From mythology to science: the development of scientific hydrological concepts in Greek antiquity and its relevance to modern hydrology

Koutsoyiannis, Demetris; Mamassis, Nikos

Whilst hydrology is a Greek term, it was not in use in the Classical literature, but much later, during the Renaissance, in its Latin form, hydrologia. On the other hand, Greek natural philosophers (or, in modern vocabulary, scientists) created robust knowledge in related scientific areas, to which they gave names such as meteorology, climate and hydraulics. These terms are now in common use internationally. Greek natural philosophers laid the foundation for hydrological concepts and the hydrological cycle in its entirety. Knowledge development was brought about by searches for technological solutions to practical problems as well as by scientific curiosity. While initial explanations belong to the sphere of mythology, the rise of philosophy was accompanied by the quest for scientific descriptions of the phenomena. It appears that the first geophysical problem formulated in scientific terms was the explanation of the flood regime of the Nile, then regarded as a paradox because of the spectacular difference from the river flow regime in Greece, i.e. the fact that the Nile flooding occurs in summer when in most of the Mediterranean the rainfall is very low. While the early attempts were unsuccessful, Aristotle was able to formulate a correct hypothesis, which he tested through what appears to be the first scientific expedition in history, in the transition from the Classical to Hellenistic periods. The Hellenistic period brought advances in all scientific fields including hydrology, an example of which is the definition and measurement of flow discharge by Heron of Alexandria. These confirm the fact that the hydrological cycle was well understood in Ancient Greece, yet it poses the question why correct explanations were not accepted and, instead, why ancient and modern mythical views were preferred up to the 18th century.

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Koutsoyiannis, Demetris / Mamassis, Nikos: From mythology to science: the development of scientific hydrological concepts in Greek antiquity and its relevance to modern hydrology. 2021. Copernicus Publications.

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