OGDEN -- Ancient Greece has long been called the "cradle of Western civilization."
And it's amazing what the scholars of ancient Greece were able to figure out, said Stacy Palen, a Weber State University physics professor and the Ott Planetarium director.
Palen spoke Tuesday at WSU's Stewart Library, offering a talk called "The Greeks and the Stars," as part of the Weber Reads event series, this year focusing on Homer's "Odyssey."
But any culture still in "cradle" condition would also, realistically, be wrong about a few of its scientific conclusions, Palen said, in an animated presentation that had her explaining "the Greek version of what the universe was like."
"I was certainly brought up in a culture that revered the Greeks, that always talked about how much we owed to the Greeks, and certainly we do," she said. "Democracy, written-down laws, exploration and all kinds of stuff, but we tend to often have this massive selection effect, where we remember the things that were right, and we forget the things they got wrong."
The ancient Greeks believed they could "know stuff just by thinking about it," Palen said. "You never had to have an experiment, and data, even if you were proved wrong ... nah. Because even if you were proved wrong, you had thought about it, so it had to be right."
Palen showed a playful YouTube video by Vi Hart, self-described recreational mathematician, about the Pythagorean Theorem.
When Pythagoras was confronted with an exception to his mathematical theorem, Palen said, "he actually tried to suppress the evidence. He was like, 'No one pay attention to the irrational number over there.' Because he really believed, really truly believed, that his thoughts about the universe were more important than the information that came from the universe itself."
Palen said the ancient Greeks also believed that earthquakes were caused by wind inside Earth, and volcanos were a place the wind escaped the planet's interior.
"And to us, who have a really good sense of the earth as a round thing in space - that is solid and liquid in the middle, but it's full, it's not air in there - this seems really strange to us," Palen said, in a playful voice."But it's important to keep track of the fact that they didn't know a huge number of things that we know today."
The ancient Greeks also had different ideas about light and vision, Palen said.
"It's astonishing you could hold this idea in your head for more than three seconds," she said. "The idea they had was that light, or visual fire as they sometimes called it, shot out of your eyes, and bounced off things, and came back to you, and that's how you saw things. Apparently they'd never been in a cave with their eyes open. They apparently didn't notice that everyone sees daytime and nighttime at the same time ... If you put more people in a room it doesn't get lighter, but it should if light shoots out of your eyes."
Palen said seeing stars because your eyes shoot light at them seems like a problem to her, but that may be because she knows the stars are far away.
"They didn't necessarily know that," Palen said. One ancient scholar thought Earth was a cylinder positioned at the center of the universe, and the sun and other celestial bodies were suspended on a series of invisible rings that guided their perfect circular orbit around Earth.
Palen also shared an ancient, constellation-based Greek myth, about Andromeda, daughter of the prideful Cassiopeia. Andromeda was sentenced to death by sea monster. Andromeda was saved by Perseus, her future husband, who arrived riding the winged Pegasus after slaying the snake-headed Medusa. Palen acted all the roles.
"So you can see that entire story in the night sky," she concluded. "And I just love to share it, especially to little kids. You can see Cassiopeia, and they saw her as a queen reclining on a bench thing. Andromeda looks like a scarf blowing in the wind, and Perseus is there and Pegasus is there. They're all there, together in the night sky."
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SE_NancyVanV.