Ptolemy the polymath

Engraving of a crowned Ptolemy being guided by the muse Astronomy, from Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch, 1508. Although Abu Ma’shar believed Ptolemy to be one of the Ptolemies who ruled Egypt after the conquest of Alexander the title ‘King Ptolemy’ is generally viewed as a mark of respect for Ptolemy’s elevated standing in science. – Wikipedia

Ptolemy (circa 90-168 CE) was an Egyptian polymath who lived in Alexandria while enjoying Roman citizenship. His encyclopedic work on astronomy became the accepted standard for scholars and scientists right up to the 16th century, and came to be known as the Almagest (The Greatest).

He was also a mapmaker supreme, amalgamating all the cartographic knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. Things tended to change slowly in the ancient world. So centuries later, Christopher Columbus relied on Ptolemaic maps for his voyage in search of a western route to Asia, in which he unintentionally found the Americas.

In addition, Ptolemy advocated a musical scale that involved octaves and precise mathematical ratios. And his work on perception, especially visual perception, laid the groundwork for subsequent optics theory.

His geocentric (Earth centered) model of the universe pleased the scientifically backward and  authoritarian Christian clergy because it didn’t obviously conflict with ancient Hebrew conceptions of creation as portrayed in the Bible. People being an impressionable lot that usually follow the herd, this geocentric view dominated public thinking for centuries until the heliocentric (sun centered) theories of Copernicus, and later Galileo, put everything in a new light.

A printed map from the 15th century depicting Ptolemy’s description of the known world, (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver). – Wikipedia

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