cover image Anaximander: And the Birth of Science

Anaximander: And the Birth of Science

Carlo Rovelli, trans. from the Italian by Marion Lignana Rosenberg. Riverhead, $18 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-54236-1

Theoretical physicist Rovelli (There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important than Kindness) delivers an insightful survey of the scientific contributions of Greek philosopher Anaximander (610–545 BCE). Anaximander, Rovelli contends, generated the “first great conceptual revolution” in science by proposing naturalistic explanations of the universe that refuted common accounts relying on gods and myths. According to Anaximander, the cosmic order came into existence after “hot and cold separated,” causing a “ball of flame” to amass around the Earth and dry up the water that originally covered the planet. Though some theories will sound outlandish to modern readers (Anaximander thought that celestial bodies moved on giant wheels “filled with fire”), others are impressively forward-thinking, such as Anaximander’s suggestion that Earth is suspended in a void and humans evolved from “fishlike creatures” that adapted to live on land. As Rovelli notes, the only surviving accounts of Anaximander’s writings are secondhand, meaning that definitive evidence about his life and work is hard to come by, but Rovelli makes the most of the available evidence in building his case that the philosopher’s emphasis on natural causes marked a sea change in human thought. This is a masterful overview of a pivotal figure in scientific history. (Feb.)