Most of
us who have gone to school, know of Pythagoras, Archimedes, and Euclid as the
famous mathematicians of ancient Greece. Some of us have heard of other great
mathematicians like Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Apollonius, Aristarchus, etc.
But, Thales?
Most schools
of the world today, I suspect, teach science and mathematics from a predominantly
European syllabus. This is partly an effect of European colonization of most of
Asia and Africa, and dimunition of native populations in the Americas and
Australia, in the eighteenth, nineteenth
and twentieth centuries of the Christian calendar.
I am
currently reading a book titled “Archimedes”
by Thomas Little Heath, originally published in 1920, on Kindle. It is a free
download, and part of a Men of Science series.
“Greek
authors from Heredotus downwards (meaning, after him) agree in saying that
geometry was invented by the Egyptians and that it came into Greece from Egypt,”
writes Heath.
He
quotes an account : “Geometry is said to have been invented among Egyptians,
its orgin being due to the measurement of plots of land. This was necessary
because of the rising of the Nile, which obliterated (erased) boundaries
appertaining to separate owners…. Thales first went to Egypt and thence
introduced this study into Greece.”
What we
know today as the Pythagoras theorem, about the hypotenuse of right angled triangles,
is listed as Proposition 47 in Volume I of Euclid’s “Elements”, the standard European and Arab book of mathematics from
the first to eighteenth centuries. The word Elements
is the Greek word for Numbers, which
in the eighteenth century was adopted into French, English etc for the most basic
objects in Chemistry. The word Geometry is formed from two words Geo (Earth)
and Metry (measurement). The Sanskrit word for measurement is Maatra. Greek and Sanskrit are part of the
Indo European language family, so these words originate from the same root. The
Sanskrit word for geometry is Shulba Sutra. Shulba is the Sanskrit word for
rope or string; the earliest surviving books are not about land measurement or business but measurement
of altars for yajnas. Parallelly, jyotishaas (astronomers) developed a different
stream of mathematics to determine time based on the movement of celestial
objects.
“Thales,
who had travelled in Egypt and there learnt what the priests could teach him on
the subject, introduced GeoMetry into Greece. Almost the whole of Greek science
and philosophy begins with Thales. His
dae was about 624547 B.C. First of the Ionian philosophers, and declared one
of the Seven Wise Men in 582581, he shone in all fields, as astronomer,
mathematician, engineer, statesman and man of business,” says Heath.
What fascinated
me is what follows, which is Heath’s listing of the contributions of Thales to
mathematics and astronomy.
In Astronomy,
Thales:
 Predicted
the solar eclipse of 28 May, 585 BC
 Discovered
the inequality of the four astronomical seasons
 Counselled
the use of the Little Bear instead of the Great Bear as a means of finding the
pole (i.e. North Pole)
In Geometry,
the following theorems are attributed to Thales:
 That a
circle is bisected by any diameter
 That the
angles at the base of an isoceles triangle are equal
 That if
two straight lines cut one another, the vertically opposite angles are equal
 That if
two triangles have two angles and one side respectively equal, the triangles
are equal in all respects (what we now
called SideAngleSide congruency)
 Was first
to inscribed a right angled triangle in a circle, which means he was first to
discover that the angle in a semi circle is a right angle.
Thales
also solved two problems in practical geometry
 He
showed how to measure the distance from the land, of a ship at sea (using
Proposition 4 above)
 He
measured heights of pyramids by means of the shadow thrown on the ground
Heath
adds, “Their character (of the theorems) shows how the Greeks had to begin at
the very beginning of the theory.”
Thales
was a practical man, a businessman, and indulged in theoretical excursions perhaps
as a pasttime. Pythagoras came a generation after him, and founded a school of
mathematics. Euclid’s famous Elements is dated to the first century, AD, six
hundred years after Thales. Pythagoras was interested in Mathematics as a
leisure activity and an intellectual pursuit. So were most of this followers; his
students and such people who pursued Geometry as an intellectual pursuit were
collectively called the Pythagoreans. They coined the Greek word Mathemata (μάθήμάτα)
from which comes the English tatbhava word Mathematics. The Greek word
Mathemata literally means “Subjects of Instruction”.
Both
Thales and Pythagoras traveled extensively around and past the shores of the
Mediterranean sea, not just Egypt. Other historians of mathematics conjecture
that Pythagoras traveled to Persia and perhaps even India. Ancient Greeks
themselves acknowledge the Egyptian origins of their mathematics. Through
formal and inductive methods, and intellectual pursuits, the Greeks elevated
mathematics to a much higher levels, especially in Geometry. Strangely very few
people of the Roman Empire that succeeded Hellenic Greece did not continue in
this path, though the Persians and central Asians who acquired Greek books via
Alexander of Macedonia’s conquest, did. Europe almost entirely abandoned
mathematics and science for a millennium, until the emergence of Italian city
states and Fibonacci’s ventures to Baghdad.
Pythagoras
is introduced to us as the fountainhead of Greek mathematics, just as Aryabhata
or some Vedic rishis are mentioned as the fountainhead of Indian mathematics. No
mention is made at all of the Egyptian origins of Greek mathematics. Similarly
while there are some references to Greeks and Romans in Indian mathematical texts,
especially of Varahamihira, in those times, there was no attempt at studying
the history of mathematics or acknowledging foreign elements borrowed.
I find
Thales a fascinating character, more so perhaps than even Varahamihira. He
reminds me of Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier and Sir William Jones. And
Mahendra Varma Pallava.
I
strongly recommend Heath’s biography of Archimedes, from which I have excerpted.
The list of his books and their titles also tell you what the level of
mathematics was in Hellenic Greece. I also hope to read some biography of
Apollonius, whom SimonPierre Laplace equates with Archimedes as the great
mathematicians of ancient times.
On a
linguistic note, you can read each letter in the word μάθήμάτα based on Greek
letters use in modern mathematics texts – mu,
alpha, theta, eta, mu, alpha, tau, alpha. Notice that Greek has separate
letters θ and τ for tha त த
and ta ट ட like Sanskrit and Tamil, whereas
English doesn’t. So English has to use two letters th for the equivalent of
theta or त த. That’s another story for another occasion, another
blog.
There
seem to be some pictures or sculptures of Thales, though I don’t know if they
are authentic.

Thales  source : Wikipedia 
This one is from Wikipedia. Several Greek philosophers kings and
others were depicted in paintings on vases, stone sculptures, bronzes, etc.
Unfortunately such depictions in India were rare before the Gupta period; any
pictures you see of mathematicians like Aryabhata, Bhaskara, or Varahamihira
are entirely the product of recent artists’ imaginations.
Related Blogs and Videos
 Archimedes by Thomas Little Heath (free Kindle edition)
 Detailed article on Thales
 Video
of my talk on Astronomy and Mathematics of Ancient Cultures
 My essay on Aryabhata (The Week magazine)
 Notes
from Manjul Bhargava lecture on history of Indian mathematics
 Antoine Lavoisier