Why did the Babylonians and the Greeks approach astronomy so differently? In my last post I quoted Toulmin and Goodfield from their history of dynamics and astronomy, The Fabric of the Heavens, where they argue that the Babylonians, because of their careful record keeping and math skills, could make excellent astronomical predictions, but they couldn't explain why those predictions worked. The Greeks on the other had were obsessed with explanation and theory, and were for a long time relatively bad at astronomical prediction.
So why the difference? Toulmin and Goodfield argue that it has something to do with political stability, cultural heterogeneity, the influence of the state, and cultural openness to heterodox ideas:
In the centuries before 300 B.C. the Greek lands around the Aegean Sea stood - both politically and in many other ways - in striking contrast to Mesopotamia. Though the balance of power between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates shifted between the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Medes and the Persians, the region remained throughout this time part of a large, centralized land-empire. Dynasties might rise and fall, the land might be politically united with Persia to the East, or with Syria and Anatolia to the West; but otherwise life went on in much the same way... Mythologies were passed down from generation to generation. Tribute and taxes had still to be paid. Religious rituals continued on their traditional cycles. The demand for an accurate calendar and for skillful divination remained pressing, so providing work for a class of professional astronomers.- The Fabric of the Heavens, p. 54-57
Around the Aegean, on the other hand, there was no such order and stability... After the breakdown of the Minoan Empire... the cities of the Greek world were effectively independent of one another for many centuries: until 338 B.C. they were never united politically, but at most collaborated together in a loose confederacy... As a result, it was a world, not only free of any centralized authority but also without any long political or intellectual traditions.
Against this background, the main cultural differences between Mesopotamia and the Greek world are readily intelligible... [Mesopotamian] archives preserved down the centuries the records of tradition... there was nothing about the situation to stimulate intellectual ferment or to encourage original speculation or heterodox ideas...
[The Greeks, not being in the center of an empire had more] personal contact with the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, and the Etruscans; and through these people came also second-hand reports about the beliefs of other peoples still further afield. How, then, were the Greeks to reconcile the Egyptian tales of Thoth and Osiris, or the Mesopotamian myths about Marduk and Ea, with their own traditions about Zeus, Apollo, and the rest?...
Without any tradition of astronomical record-keeping or calculation, there was no demand for professional astronomers. The natural philosophers of ancient Greece were pure intellectuals: a few of them earned a living as teachers or doctors, but most of them were men of leisure....
I apologize for the severe cuts in this passage; I've tried to trim a long section down to a quotable size. You should know that the authors go on to add multiple caveats against overgeneralization here. Unorthodox thinkers weren't exactly welcomed with open arms in Greece - think of the fate of Socrates.
While there is a danger of overgeneralizing, the differences between Greek and Babylonian astronomy were real and significant. We also need to be careful when drawing parallels to our own society; however, there is a lesson here regarding state-sponsored science, especially as it's developed in the US since WWII. The NIH has a mandate to fund science in order to advance human health, and thus its mission has a practical bent to it. This is certainly a worthwhile enterprise, and maybe most scientists should be working on something with potential near-to-medium term practical value to society.
We have to be careful, though, not to let science be exclusively justified as something that serves the immediate needs of society, or even of the university. There appears to be a trend in universities towards a more hierarchical organization, where faculty aren't viewed as members of a community of scholars, but rather as employees hired to teach and bring in grants, who need to be managed by administrators (who frequently delude themselves into thinking they are more business savvy, when in reality most of them would be eaten alive in the corporate world), so that teaching and funding are handled in the most efficient way possible. Since tenure-track faculty jobs are highly coveted and competition for them is fierce, it's easy put pressure on non-tenured faculty to focus their work only on the kind research that is already valued by the more senior members of the community.
In this day and age, with well-funded universities, you shouldn't have to be a man or woman "of leisure" to branch out in a scientific direction that hasn't already been worked over by more established scientists. But if scientists are viewed as university employees first, with a salary paid primarily by a federal funding agency that expects a new cure for cancer, and only last recognized as independent scholars who need to be given time and trust to follow the intellectual instincts that research faculty are supposed to be hired for, then our scientific community risks becoming as sterile and unimaginative as the Babylonian astronomers. We'll be very successful at turning existing knowledge into useful technology. We will no longer be doing the type of work that brought us to our existing knowledge in the first place.
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