We don’t know much about Strato of Lampsacus. None of his books survived to the present day. But he might have turned western civilization towards the sciences, by teaching just the right guy in just the right way.
Strato of Lampsacus lived in the fourth and third century BC, and spent most of his time shuttling back and forth between Athens and Alexandria. We don’t have any of his writings, although apparently he wrote prolifically about everything from gods to natural philosophy. We don’t know whether he met the other famous philosophers of his day, although it’s likely he met everyone from Aristotle to Epicurus.
But we do know a few things. Strato’s special area of expertise seems to have been early physics. He managed to figure out quite a few things, just from looking at the world around him. For example, he figured out that objects accelerate as they fall. He did this by observing raindrops falling from the roofs of buildings. If drops were falling in a regular drip from a high roof, two drops, released one after another, would start their fall very close to each other, but as they fell they would fall farther and farther apart. Strato knew that the farther something fell, the faster it went, because he could observe the impact of drops falling from different heights. Clearly, some force was accelerating the drops as they fell.
If you think that’s a neat observation, you’re not alone. Ptolemy I, of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, was equally impressed with Strato’s intelligence. He is the reason that Strato came to Alexandria. Ptolemy I brought Strato over to tutor his son, also called Ptolemy.
At the time, Alexandria was a center of commerce, art, and intellectual life—in fact, it was possibly the most important city on two different continents. Its glory was the Library of Alexandria. At the time, this was known as the Museum of Alexandria, and in addition to housing works of scholarship, the Museum housed actual scholars, working together on intellectual projects of the day. People did all kinds of academic research there.
Ptolemy II, Strato’s student, was well-known for promoting and expanding the Museum, and for slightly changing its focus. He brought in scholars specifically to work on the sciences. This focus, and the museum, remained a center of learning—learning which radiated out to Egypt, Greece, and later to Rome—for nearly the next three hundred years. Although no one can know for sure, some do think that one great teacher may have altered the course of the world by instilling a love of the science in just the right guy.
Take that, Stand and Deliver.
Alexandria Image: Bubuka. Ptolemy Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen