Samos Island

Samos Coast

Samos Coast

Lying in the eastern Aegean Sea and off the coast of Turkey is an unassuming Greek island called Samos. It could be easily dismissed as just another beautiful Greek island, abundant with lush olive groves and secluded bays, but Samos has a surprising history and a legacy that every British GCSE student can appreciate.

With such a strategically important position Samos’ history has been somewhat turbulent, but loyally Greek. The island has been ruled by a number of different empires, and after the fall of the Byzantine Empire and a number of earthquakes the island was left virtually empty by the start of the sixteenth century. Samos was slowly re-inhabited which resulted in many towns adopting names related to its populations’ place of origin. However the island’s national identity developed into aligning itself with Greece. This meant that the condition of the London Treaty of 1830, that brought an end to the Greek War of Independence but gave Samos over to the Ottoman Empire, was strongly opposed in Samos. A revolutionary movement reached its peak in 1912 and Samos was officially united with Greece in 1913.

With such an unsettled history it’s surprising that so many features from Samos’ ancient past still survive. These include the ruins of the temple of Hera at Ireon and the tunnel of Eupalinos near the town of Pythagoreion, both declared UNESCO world heritage sites in 1992. Samos is said to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess Hera, and the site of her ancient temple dates back to the eighth century BC and was later also the site of a Christian basilica. Most of the sites artefacts are in the Archaeological Museum in Samos’ modern capital, Vathy, though other artefacts are also housed in Pythagorio’s Archaeological Museum.

The Eupalinos tunnel was rediscovered in the nineteenth century and is a popular tourist attraction today. It dates back to the sixth century BC and is an astounding piece of Ancient engineering. Acting as an underground aqueduct, it was designed to transport fresh water from an inland spring to the ancient coastal capital, today called Pythagorio. What is notable about this tunnel, apart from its ancient origins, is that is one of only two that are known to have been dug out from both ends to meet in the middle, and was the first to do so with a geometric approach. Commissioned by Samos’ tyrant leader, Polycrates, the tunnel was designed by Eupalino from Megara, and took ten years to build. Its achievement was even acknowledged by the ancient historian Herotodus.

Pythagoras Monument in Pythagorio

Pythagoras Monument in Pythagorio

Though these ancient echoes invite interested modern visitors, Samos is most famous for one of its Ancient Greek sons, Pythagoras. Pythagoras was born in Samos in 580 BC and was a philosopher and Mathematician. His triangle theorem, regarding right-angled triangles, is still an important part of GCSE maths courses in Britain. Pythagoras didn’t stay in Samos but his link is greatly celebrated, the town of Pythagorio is named after him and has a commemorative monument. Furthermore the ‘Just Cup’, reported to be a design by Pythagoras as he got fed up with the inaccuracy of measurements, are on sale throughout the island.

Like most of the Greek islands, tourism is important to their economy, and Samos’ legacy to the history of science is at the heart of its offer to tourists today. I’ve only covered a small part, and among the numerous small towns there are a number of museums dedicated to all sorts of topics. These include the Natural History Museum, the Folklore Museum and the Museum of Wine. With such a glorious climate and such friendly and generous inhabitants I would heartily recommend a visit.

View from Pythagorio with Greek flag

View from Pythagorio with Greek flag

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

West side of the American Philosophical Society

West side of the American Philosophical Society, by Ben Franske. Image licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license via Wikimedia.

The full official name of the Society is the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge. The name dates to 1769, when two scientific societies merged, but the APS traces its origins to 1743, when Benjamin Franklin and others formed the organization to provide a way for its members to get together to discuss “philosophical” matters. For Franklin, “philosophical” meant natural philosophy, the study of the natural world, science, and practical knowledge.

The APS is still a membership organization, with about 1,000 elected members accomplished in a broad range of fields, from science to civic and cultural affairs to social sciences and the humanities. It is the first learned society in the United States and meets semi-annually in interdisciplinary, intellectual fellowship. The APS also has a number of core programs. Research grants support a wide range of activities, including one of the oldest grant funds for ethnographic and linguistic field work. The Publications Department publishes monographs and journals, including the oldest learned journal in the country. The Museum, whose antecedent is Charles Willson Peale’s museum of the eighteenth century, puts on exhibits that reflect the interests of the Society and its collections.

While it is an organization separate from the APS, the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS), which offers fellowships, colloquia, and a federated on-line search tools, has its offices in one of the APS’ buildings.

The Museum has a changing program of temporary exhibitions, on interrelated themes of science, art and history; many – in fact most – of them are of direct interest to historians of science. See The Museum is located in Philosophical Hall, right next to Independence Hall, which is itself across the street from the Liberty Bell. You can visit the Liberty Bell for free any time it is open (the APS Museum, too, though donations are welcome), but you need timed tickets to see Independence Hall; tickets are free and available at the Visitors Center.

The Library has exhibits in its foyer, which is open to the public weekdays. During the summer tourist season there is an exhibit of treasures of the APS. Almost always on display is one of the original journals of Lewis and Clark, most of which were deposited in the Library by Thomas Jefferson in 1817.

Representation of waterspout accompanying "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds" by Benjamin Franklin c. 1750

Representation of waterspout accompanying "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds" by Benjamin Franklin c. 1750. Image available in the public domain via Wikipedia.

Library Hall, located across the street from Philosophical Hall, is home to one of the great independent research libraries in the country. Using the Library requires registration and making an appointment (see, but should you have an interest in one of the library’s collection strengths, there are rich holdings to explore. The three main collection areas are American history before 1860 (including the papers of Benjamin Franklin and Charles Willson Peale and his family), Native American ethnography and linguistics (including the papers of Franz Boas), and, of course, the history of science.

Early natural history is represented in such collections as the Benjamin Smith Barton Papers, the papers of John LeConte, and the journals of André Michaux. The papers of ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy are in the collection. Many other disciplines are represented: evolutionary biology (Charles Darwin, George Gaylord Simpson), physics (Edward U. Condon, John Wheeler); biochemistry (Carl Neuberg, Erwin Chargaff), computer science (John W. Tukey), bacteriology (Salvador Luria), neuroscience (Warren McCulloch), microbiology (Herbert Jennings), pathology (Peyton Rous, Simon Flexner), plant genetics (Barbara McClintock). Indeed, the genetics collection is among the best in the world and includes the papers of Theodosius Dobzhansky, L. C. Dunn, Sewall Wright, P. M. Sheppard and Curt Stern, to name a only a few. In addition, the APS is one of the largest repositories of eugenics collections in the world, holding records of such organizations as the Eugenics Records Office and the American Eugenics Society as well as the papers of Charles Davenport.

The Library also has a large collection of printed material, including some 275,000 bound volumes, thousands of maps, and tens of thousands of prints and photographs. Among the special printed collections are the Richard Gimbel Thomas Paine Collection, the Samuel Vaughan Collection (a rare, intact late 18th-early 19th century private library), and the James Valentine Charles Darwin Collection, containing works by Darwin in 25 languages.

Complete information about the American Philosophical Society can be found on its website,

A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America From the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean; By Order of the Executive of the United States, in 1804, 5 & 6. Copied by Samuel Lewis from the Original Drawing of Wm. Clark.

A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America From the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean; By Order of the Executive of the United States, in 1804, 5 & 6. Copied by Samuel Lewis from the Original Drawing of Wm. Clark. Image available in the public domain via Wikipedia. The APS is home to one of the original journals of Lewis and Clark, most of which were deposited in the Library by Thomas Jefferson in 1817.

Island of Samos, Northern Aegean

This article has been superseded by a more up-to-date article by Kathleen McIlvenna at

Island of Samos

Island of Samos by hofman01. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

This is the island of philosopher/mathematician Pythagoras and of Aristarchus, who lived 300 years later, when Samos was under control of first the Egyptians and later the Syrians; he is famous for being the first proponent of a heliocentric system of planets and stars. The island is physically attractive, with a backbone of mountains reaching to nearly 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level. There are wooded pine forests on the mountain slopes, vineyards below, and sandy coves for bathing at the seashore. The island has been less spoiled by tourism than many others. We can still see islanders tending herds of goats or carting their produce to market on the backs of donkeys.

The ancient capital of Samos, formerly Tigani, was renamed Pythagorio in 1955, in honor of the island’s famous native son. There is a tiny museum in the town hall, space shared with the mayor’s offices, but nothing within is about Pythagoras-all we have is his bust on a pedestal outside. An adjacent street is named for Aristarchus, but there are no plaques to proclaim his espousal of heliocentricity or to explain how he came to the idea. All we can do is to wander around the island, imagining the astronomer doing likewise, dreaming up new geometrical methods for measuring distances and sizes of the objects he saw in skies. Strangely enough, our imagination gets some help, for on a hill above Pythagorio is the Tunnel of Eupalinus, 3,385 feet (1,026 m) in length and tall enough for a man to stand within it. It was built during the reign of the island’s most ambitious ruler, polycrates, not long after the time of Pythagoras. It used to have pipes on the floor to carry water to the town from springs on the other side of the hill. The digging was done by two teams of workers, one from each side, and they met properly in the middle. Pretty good geometry for 525 B.C.!

Also relevant to our story is a short drive or taxi ride east from the town of Samos, to the Strait of Mykali, for here we see the Turkish mainland not much over a mile (2 km) away, almost within swimming distance. And at this point we are but 33 miles (50 km) from Miletus, the earliest of all sources of Greek scientific philosophy. Samos may be formally an island in the geographic sense, but at the time of Pythagoras it was far from insular in its intellectual life, being always in close communication with the mainland coastal cities. Today we have Greeks on one side of the Strait and Turks on the other, and not much love between them, but back then it was all Greek-the center of Greek civilization, in fact, for the age of Pericles in Athens was still some decades away.

Cordoba, Spain

La Mezquita at Cordoba

La Mezquita at Cordoba by kevinpoh. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

In Cordoba we can feel closer than in any other Spanish city to erstwhile Islamic intellectual activity. For one thing, the city was the birthplace of the two greatest philosophers of the twelfth century, Ibn Rushd (who remained here for most of his life) and Maimonides (who moved to Cairo as a youth). For another, the Mezquita, the great mosque, has been preserved in all its grandeur – unfortunately with a garish Christian church built within its walls, making for a truly bizarre combination of architectural styles. And the mosque is undoubtedly where teachers and pupils would gather for discussion and where scribes would make their copies, for classrooms and libraries lay normally within the precincts of mosques.

Adjacent to the Mezquita is the old Jewish quarter (Juderia) , with narrow streets filled with lively crowds and, on summer evenings, the gay sound of guitars and flamenco dancers. There is a Plaza de Maimonides here and a statue of Maim on ides in the Plaza de Tiberiades. There is a statue of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in the loco, where craftsmen now have their stalls. There is also a municipal museum, but don’t expect any reverence there for the golden years of yore-the museum is devoted almost exclusively to bullfighting and to Cordoba’s famous matadors.

Stagira, Greece

Small waves on a boat ride around Ammouliani

Small waves on a boat ride around Ammouliani by Horia Varlan. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The Halkadiki Peninsula lies in Macedonia, the northeastern portion of Greece and one of the most attractive parts of the country. The peninsula is studded with small fishing villages along the coast, and inland are thickly wooded hills, high mountain passes, and magnificent views. Three long narrow fingers jut out into the Aegean Sea and on one of them stands Mount Athos, 6,500 feet (2,000 m) high, the center of an incredible medieval relic, a monastic community utterly cut off from the world. Women, children, and eunuchs are  forbidden; no roads enter. Male tourists are admitted, gaining access by boat from Ouranoupolis; a beard as proof of maleness is desirable, but no longer the absolute requirement that it used to be.

If you venture to this remote part of Greece, you will find yourself close to Stagira (or Stayira), the place where, in 384 B.C., the great Aristotle was born. The present town of that name, on the road from the coast inland to Arnea, has named a large park and picnic area after Aristotle, with a prominent (modern) White stone statue of the philosopher himself. However, the actual birthplace is not the present town but ancient Stagira, which was perched on high bluffs at the edge of the open sea, about 10 miles (15 km) away, just south of the present vi age of Olimbiada. There are signposts everywhere, beginning on the main coastal highway from Stavros toward Mount Athos, so that the site and the excavati cannot be missed.

It is, of course, a long way to come and the ruins per se are less rewarding he many other archaeological sites. But can we really pass it by? Can we fail to moved at least a little by being on the very piece of land that nurtured the man whose thoughts and writings dominated Western academic institutions for so many centuries after he was dead?

In England the association of man with place has always been strong. Aristotle was no exception, as we can see from the following lines of John Dryden-poet and dramatist, but elected to the company of scientists, the fledgling Royal Society, in 1663:

The longest Tyrrany that ever sway’d
Was that wherein our Ancestors betray’d
Their free-born Reason to the Stagirite
And made his Torch their Universal Night.

The exultation he felt over what he saw as the then emerging downfall of Aristotelian dogma comes through loud and clear.

Maison d’Auguste Comte, Paris

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is known to historians of science for his role in founding the science of sociology, the philosophy of positivism, and the religion of humanity.

A plaque at Maison d'Auguste Comte celebrating Comte's residence

A plaque at Maison d'Auguste Comte celebrating Comte's residence

For sixteen years, from 1841 until his death in 1857, Comte lived in a relatively modest apartment at 10 Rue Monsieur-le-Prince in Paris, where he composed works on philosophy, sociology, politics and religion. Modern-day visitors who retrace the steps of intellectual pilgrims who visited the eccentric French sage during his lifetime will find a museum, library and archive devoted to the man and his work. Comte’s living quarters are preserved and, for those wishing to make a more scholarly visit, the library and archive are extremely well stocked with books, periodicals and other printed materials relating to all aspects of positivist thought and activities in France, England and further afield.

Comte’s works, especially the Cours de Philosophie Positive (1830-42) had a considerable impact on British intellectual life, and those who visited Rue Monsieur-le-Prince to pay their respects included George Eliot, G. H. Lewes, Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer. Bain found Comte’s home to be ‘modest enough, being only a half-floor of some three or four rooms altogether, and looked after by a single female servant.’ Comte ‘received us in a bright-coloured dressing-gown, – which only meant that, in regard to dress, he was a Frenchman.’ This Frenchman’s whole attitude, Bain found, was one of ‘severe denunciation or self-aggrandisement’ devoid of any sense of humour. ‘Of such men as Aristotle, Milton, Bishop Butler, and Wordsworth, it may be safely said that they wanted the sense of humour’, Bain wrote, ‘but, in sheer negation, probably, they never approached to Auguste Comte.’

Herbert Spencer was also unimpressed. Comte’s physiognomy was ‘unattractive’ although, being ‘strongly marked’, it was at least ‘distinguished from the multitudes of meaningless faces one daily sees.’ Spencer did not recall a great deal of the conversation that passed between himself and Comte: ‘I remember only that hearing of my nervous disorder, he advised me to marry; saying that sympathetic companionship of a wife would have a curative influence.’ This, Spencer noted, was a point of agreement between Comte and Thomas Huxley who, many years later, also ‘suggested that I should try what he facetiously called gynœopathy: admitting however that the remedy had the serious inconvenience that it could not be left off if it proved unsuitable.’

An illustration of the Comte library noted as the room in which La Politique Positive was written

An illustration of the Comte library noted as the room in which La Politique Positive was written

During a visit to Paris in 1865, some years after Comte’s death, George Eliot and G. H. Lewes thought the great positivist’s former home the most interesting thing they saw. Eliot wrote to a friend: ‘We thought the apartment very freundlich, and I flattered myself that I could have written better in the little study there than in my own.’ In the 1890s, the artist Thomas Sulman and his wife sent new year cards to their fellow English positivists, offering ‘Fraternal Greetings from Finchley’, which bore an image of the library in Comte’s apartment, with the caption ‘Room in which La Politique Positive was written’.

Truly devoted Comteans today can visit not only the Maison d’Auguste Comte, but also a surviving Chapel of Humanity at 5 Rue Payenne; Comte’s grave at the Père Lachaise cemetery (including a monument erected by Brazilian positivists in 1983); a statue of Comte at the Place de la Sorbonne; and the Rue Clotilde de Vaux, named after the woman who was the inspiration for Comte’s Religion of Humanity and its associated ideal of altruism.

There is an informative article on Auguste Comte at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and more information on Comtean locations in Paris at the ‘Invisible Paris’ blog.