What 'Cosmos' Got Wrong About Thales of Miletus, the World's First Scientist

It's amazing that Thales kicked the gods out of natural philosophy. But it is not his most important contribution to science.

Apr 15 2014, 6:02pm
Thales of Miletus in profile. Image via Wikimedia/Guillaume Rouille

Every week, Becky Ferreira, your hostess with the cosmostest, hones in on the most important science and history topics the hit show Cosmos glosses over. Previously: Spectroscopy is the Rosetta Stone to the Universe.

“Deeper, Deeper, and Deeper Still,” the sixth episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, seamlessly segued through a wide range of hidden worlds. We started off by chilling with some tardigrades in a dewdrop, and by the end, we were paddling with Neil through the eerie Super-Kamiokande Neutrino Observatory. In between, the episode explored photosynthesis, the sun's fusion-powered heartbeat, and the versatility of carbon—which Jon Stewart rightly dubbed “the molecular slut of the table of elements.” Not bad for 43 minutes.

But with so much material to cover, finer points were inevitably lost. This was especially true in the segment on the world's first scientist: Thales of Miletus. Tyson barely mentioned the guy before moving on to Democritus of Abdera. Incidentally, Democritus also got more screen time than Thales in “The Backbone of Night,” the seventh episode of the original Cosmos series. The cheery atomist was obviously one of Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan's favorite figures—the couple even named their son after him.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos E07: The Backbone of Night via kaanozten/Daily Motion

But in their rush to cover Democritus, both versions of Cosmos managed to pass over the crux of his forefather Thales' genius. The episodes choose to focus solely on his insight that science and mythology should be divorced on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. There's certainly no mistaking the enormous impact of this idea. That Thales was able to come up with it all the way back in the sixth century BCE speaks volumes about his ability to think outside Pandora's box.

However, it's odd that Druyan, Sagan, and Tyson all consider this revelation to be Thales' greatest scientific brainwave. It wasn't. Though it is definitely his most influential idea, it was not what made him the very first scientist in the history books. That honor goes to Thales' use of the scientific method to predict future events.

I'm not arguing that these two concepts are unrelated. They are related. But at the end of the day, you don't need to be 100 percent secular to be a good scientist. Plenty of brilliant thinkers never felt the need to separate their scientific and mythological views: Pythagoras, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, and George Lemaȋtre immediately come to mind. These men were inspired and empowered by mystic ideas, not suffocated by them. If we suggest that every great scientist must follow Thales' example of unflinching secularism, we suddenly lose a great deal of history's greatest minds.

In contrast, the one thing all great scientists have in common is a revolutionary predictive power that roundhouse kicks any other mode of prophesy in the face. And that is Thales' greatest gift to the modern world. It's surprising that Tyson didn't emphasize this point in the short piece on Thales. After all, in the previous segment, he waxed poetic about Darwin's observation that a specialized insect must be pollinating the long-spurred Madagascan orchid Angraecum sesquipedaleAnd 150 years later, the discovery of the Morgan's sphinx moth validated Darwin's prediction. Talk about a perfect lead-in to discuss the first guy (that we know of) to successfully use science as a means of prophesy.

Like so many ancient scientists, we have far more questions about Thales than answers. Though his sharp intellect was noted by many later writers, nothing survives from the man himself. Thanks to Herodotus, we do know that he had wowed his contemporaries by predicting the the solar eclipse that occurred on May 28, 585 BCE. This must have completely blown the minds of the ancient Ionians, given that solar eclipses had hitherto been the territory of vengeful gods looking to mess with their mortal subjects.

The remains of the Milesian agora. Image: QuartierLatin1968.

Frustratingly, however, we have no idea how Thales figured out the cycle of solar eclipses, or even if he took the next step: using them to prove that the Earth is spherical. It's very likely that he did go the extra mile—which would make him the first person ever to discern the shape of our planet—but we just don't know for sure.

Luckily, eclipses weren't the only phenomena to which Thales lent his predictive powers. He was the first to formally note when to expect the solstices, and used these seasonal markers to calculate the likelihood of bumper crops. So the story goes, he bought up all of the olive presses in Miletus before a particularly promising year, and made a buttload of cash when the trees delivered the fruit in spades. The main reason he embarked on the olive press endeavor was show everyone that his astronomical theories weren't just intellectual masturbation—there was big money in it too.

He was the first to predict that earthquakes are caused by massive subterranean shockwaves, though he took this to mean that land was literally floating atop a primordial ocean. Given how long it took the scientific community to accept Alfred Wegener's continental drift theory even in the 20th century, I think we can give Thales a break for not seeing the big picture back in the 500s BCE (especially considering the competing explanation in his time was that earthquakes were just Poseidon stomping around like a maniac).

As if fathering science and geometry weren't enough for one lifetime, Thales also created an archetype that lives on to this day. According to Plato, Thales was once so entranced by the stars during a midnight walk that he fell into a well. This fascination with studying the bigger picture with little attention for the trivialities on Earth is still one of the most dominant narratives in science. It's telling that even in science's infancy, Thales perfectly matched the description of the absentminded professor.

As I've mentioned previously, I appreciate that Cosmos challenges its viewers to discuss the uneasy relationship between science and religion. Thales certainly deserves credit for being the first to realize that one was not beholden to the other. But what he did with that epiphany is much more interesting than the epiphany itself. Anyone can come up with a new thought system. But only a scientist like Thales can accurately predict the future. That legacy outshines everything else.