two thousand billion galaxies, and each galaxy contains on average between one hundred billion to three hundred billion stars), the stars being one thing you see, which made ten. Perfect!

The massive question is, did this new proposed orbiting Earth, sway Aristarchus and perhaps others to start thinking about how an orbiting Earth might explain much better than had been explained so far, the peculiar observed motions of the planets? Where do new ideas come from, how and why did Philolaus think of this? Is there a link between his – what is called – Pyrocentric Universe, (Pyro meaning fire or high temperature, used in combination with other words) and Aristarchus’ ‘Heliocentric Universe?

This really is the most exciting story, and it gets more exciting still. In fact the more I research the more thrilling the story gets. I feel like Sherlock Holmes, peering out from 221b Baker Street and seeing the ancient cosmologists through the mist of 2300 years or so, and gradually the mist begins to rise…

More about Epicurus

In my previous post about Epicurus, I said I would be back soon with more on his ideas and why he is so important. Bear with me in this post, it’s a bit of a deep dive…so, take a deep breath and…dive!

First I need to bring in from stage left, Strato of Lampsacus who was slightly younger than Epicurus by a few years, and who played a major part in the life of Aristarchus. Strato (also sometimes referred to as Straton) was Aristarchus’ teacher and mentor. The question remains as to where he was his tutor, was it Alexandria or Athens or even both. There is confusion around this, with some scholars saying Strato took over the Lyceum in Athens from Theophrastus when he died in 286/7 BC and that he taught Aristarchus in Alexandria before this time. Others say that he only led the Lyceum in Alexandria. If this is the case then Aristarchus may never have travelled to Athens.

Strato was a contemporary of Epicurus. They had many things in common in their ideas, but one that has major significance to our story here, was the belief that the gods did not play a part in what could be attributed to natural events. Wherever Strato taught, Athens or Alexandria, he had been under Aristotle’s teaching in Athens, and he knew and was familiar with the teachings of those who taught in Athens.

Atheism in Ancient Greece was not the same as modern atheism, but there was a great deal which was similar. Cicero said of Strato,

“Nor does…Strato, who is called the natural philosopher, deserve to be listened to; he holds that all divine force is resident in nature, which contains, he says, the principles of birth, increase, and decay, but which lacks, as we could remind him, all sensation and form.”  (Cicero, De Natura Deorum, i.13)

Cicero was clearly rather unhappy with Strato’s view of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

I will return to Strato in future posts, but here, around the same time as Strato, was also Epicurus, whose writings and teachings would have been known widely in Ancient Greece.

Epicurus’ views on the gods and the way the Universe runs was that the gods have nothing to do with the material world, that they cannot possibly because they themselves are not of this material world.

He says,

“Nay more : we are bound to believe that in the sky, revolutions, solstices, eclipses, risings and settings, and the like, take place without the ministration or command, either now or in the future, of any being who at the same time enjoys perfect bliss along with immortality. [77]” (Diogenes Laertius in R.D. Hicks. 1925) 

This was a hugely significant declaration by Epicurus. He continues later with what he believed about the gods or God and declared his belief in them, but, then explains that what the multitudes believed about them was in error. This, in essence, is taking the power of the gods away from how the Universe runs and attributed it all to natural causes. Earlier he wrote,

“For the existence of bodies is everywhere attested by sense itself, and it is upon sensation that reason must rely when it attempts to infer the unknown from the known. [40]” (Diogenes Laertius in R.D. Hicks. (1972)).

Then with irrefutable (well at least as irrefutable as today’s modern cosmological statements) logic, wrote,

“Again, the sum of things is infinite. For what is finite has an extremity, and the extremity of anything is discerned only by comparison with something else. (Now the sum of things is not discerned by comparison with anything else, hence, since it has no extremity, it has no limit ; and, since it has no limit, it must be unlimited or infinite.” (Diogenes Laertius in R.D. Hicks. (1972).

In other words, the size of the Universe was inestimable. This was a bold statement, and a concept which becomes significant in Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner, when he mentions Aristarchus.

Epicurus was a prolific writer, said to have written at least 300 books, and these are a smattering of his thoughts. The point is, that along with Strato, Aristarchus’ teacher, the place of the gods in the observable Universe was taken away.

Ideas generally do not come out of nowhere, they emerge, from discussion, learning, reading, and listening to others. Aristarchus would have read, heard, been taught and pondered about the teachings of his time and especially of those with greatest influence over him. I imagine him sometimes as a young man, in a lonely place, in the hills, looking up at the night sky, thinking…which of the cosmologies he had been taught, and had learned about, was true, if any?

Aristarchus was known as The Mathematician. His only extant work is a mathematical treatise ‘On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon’. This was a brilliant piece of mathematics which showed his knowledge of Euclid’s maths. Aristarchus had, no doubt about it, a brilliantly creative mind. He thought in ways no one else had thought or considered. at the time, nor would for eighteen centuries. This extant work casts a strong light on his heliocentric theory.

First though, enter Philolaus, who had upset a lot of people about a hundred years earlier than Aristarchus.

Philolaus of Croton was born around 470 BC. he died around 385 BC.  He was a follower of Pythagoras and so known to be a Pythagorean and therefore a great mathematician. Up until Philolaus, the Earth was in the centre of the Universe. I mentioned him in my second post on here. I am now going to return to him in the next.

back soon with more tea and cake…


For those who want to look up the Epicurus quotes, here is the citation,

(Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. R.D. Hicks. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925). From the Perseus Digital Library)

Curious about Epicurus

It has been a while since my previous ponderings about Lucretius. I posed then the question as to who influenced Lucretius, and today as I write this, I can happily give some sort of answer to this question. In my discovering I came once again (this is a many times a day experience), to realise how much of a beginner I am in the Classics, so please bear with me if you know already the answers to the questions I pose to myself, or even better, post your answers in the comments.

I have been reading for my dissertation, and have been looking for contemporaries of Aristarchus of Samos, and lo and behold I came upon Epicurus. As I was reading his metaphysics and cosmology I began to feel rather indignant, ‘wait a minute’ I thought, ‘this is just Lucretius all over again’ and then, ‘but Lucretius came after Epicurus so…the rotter, Lucretius has plagiarised Epicurus. Of course, after a little more digging I quickly learnt that Lucretius was in fact Epicurus’ greatest fan and were there an Epicurus fan club (there probably is somewhere) Lucretius would have been the founder member. Why the excitement at finding this link? Well because when I was reading Lucretius, I realised that whoever influenced him, was also likely to have influenced Aristarchus, and hey presto, now here is someone who was a bit older than Aristarchus, born around 30 years before Aristarchus (also by the way, born in Samos, where Aristarchus was born). Then, he gravitated to Athens, as did Aristarchus. I have already become an Epicurus fan, simply by learning that he founded his own school and called it ‘The Garden’ and he allowed women and slaves to join it. This must have been similar to NASA when they first employed women as ‘computers’ or at a stretch similar to when NASA began inviting women to be astronauts. 

What then, did Epicurus teach? Well perhaps more specifically, what did he teach that may have had a bearing on what influenced Aristarchus?

We have to dig quite a bit and see links that are perhaps at first sight, not that obvious. Each link is like an almost invisible thread, weaving through the thought processes and logic of multiple minds, entangling and collecting other threads along the way, so it is not always easy to see. You know that experience of untangling your Christmas lights or when all your wires around your computer somehow mysteriously get all knotted up? That is how it feels to me, attempting to untangle the thoughts of these antiquitous (is that a word – it is now) philosopher genii, (I cannot even untangle my own at the best of times).

Epicurus believed that everything moved. Everything. This is key because very subtly it removes (even if he did not realise it at the time) one of the most established world views in Ancient Greece and in ancient everywhere actually – that Earth did not move.

Epicurus also believed that our senses were/are involved with this. Now this interests me greatly because I hear echoes of Einstein here, and his great thought experiments, or rather in Einstein I hear echoes of Epicurus. Faint as they are, they are definitely there, a little like the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) an established faintest of faint echoes of whatever happened at the beginning of…well whatever it was that we think of as the beginning but in theory did not itself present itself as a beginning…confusing I know.

The senses are a vital part of how we perceive the Cosmos, and while we have realised that not everything is as it seems, essentially, science still depends on empirical observations, to demonstrate that theory works, or to give evidence that a theory may be correct, no matter what sophisticated instrumentation is used. We live our daily lives aware of three dimensions and of time, whatever we imagine or think of that to be, and however many dimensions there actually turn out to be, we cannot escape our confines, everything we learn is within it, and hence the relationship of our senses to how we view the Universe is inescapably forever entangled. This is important to realise because philosophers of antiquity spent a great deal of time debating what things were made of and whether there was such a thing as absolute empty space. They used creative logic to prove either there was no void or no motion, it seemed they could not conceive of both, rather like the Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics, well sort of, a tiny bit…

Anyway…the argument went like this,

“If there is motion, there is void. There is motion therefore there is void”. (O’Keefe, T 2009, p15)

Lucretius argues that “if there were no void, all objects of equal size should have equal weight, since, being equally full of body, they would have equal quantities of matter”  O’Keefe, T 2009, p16)  which I think is a nifty piece of logic, given what was known or hypothesised about what things were made of.

I am going to stop here, but only briefly, because there was something else that Epicurus was convinced about which I shall talk about in my next post. There are many ends and/or beginnings of threads in this one, which I shall be exploring in more depth as this blog progresses. Till next time,


(O’Keefe, T 2009, Epicureanism, Taylor & Francis Group, London. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [26 May 2021].)