Lucio Russo

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For the New York State Assemblyman, see Lucio Russo (politician).

Lucio Russo (born 22 November 1944) is an Italian physicist, mathematician and historian of science. Born in Venice, he teaches at the Mathematics Department of the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

In the history of science, he has reconstructed some contributions of the Hellenistic astronomer Hipparchus, through the analysis of his surviving works, and the proof of heliocentrism attributed by Plutarch to Seleucus of Seleucia and studied the history of theories of tides, from the Hellenistic to modern age.

The Forgotten Revolution[edit]


In The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn (Italian: La rivoluzione dimenticata), Russo stresses the well-established fact that Hellenistic science reached heights not achieved by Classical age science, and proposes that it went further than ordinarily thought. These results were lost with the Roman conquest and during the Middle Ages, because the scholars of that period did not have the capability to understand them. The legacy of Hellenistic science was one of the bases of the scientific revolution of the 16th century, as ancient texts started once again to be available in Europe.

According to Russo, Hellenistic scientists were not simply forerunners, but actually achieved scientific results of high importance, in the fields of "mathematics, solid and fluid mechanics, optics, astronomy, anatomy, physiology, scientific medicine",[1] even psychological analysis. They may have even discovered the inverse square law of gravitation (Russo's argument on this point hinges on well-established, but seldom discussed, evidence). Hellenistic scientists, among whom Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, developed an axiomatic and deductive way of argumentation. When this way of argumentation was dropped, the ability to understand the results were lost as well. Thus Russo conjectures that the definitions of elementary geometric objects were introduced in Euclid's Elements by Heron of Alexandria, 400 years after the work was completed.[1] More concretely, Russo shows how the theory of tides must have been well-developed in Antiquity, because several pre-Newtonian sources relay various complementary parts of the theory without grasping their import or justification (getting the empirical facts wrong but the theory right).

A second contribution of Russo's is the conclusion that:

the post-Renaissance scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was basically due to the conscious recovery of the Hellenistic science (not even to its full extent, reached only in the second half of the nineteenth century with Richard Dedekind's and Karl Weierstrass's isolation of the real number concept directly out of Euclid's definition of proportion).[1]

Critical reception[edit]

The Forgotten Revolution is full of fascinating detail, and the reconstruction of lost work is ingenious. But caveat emptor. What should have been a splendid hymn to Alexandrian achievement is undermined by the author's excessive claims of its influence on Renaissance science, and by his underestimation of the importance of the seeds sown by Aristotle and others in the classical period. – Michael Rowan-Robinson, Physics World.[2]

If there is anything you like in modern science and mathematics (or art, linguistics, architecture, technology or medicine), he is glad to show you that the Hellenistic Greeks had already been there and done that. He is even pretty sure they had the inverse-square law of gravitation.

Is this vision true to the facts? A great deal of it is, yes, but not all, and certainly not the bit about the inverse-square law. Yet the effort to spin out the 'what if …?' is well worth it. We have access to only 1–2% of these ancient texts for which we know the titles, the rest being lost, which leaves a good deal of room for Russo to imagine a Hellenistic science much more ample and more modern than previously thought. – Mott Greene, Nature.[3]

The corpus of evidence amassed by Russo will make it very hard for even the most sceptical reader to continue to treat the Hellenistic world so dismissively. Nevertheless, given the partial and speculative nature of much of the evidence adduced, one cannot help but feel that Russo goes too far in his denigration of some of the most brilliant minds of the Scientific Revolution (or, for that matter, the Roman world). – Gary B. Magee, Economic Record.[4]

The novelty of these conclusions is such that one might be tempted to react with plain disbelief, if not with a shrug. The reader should, however, avoid such a reaction, because the scholarly support is unquestionably impressive. It includes a methodological novelty, this time in the examination of the original sources. Thanks to his dual competence in science and philology, Russo does away with a time-honored habit among scholars of antiquity – namely, that humanists only deal with 'literary' sources and historians of science with the 'scientific' ones. – Sandro Graffi, Notices Amer. Math. Soc.[1]

Russo finds Hellenistic interpretations everywhere, and where there is no text to back him up, he speculates that such a text is lost … The treat in store for the reader of this book is the vast learning that Lucio Russo has acquired, which he explains with lucidity. What is hard for the readers, however, to judge is to what extent the ancient world had true science in Russo's sense. What is definitely so is that the Alexandrine world had great accomplishments to excite our wonder. – Samuel S. Kutler, Read This![5]

Other works[edit]

L' America dimenticata[edit]

In L' America dimenticata[6] Lucio Russo puts forward the bold hypothesis that the American continent was known in ancient times, probably discovered by the Phoenicians or the Carthaginians. Besides Hipparchus likely knew the longitude of the Lesser Antilles, then known as Blessed Islands, with remarkable precision.

After all, it has been known for a long time of paintings dating to the Roman period and representing American fruits (Ananas) and of small Mesoamerican toys representing wheeled trucks, when the wheel had not been invented nor used in pre-Columbian times.

With the collapse of the Hellenistic world under the attacks of the Romans around the middle of the 2nd century BC (recall the destruction of Corinth and Carthage in 146 BC and the expulsion of the scientific elite from Alexandria in 145 BC), these geographic notions were lost. Later Ptolemy incorrectly identified the Blessed Islands with the Canaries and since it was known that the Blessed Islands where at the antipodes relative to the eastern part of China, Ptolemy made ends meet by erroneously enlarging the longitude of all know places, and shrinking the width of a degree of longitude (500 instead of 700 stadia).

With this correction Lucio Russo manages to pinpoint the position of the mythical Thule, reached in the 4th century BC by explorer Pytheas, on the coast of Greenland. Besides he sheds a new light on an obscure sentence of Pliny according to which Hipparchus would have enlarged the known ecumene by 26,000 stadia.[7]

See also[edit]

  • Antikythera mechanism, a Hellenistic astronomical computer, which, according to Russo, is a proof of the high level of knowledge in science and technology reached during Hellenism


  1. ^ a b c d Graffi, Sandro, review of La rivoluzione dimenticata, Notices Amer. Math. Soc., vol. 45, no. 5, May 1998.[1]
  2. ^ Michael Rowan-Robinson, "Praising Alexandrians to excess." Review of The Forgotten Revolution, Physics World vol. 17, no. 4 (April 2004).[2]
  3. ^ Mott Greene, "The birth of modern science?" Review of The Forgotten Revolution, Nature 430 (5 August 2004): 614.[3]
  4. ^ Gary B. Magee, Review of The Forgotten Revolution, Economic Record, 80 (2004): 475–476.[4]
  5. ^ Samuel S. Kutler, Read This! The Mathematical Association of America Online book review column (20 September 2004).[5]
  6. ^ Lucio Russo, L' America dimenticata. I rapporti tra le civiltà e un errore di Tolomeo (2013) [6]
  7. ^ Plinio, Naturalis Historia, II, 247
  • Lucio Russo, The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn, Berlin, Springer, 2004, ISBN 978-3-540-20396-4.
  • Biografia Lucio Russo
  • Flussi e riflussi: indagine sull'origine di una teoria scientifica (2003)

External links[edit]