Thales and Water

It’s generally thought that Thales was the first Greek philosopher-cum-scientist. I like the story in which he’s walking along a path with an old lady, pointing up to, and telling her all about, the stars – when he trips and falls into the ditch. The old lady looks pityingly, but scornfully, down at him and asks, ‘What’s the good of staring at what’s in the sky, when you can’t see what’s in front of your own two feet?’ Good question!

There were many things these early Greeks didn’t know about the cosmos. Mind you, there are still many things WE don’t know about the cosmos, 95% of which we call ‘dark’ matter and energy – ‘dark’ meaning we haven’t a clue what they are.

There was one thing Thales got right, however, at least in principle. He thought everything in the cosmos ’emerged’ from a single ‘substance’. What he didn’t get right was imagining this was water. If we think about it, however, that’s not such a daft idea – compared with creation myths involving gods, goddesses, superhuman heroes and grotesque monsters etc.

Water, after all, is essential for life – whatever dies, dries. The earth seems to float on water, which is also stored in the sky and falls as refreshing rain. And water is not only a liquid, but becomes solid when cold, and turns into vapour when heated. It’s a very versatile and essential ‘substance’.

What’s fascinating, however, is that our own scientists tell us that there is indeed one ‘thing’ at the root of everything. Everything, from blocks of stone to human beings, is made of atoms, underlying which is a family of sub-atomic ‘particles’, except they’re not really ‘particles’ at all. To cut a long story short, they’re what we might call manifestations of energy. It’s this one ‘thing’, ENERGY, intangible and invisible, that’s the foundation of everything that exists.

The world around us, in other words, in itself, has no colours, sounds, smells, tastes or textures. All these ‘properties’ are supplied by our own human minds, in ongoing, moment by moment, outbursts of stunning creativity. We are all amazingly creative artists, though totally unaware of this, until we start to think things through.

I like the idea that our world is perhaps just a little bit like a children’s ‘join the dots’ colouring book. Continuously, we turn the dots, these manifestations of energy, into lines and shapes, and give them names and locations, colours, tastes, smells, sounds and textures. 

Left to itself, the cosmos doesn’t ‘look like’ anything whatsoever, which maybe doesn’t do wonders for its self-image. Perhaps it’s glad to have brought us into being, to bring itself to noisy, colourful life. So when we get up each morning, let’s continue to raise the curtain, switch on the lights, and play our very own part in this most amazing cosmic show.


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