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Anaxagoras and Science

Anaxagoras was born a Persian subject in Asia Minor, around 500 BCE – the first of a wave of Greek intellectuals who migrated to Athens. In pondering connections in nature, Anaxagoras drew on the belief of philosophers before him that change is the result of an interaction among opposites.

Anaxagoras discovered that air tends to rise above solids, and he described air as a gas, which he saw as consisting of material particles too small to be visible. He lectured students and gave laboratory demonstrations. He is reported to have conducted experiments and to have tested his hypotheses. He went beyond his lab work. He wrote theories on physics. Having learned about meteorites, he described the sun and moon as fiery stones. He saw the moon as having mountains, and he attempted to describe scientifically the solar and lunar eclipses that for millennia had frightened people.

Anaxagoras believed that mind was mixed with materiality and a substance – the finest of substances and disconnected from other substances. His word for the substance of mind was nous, and he theorized that mind was the first cause of all motion, change and order. Nous was Anaxagoras' God.

Athens had conservatives who disliked Anaxagoras' view of the cosmos and his impiety toward traditional gods. They accused him of atheism, and they associated his impiety with disloyalty toward the city. Before the beginning of the Great Peloponnesian war, the city fathers sought to protect their city from disloyalty, and they forbade the teaching of Anaxagoras' opinions and outlawed the teachings of others on astronomy and meteorology. They drove Anaxagoras into exile, and Anaxagoras returned to Asia Minor, where he taught until he died in 428 during the great Peloponnesian War.


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