The best books on how and why science began more than two thousand five hundred years ago

J. Baird Callicott Author Of Greek Natural Philosophy: The Presocratics and Their Importance for Environmental Philosophy
By J. Baird Callicott

Who am I?

I studied Greek philosophy in college and graduate school and wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Plato. In response to the environmental crisis, first widely recognized in the 1960s, I turned my philosophical attention to that contemporary challenge, which, with the advent of climate change, has by now proved to be humanity’s greatest. I taught the world’s first course in environmental ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1971 and, with a handful of other philosophers, helped build a literature in this new field over the course of the next decade—a literature that has subsequently grown exponentially. With Greek Natural Philosophy, I rekindled the romance with my first love. 

I wrote...

Greek Natural Philosophy: The Presocratics and Their Importance for Environmental Philosophy

By J. Baird Callicott, John van Buren, Keith Wayne Brown

Book cover of Greek Natural Philosophy: The Presocratics and Their Importance for Environmental Philosophy

What is my book about?

In Greek cities on the northwest coast of present-day Turkey, the oral/aural mythological worldview began to give way to the literate scientific worldview during the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Newly minted “philosophers” asked these perennial questions: Of what is the world composed? (One answer was atoms.) What forces move matter? What law(s) govern motion and change? We demonstrate that the key to the dramatic progress—including discovery that the Earth is spherical—made by these proto-scientists was a combination of speculative and critical thinking. Each philosopher built a better theory on the ruins of their predecessors’ theories. We presuppose no prior knowledge of this pivotal moment in human intellectual history. In clear and accessible prose, we tie their remarkable stories together into a coherent whole.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present

Why did I love this book?

This book persuasively answers our question why science originated exactly when and where it did: the advent of a unique method of writing, the Greek alphabet, in the context of cosmopolitan democratic societies.

As a result, Greek culture underwent a transition from “orality” to “literacy.” And with that revolution in communications technology came a rewiring of human consciousness. Literacy fostered individual rather than community identity and abstract conceptual rather than concrete narrative thinking. These are the necessary conditions of science as opposed to myth.

Individual thinkers, liberated from the self-proclaimed divinely inspired myth makers, wrote down bold theories about the stuff, forces, and laws of nature, which were available to other individual thinkers not by word of mouth, but in stable visual form, thus inspiring them to formulate better theories. 

By Eric A. Havelock,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Muse Learns to Write as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most original and penetrating thinkers in Greek studies describes the transformation from oral culture to literacy in classical times and reflects upon its continued meaning for us today.

"Fresh insights into the orality-literacy shift in human consciousness from one who has long been studying this shift in ancient Greece and has now brought his vast learning and reflections to bear on our own times. This book is for a wide audience and calls for thoroughly rethinking current views on language, thought, and society from classical scholarship through modern philosophy, anthropology, and poststructuralism."-Walter J. Ong

"All in all,…

Greek Science in Antiquity

By Marshall Clagett,

Book cover of Greek Science in Antiquity

Why did I love this book?

A renowned historian of science, Clagett carries the story of Greek science forward all the way to the sixth century CE—a span of 1200 years. From that point in time, Greek science passed into the hands of Islamic scholars who advanced it further, especially the mathematical sciences.

This book is not, like ours, organized chronologically and developmentally but according to modern scientific domains—biology and medicine, mathematics, physics, and astronomy. And it focuses on specific scientific inquiries, while we focus on more general and fundamental things like ontology (what exists), cosmology (the overall structure of the universe), the laws of nature, and the drivers of change and motion.

This book is thus a complement to ours in its wide historical sweep and in what it highlights.

By Marshall Clagett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Greek Science in Antiquity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Greek Science in Antiquity is a comprehensive book written by Marshall Clagett that explores the scientific advancements made by ancient Greeks. The book covers a wide range of topics, including mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, and medicine, and provides a detailed account of the theories and discoveries made by Greek scientists from the 6th century BCE to the 5th century CE. The book begins by examining the early Greek philosophers and their contributions to the development of science, including Thales, Pythagoras, and Aristotle. It then delves into the mathematical achievements of the Greeks, such as the invention of geometry and the discovery…

Book cover of The Greek Concept of Nature

Why did I love this book?

According to the Bible the world was created by God. In Greek mythology, the world was born of Gaia (Earth) sired by Ouranos (Sky).

The Greek natural philosophers retained this assumption but demythologized it. Their word “phusis“ translates into English as “nature” (which is of Latin origin, itself originally meaning “birth”). The words “physics,” “physical,” “physician,” etc. are derivatives. As Nadaff explains, the primal meaning of “phusis“ is “growth” and the principal project of early Greek science was to explain the birth and growth of the cosmos.

Because humans and human society are worldly things, they are parts of nature and the order of nature is reflected in the human social order. But actually the human social order was projected onto nature. Thus, for example, do we speak of the “laws” of nature.

By Gerard Naddaf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Greek Concept of Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Explores the origin and evolution of the Greek concept of nature up until the time of Plato.

Book cover of Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality

Why did I love this book?

MIT scientist Tegmark directly connects contemporary physics and cosmology with our story of the Presocratic natural philosophers.

In his view the universe is not only described in the language of mathematics, it is a huge purely mathematical object. This was precisely the view of the Pythagoreans. In the course of expounding his theory of a mathematical universe, Tegmark brings the lay reader up to date on the latest developments in natural philosophy (aka theoretical physics and cosmology) and demonstrates their continuity with those of their ancient predecessors.   

By Max Tegmark,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Our Mathematical Universe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nature, said Galileo, is 'a book written in the language of mathematics'. But why should this be? How can mathematics be at the heart of our universe?

The great Hungarian physicist and Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner stressed that this 'unreasonable effectiveness' of mathematics at describing the world was a mystery demanding explanation. Here, Max Tegmark, one of the most original cosmologists at work today, takes us on an astonishing journey to solve that mystery.

Part-history of the cosmos, part-intellectual adventure, Our Mathematical Universe travels from the Big Bang to the distant future via parallel worlds, across every possible scale -…


By Plato, Peter Kalkavage (translator),

Book cover of Timaeus

Why did I love this book?

A follower of Socrates, Plato is best known today for his moral and political philosophy. But, unlike Socrates, he was also deeply engaged in natural philosophy.

Plato, however, differed sharply from all the others: he contended that the cosmos was created by a divine craftsman as “a moving image of eternity.”  We treat Plato as a cryptic member of the Pythagorean School. And in Timaeus he expounds an ancient form of mathematical physics.

He correlates the four ancient elements—fire, earth, air, and water—with four of the five regular stereometric figures: the pyramid, cube, octahedron, and icosahedron, respectively. These constitute the mathematical—as opposed to material—atoms composing the four classical elements. And Plato correlates the fifth regular solid, the dodecahedron, with the form of the universe as a whole.

By Plato, Peter Kalkavage (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Timaeus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Both an ideal entrée for beginning readers and a solid text for scholars, the second edition of Peter Kalkavage's acclaimed translation of Plato's Timaeus brings enhanced accessibility to a rendering well known for its faithfulness to the original text.

An extensive essay offers insights into the reading of the work, the nature of Platonic dialogue, and the cultural background of the Timaeus. Appendices on music, astronomy, and geometry provide additional guidance. A brief outline of the themes of the work, a detailed glossary, and a selected bibliography are also included.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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