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Thales (of Miletos)

greek pioneer geometry water

[ thay leez] ( c. 625– c. 550 BC ) Ionian (Greek) merchant and philosopher; an early geometer; pioneer seeker of general physical principles underlying nature.

Thales was born in Miletos (in modern Turkey) ‘the most go-ahead town in the Greek world’. Thales was probably a successful merchant who visited Egypt and there learned something of Egyptian geometry; but little is firmly known of his life and achievements, despite his high reputation, and some of the many accounts of his skill lack credibility. But it is certainly possible that he developed some general theorems in geometry, understood similar triangles and was able to find the distance of a ship from shore and the height of a building from its shadow. Such deductive mathematical arguments were systematized 250 years later by . Thales was said also to be aware of the lodestone’s magnetic attraction for iron.

According to , Thales believed that the Earth and all things on it had once been water and had changed by some natural process (akin to the silting-up of the Nile delta); and that the Earth as a whole was a flat disc floating in water. He offered natural (and not supernatural) explanations for phenomena such as earthquakes, and he attempted to derive theories from observed facts. He was thus a pioneer of later Greek science, and his attitudes are still with us. Later Greek thinkers gave him the highest place in their lists of wise men; and it can be argued that he is the earliest ‘scientific’ thinker we can name.

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