“What task could be more agreeable than to tell of the benefits conferred on us by our ancestors, so that you may get to know the achievements of those from whom you have received both the basis of your beliefs, and the inspiration to conduct your life properly?”
It’s all too easy to assume that because we know how to use a computer, make a purchase on-line, or understand the latest book by Stephen Hawking about the Big Bang theory that we are superior learners1. That is not necessarily the case; we probably didn’t design that computer, write that programme, and may not necessarily understand all the scientific arguments about the Big Bang. But because we weren’t able to formulate these ideas for ourselves doesn’t mean that we can’t use them. In truth we always have to remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants ─ men and women who through the ages have made studious observations, measured accurately and whose perceptive thoughts have given us what we are pleased to call ‘our culture’. It really belongs to them.
It was William of Malmesbury who wrote the above quotation back in 1125. He was of mixed race, like most of us ─ his father was Norman, and his mother was Anglo Saxon. He was a most learned man, but he had no means of knowing much about his distant ancestors, and even less about how they thought. It was only some fifteen years ago that a bone, inscribed with what archaeologists now believe are the phases of the moon over a sixty-one night period, was found at Abri Blanchard in the centre of France and dated by carbon 14 tests as being thirty-two thousand years old2. Our Stone Age ancestors, we now understand, were very good at questioning what was going on around them, and presumably coming to some conclusions a very long time ago. That is what learning really is all about, having to think something out for yourself.
What that thoughtful monk of nine hundred years ago didn’t know was that the alphabet he used had its origins in Canaanabout 1500 B.C.; that it was adopted by Phoenician merchants, and later modified by the early Greeks in the eighth or ninth century. He certainly would not have known that the numbering system he used came from the Babylonians, those great mathematicians and astronomers who lived on the site of modern-day Baghdad, who invented positive notation (the theory of two numbers following each other, for example 1 2, the first number standing for a base of ten, and the second for the extra digit). So simple, we might think, how could anyone not have thought of that?3 The Babylonians, however, weren’t satisfied with a base of ten, as it was only capable of being divided into two equal parts. Four thousand years ago they settled on a base of sixty… which can be subdivided into two equal parts of thirty, four parts of fifteen, five parts of twelve, six parts of ten, twelve parts of five, or thirty parts of two. Far more useful than simply ten! Does that matter to us? Well, every time we look at the clock we find an hour divided by the Babylonians all of three and a half thousand years ago into sixty minutes, and every minute into sixty seconds.
Turn to a global positioning system and you will find the globe divided into three hundred and sixty degrees (six times sixty) and your position given by reference to a satellite (give that thought to an ancient Babylonian!) in degrees, minutes and seconds. Initially the Babylonians thought that the calendar month of thirty days would give a year of three hundred and sixty days and were mystified as to why an ‘imperfect’ natural system should have to have three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days to complete a year. By 1300 B.C. the Babylonians had calculated the length of a lunar month to within a second, and had calculated the square root of two to within 0.000007. They had discovered for themselves the theorem about the sum of the hypotenuse being equal to the sum of the squares of the opposite two sides a thousand years before Pythagoras. Not bad for a people whose only resources were their clear heads, surrounded by clear skies, plenty of sand to act as scribbling pads for their calculations, and possibly some form of hour-glass or water clock. The Egyptians appeared to have known enough about surgery to carry out trepanning, the cutting of a hole in the skull to release pressure on the brain. They did this without any anaesthetics or sterilization procedures, and some of their patients actually lived!4
To understand ourselves we need to understand our ancestors; it is not simply their blood that flows through our veins, their DNA which has shaped us, but their search for knowledge that has created the culture within which we now swim.
Thesis 19: 24th August 2006