Tuesday, January 20, 2015

THALES  OF MILETUS (c. 624 – c. 546 BCE)

Famed Thales loved all things aquatic,
Some ice would have made him ecstatic.
“All is water,” he said,
“That’s the world’s magic thread!”
Let's call him the first true fanatic.

Note: There is a mistake in this poem, and it’s a howler.  My daughter, Sophie, thinks that I should be fired from the position of Household Poet Laureate for it, and I agree with her.  “Aquatic”, as anyone with an ounce of familiarity with the English language will tell you, does not rhyme with “ecstatic” or “fanatic”.  But I am going to buck poetic conventions just this once, and go with what we might call “inscriptional rhyming”: if two words end with the same group of letters in the same order, then they are inscriptional rhyming pairs, just like “break” and “bleak”.  

[Update: One of our UCSD graduate students, Ryan Stringer, rightly points out that what I am calling "inscriptional rhyming" is really just what is sometimes called in the poetry biz, "off rhyming".  So what I am thinking of as a howler is really just a stroke of genius!  I knew it!  Just wait till I tell Sophie....]

[Further update: A philosopher friend from the UK, Tom Stoneham, tells me, quite rightly, that "aquatic" actually does rhyme with "fanatic" in his (wonderful) dialect.  This is confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary.  My apologies to those of you living on the other side of the pond.  I did check with Merriam-Webster, and in the United States the two words don't form a perfect rhyme.]

Further Note: Thales really did think that all was (made out of) water.  A reasonable hypothesis, if you think about it.  First, if you’re living on the western coast of Anatolia (now Turkey), what are you looking at all day?  The Mediterranean Sea, of course.  And what is that sea made of?  Water!  And salt, of course, but that is soluble in water, which means that it must be something that can mix with water without being visibly different from water, and the only kind of thing that can do that is, well, water.  (Not well-water, that’s different.)  Second, what is Thales eating in western Turkey?  Obviously, olives.  And what happens when you squeeze an olive?  You get olive oil water.  I know it’s green and it doesn’t mix with water, but it’s liquid, isn’t it?  Third, we humans drink water, by the gallons, especially in the Turkish summer heat.  And we don’t eliminate it.  (Well, we eliminate something, but it’s not potable, so it can’t be water.)  And that means that our bodies must be made out of water.  QED. 

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