Thursday, October 04, 2007

Even without math, ancients engineered sophisticated machines
Move over, Archimedes. A researcher at Harvard University is finding that ancient Greek craftsmen were able to engineer sophisticated machines without necessarily understanding the mathematical theory behind their construction.

Recent analysis of technical treatises and literary sources dating back to the fifth century B.C. reveals that technology flourished among practitioners with limited theoretical knowledge.

“Craftsmen had their own kind of knowledge that didn’t have to be based on theory,” explains Mark Schiefsky, professor of the classics in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “They didn’t all go to Plato’s Academy to learn geometry, and yet they were able to construct precisely calibrated devices.”

I suppose this shouldn't be all that surprising. You don't have to know Mendelian genetics and Darwinian selection to be able to hybridize and improve plant and animal stocks. Still, it's interesting to know how they went about systematizing knowledge with a lack of formal theory.