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 as part 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 eighteen 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].)

A brilliant and breath-taking poem

In 54 BC Cicero mentioned in passing the ‘poems of Lucretius’ writing to his brother that they were both imaginative and skilful. That is about all we really know of Lucretius. Well, that is not quite true, it is believed he was born around 94 BC and died in 55 BC. He was a Roman poet and a philosopher. You might – if you have been reading this blog from the beginning – ask why, in my reading and research on my astronomical hero Aristarchus, am I reading about a Roman poet who lived at least 200 years later?

I am still learning about who Lucretius was. I have so far read Book 1, and half of Book 2, of The Nature of Things (Translated by A. E. Stallings, Penguin Classic (2007)) and I am loving it. Lucretius, by this stage in the poem, has dismissed with great panache, the philosophies and beliefs of at least three (last count) Greek philosophers. His dismissals are magnificent, poetic, dramatic and seared through with logic as sharp as a double-edged sword. It is hard to disagree with him. I am drawn in to wonder who influenced him the most. Where did he begin his thinking, and did those who influenced Aristarchus also influence him? Is it possible to understand the thinking of earlier philosophers by the interpretations of those who came afterwards by teasing out the later philosophers’ different angles of thought? Of course, (spoiler alert), this is the whole point of this, and the reason I am so keen on understanding Aristarchus, who was, in my opinion, pivotal in Greek astronomy and consequentially, modern cosmology.

How is today’s modern scientific and specifically cosmological thought, influenced by the type of thinking that has gone before?  What influences have played their part? I am interested in Chinese, Indian, Babylonian, Egyptian and many other societies, people, and cultures and how they thought. How a society thinks is as important as what they think because what they think evolves from how they think. it is possible mathematically to show that 2 = 1 with some clever logic, flawed logic yes, but the same type of logic which has come down to us from as early as Anaximander, through to Aristotle, Plato and those who influenced them. How much of the mathematical logic today is also flawed but with flaws so discreetly and discretely woven in as to be invisible to cosmologists and quantum physicists of today?

Lucretius writes for and possibly to his friend Memmius (although it has to be said, this is ambiguous, as he could well be addressing Venus, in fact it appears he is, or is he? Any light on this would be received most gratefully), and he writes with both passion and urgency, imploring Memmius (or Venus) to,

“Open your ears, apply keen intellect. Far from cares, to true philosophy…” (Book 1, line 50)

Lucretius is aware of the lack of words of the Latin language to express Greek ideas as he says here,

“Nor does it fail me that discoveries – obscure and dark – of Greeks are difficult to shed much light on with the spark of Latin poetry, chiefly since I must coin much new terminology because of our tongue’s dearth and due to the novelty of subject matter” (Book 1, lines 136-139)

The first Greek to be dismissed is Heraclitus (line 639), and closely followed by Empedocles (line 717), and then almost immediately Anaxagoras’ falls by the wayside (line 830). He does so with great irony, in fact, I would say verging on sarcasm. His dismissal of Empedocles takes almost a whole page of setting up his fall…with

These men were giants; when they stumble, they have far to fall:                                        First because they allow for motion with no void at all.” (Book 1 lines 741-742)

Lucretius’ logic is brilliant as he deconstructs each idea and theory, and it is precisely this, ironically which is so fascinating because it is the logic of those same Greek philosophers he uses, a legacy of logic passed down from Anaximander throughout the centuries, and which Lucretius uses to knock down the very pillars he is building on.

In a future post I might look specifically at some of Lucretius’ logic with examples of where he uses the same type of logic as those whose theories he endeavours to dismiss. Lucretius was surely one of the most brilliant minds of his time. Both entertainingly laugh out loud at times in presenting the absurdity of some of the established theories of his day, while breath-taking in his clarity of reasoning.

I wonder, who is doing that for us today?


Anaximander was born around 610 BC and died around 546 BC. He was the first person known to have placed the Earth in a very particular way, at the centre of the then known Universe. The amazing difference that he proposed – that there was nothing supporting the Earth. He proposed that it was simply suspended and was held there because it was equidistant from all other celestial bodies. Was this a forerunner to some understanding of gravity or was it the beginnings of mathematical modelling, or born out of a world view that could not conceive of any other shape other than a circle when it came to describing the heavens? What and who influenced his thinking to form such a concept? We only know how Greek civilization thought, from their writings and from those who wrote about their writings. We can also study their art, their coins, buildings, architecture, artifacts, and the layout of their towns and cities.

Pliny, in ‘Natural History 2’, said

“It is said that Anaximander of Miletus first opened the doors of nature”

(“Rerum fores aperuisse, Anaximander Milesius traditur primus” for those Latinists among you)

This quote is actually at the beginning of Carlo Rovelli’s ‘Anaximander’. Rovelli is an astrophysicist, physicist, and forging new paths in cosmology. He says of Anaximander,

“Anaximander ignited a conflict between two profoundly different ways of thinking. On the one hand there was the dominant mythical and religious way of thinking, based in large measure on the existence of certainties that, by their very nature, could not be called into question. On the other hand, there was the new way of looking at the world,based on curiosity, rejection of certainties, and change. This conflict has run through the history of Western civilization, century after century, with alternating outcomes. it is still open.” (Rovelli, C. 2007 Introduction p xviii)

Is Rovelli right about Anaximander? Is he right in saying that there has been a running conflict between two ways of thinking? How much were the next generation of thinkers influenced by Anaximander? How far has his influence reached? Was Aristarchus the next ‘Anaximander’ as well as the first ‘Copernicus’?

These are the questions which are occupying my thoughts at the moment, as I prepare the groundwork for my M.A. dissertation. Anaximander seems to hold a very particular key in Greek thought. I wonder, as I consider his suspended Earth, who did he speak to? Who did he listen to in lectures? Where did he discuss his ideas? How did his ideas become known and to whom did he first disclose them? Who was the greatest influence on his life? Was it as true for him as it generally is for us today, that our greatest influencers are usually those who we remember treated us kindly and took us seriously? What influence for example, did Greek women have on these philosophers? Where are all the women philosophers? We know they were there, and one or two are known. I shall be talking more about them as the months go on. The Greeks were human too, and it is easy to forget that when we look at Greek philosophers, and it is easy to look on them with some kind of celestial etherealness.

Apologies for the long times between posts, I intend to post more regularly from here on…


Who was Philolaus and did he or could he have been an influence on Aristarchus. Philolaus was born around 470 BC and died around 385 BC. He was a Pythagorean who is given credit for the theory that at the centre of the universe is a central hearth, or fire, which the Earth revolved around. He also held that there was a counter-Earth which was not possible to be seen from Earth due it being directly opposite the central hearth. This central hearth was the Hearth of the gods. The Sun also in his theory, revolved around the central hearth. Here is an image of what it seems that Philolaus envisaged, from http://www.ancientgreecereloaded.com/files/ancient_greece_reloaded_website/great_persons/philolaus.php


Why write a blog about classics relating to astronomy? Well, in case you are asking, (and if not then you’re probably not reading this anyway) grab a cuppa and I will tell you a story…

It really began with reading as many books as I could about Copernicus, the reason for that I will talk about as this blog progresses. Nicolaus Copernicus (there are many different ways of spelling his name) was persuaded to write down and publish his reasons for coming to believe that Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the other way around. This was known as the Heliocentric Theory. How he was persuaded is a fascinating story, and has been written about extensively both in fact and fiction. Copernicus was an amateur astronomer, his day job was a catholic priest and also the local GP. His great work was first published in 1543, which also was the year he died.

In the manuscript edition in which his own signature is written, in his great finished work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) were *several references to a man called Aristarchus of Samos, also often referred to as The Mathematician.

Aristarchus of Samos was born around 310 BC and died around 230 BC. He is most famous for being the first person who is recorded as suggesting the Heliocentric System, in other words, that the Earth goes around the Sun, and not the Sun around the Earth. Just pause, and take this in for a moment…take another sip of tea/coffee of whatever you are drinking and think of this, Aristarchus suggested this, around eighteen hundred years before Copernicus published his great work suggesting the same.

To put it another way, nearly two thousand years before Copernicus, there was a mathematician who figured out that the Earth moved around the Sun. We know that Copernicus knew about Aristarchus. It is not certain how much he knew about Aristarchus’ suggestion of the Earth going around the Sun.

My questions are,

  1. Why did it take nearly two thousand years before someone else came to believe Earth went around the Sun, and
  2. How did Aristarchus, (and in fact Copernicus) work this out? what observations did they make and did they work it out in the same way(s)?

These are actually enormous questions, and I have spent the last 13 years reading, studying, wondering, pondering, speculating, and now I am about to embark on year two of my Masters in Classical Studies with the OU. One of my many reasons for doing this Masters is to step into my TARDIS and travel back into the world of Ancient Greece and Rome, to try to see glimpses of Aristarchus’ perception of the world. Who was this man? What do we know about him? How did he understand history and his generation’s place in it? How do we know he suggested the Earth went around the Sun? What is the evidence? Then, finally, why was his ‘theory’ dismissed? Or, in fact, was it dismissed or is that what has come down to us through the ages as being the case, but was it? Can we really be sure and how does dipping into Aristarchus’ world affect our own understanding of our perception of the Universe?

I’m stepping into my TARDIS now…see you in Ancient Greece

File:The Parthenon in Athens.jpg

*Professor Owen J. Gingerich describes these mentions in his article, Did Copernicus owe a debt to Aristarchus (Journal for the history of astronomy, Vol 16, NO.1/FEB. p.37, 1985 if you want to look it up)

A would-be classicist begins an adventure

As I look at the night sky with the thousands of stars, I realise I am looking back into history. It takes the light from these stars anything from a few years to millions of years to reach us, and there are those stars whose light takes thousands of years and which started out from its particular star when, for example, Plato was writing Timaeus and wondering about how the universe came into being, or when Jesus was giving the Sermon on the Mount, or when Chinese astronomers saw a star explode which we now know to be the remnant of a supernova we call M1 or the Crab Nebula. So being a stargazer is also to dip into history and antiquity.

Imagine, as you gaze on a star, who could have still been alive on Earth when that starlight began its journey?

Two years ago I began a Masters in Classical Studies with the Open university. I have honours degrees in Astronomy & Astrophysics and in Theology, so doing this Masters was the logical progression in combining my love of both, well, ok, yes, logical to me. I took a break for a year, and this year I am about to begin my second and final year of this Masters, and so I am a would-be classicist, and a teacher of astronomy (I’ve taught GCSE astronomy for 13 years) and this blog is the beginning of a journey which is, for me, an adventure.

Oh, and I am also an autist, or for those not familiar with that wonderful word, autistic. Studying is what I do best, a bit like how honey is what Tiggers love best…or…wait…was it?

The crater Proclus (the one with all the light being reflected from it centre of the image toward the top) from my image taken by the Liverpool Robotic Telescope

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