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Physics before the Greeks (Ancient Greece)

The physics before the Greeks of classical antiquity was marked by the interest of existing civilizations to explain natural phenomena occurring around them, from rain storms, through the movement of the sun or volcanic eruptions.

Physics before the Greeks (Ancient Greece)
Stonehenge, built between 2400 and 2200 BC, is believed to have been an astronomical observatory

At that time, physics, understood as the scientific discipline known today, did not exist, but some of these civilizations, such as the Egyptian, Chinese or Babylonian, used part of their efforts to study these natural phenomena.

Most of the discoveries they made had to do with observing the stars and planets. In this field, they came to know the orbit of some celestial bodies, which implied a fairly deep knowledge of mathematics. His studies managed, among other things, to predict eclipses.

However, all that knowledge was mixed with his conceptions of the world, marked by the existence of divinities that caused natural phenomena. Coupled with the lack of experimentation, this is what makes his studies not classed as scientific in a strict sense.

Physics in Babylon

Physics in Babylon
Illustration of the gardens of Babylon

The ancient Babylonian Empire was located in Mesopotamia . This region, whose name means “between two rivers” due to its location between the Tigris and the Euphrates, is considered the cradle of the first civilizations.

The Sumerians

Already in the 6th century BC. C., the Sumerians, a people that dominated Babylon, carried out the first astronomical studies in the region. The knowledge gained was used to divide the year into months and to better control the cycle of the seasons. From their observations, they were able to predict even eclipses.

Another of his great finds occurred around the year 2500 BC. C., when they established by means of a royal decree a fixed system to measure length, weight and capacity.

Sexagesimal system

One of the tools used by this civilization was the sexagesimal numbering system. Unlike the currently used system, decimal, this one was based on 16. This allowed them, for example, to understand what is related to the 360 ​​degrees that a circumference has, as well as other similar questions.


Some of the advances they made in the field of astronomy were the knowledge that the Sun was the center of the galaxy, something new for the time.

Likewise, archaeological remains have shown that they knew what was the path of Jupiter in the sky. The tablets that collect this information have been dated between 350 and 50 BC. C.

The importance of this knowledge lies in the fact that only 1 500 years later the movement of that planet was not confirmed. In order to do the calculations, the Babylonians had to know how to use geometry to perform advanced calculations.

Physics in Egypt

The Egyptian civilization was one of the most important of all antiquity. His scientific advances occurred in many areas, from astronomy to architectural calculations, through the ability to predict the floods of the Nile River.


The ancient Egyptians were excellent astronomers. With much more rudimentary means than the current ones, they were able to predict eclipses, both solar and lunar. Likewise, their knowledge of the seasons allowed them to know when the Nile floods were going to occur and when was the best time to plant.

It is also known that they studied in depth the movements of the planets. This was the basis of his calendar, with 360-day years divided into 12 months.

Geometric and mathematical knowledge

His knowledge of geometric figures was used in practice to calculate the area of ​​the land. Along with his mastery of mathematics, those calculations were fundamental to the construction of the pyramids.

The oldest known mathematical treatise was produced by this culture: the Ahmes Papyrus .

Ahmes Papyrus or Rhind Mathematical Papyrus
Ahmes Papyrus or Rhind Mathematical Papyrus

Knowledge of mechanics of movement

The dominance achieved by Egyptian technology was often related to physics. The best example was their knowledge of the mechanics of movement, which enabled them to use the right lever or plane for their engineering work.

Physics in China

Without contact with the Mesopotamian or Egyptian civilizations, in China there was another culture whose knowledge in physics was superior.

Time measurement

Ancient Chinese civilization invented some of the earliest artifacts for measuring time and keeping accounts. Both types of inventions were very useful for his astronomical observations.

About 4,000 years ago, the Chinese were already using shadow clocks, the antecedent of sundials. The abacus, for its part, was invented between 1,000 BC. C. and 500 a. C.


Thanks to these tools, their astronomers could document a solar eclipse in 2137 BC. C., as well as to record a planetary grouping in 500 a. C.

One of the most relevant works written by Chinese scientists was The Silk Book , considered the first atlas of comets and dating from approximately 400 BC. C.

The compass

In the IV century a. C., the Chinese invented the compass, a device that was not known in Europe until many centuries later.

At first, those early compasses did not have needles. Its indicators were shaped like a turtle, fish or shell. The introduction of needles gave these devices greater precision.

Physics in Mayas

Among the most important cultures that appeared in pre-Columbian America, the Maya were the ones that developed the most advanced scientific knowledge, especially in astronomy.

Number zero and the three dimensions

Although it was not a direct contribution in the field of physics, the invention of the number zero by the Mayans was very useful for later discoveries.

In addition, his mathematicians managed to have a three-dimensional view of all objects, although their application and development are not very well known to historians.


The mathematical advances of the Maya were directly applied to astronomy. This culture created a very precise calendar system, especially in the measurement of the solar and lunar cycles.

Those calendars, moreover, could be adjusted thanks to the great knowledge that the Maya had of the orbits of the planets.

To study the movement of the stars, the Mayan priests used the upper parts of the temples. With a simple stake perpendicular to the ground, they discovered when the Sun passed through its zenith, that is, when it reached its highest point on the horizon.

One of the planets most studied by the Mayans was Venus , since they gave it a religious and ritual meaning.

On the other hand, they also worshiped the Milky Way, which they called the World Tree. In her worldview, all the manifestations of life came from her.

This interest in Venus and the Milky Way, however, was less than that developed towards the Sun. The Mayans traced its elliptical path in the sky and represented it as a two-headed serpent.

All these measurements were made with instruments that they created for this purpose. These also served them to predict eclipses.

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