It is Time to Change the History of Science
“The first nation (to have cultivated science) is India. This is a powerful nation having a large population, and a rich kingdom (possession). India is known for the wisdom of its people. Over many centuries, all the kings of the past have recognized the ability of the Indians in all the branches of knowledge.” So wrote Ṣa`id al-Andalusi (1029 – 1070), a noted eleventh century natural philosopher from the Muslim Spain, in his influential book, Tabaqat al `Umam (Book of the Categories of Nations). Sa`id assembled perhaps the first global history of science in which he considered the contributions of eight nations: the Indians, the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Arabs and the Hebrews.He chose India to be the top nation in science.
In 2000, the world’s largest scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), published a timeline of major events in the history of scientific discovery and invention. Titled the “Endless Pathways of Discovery,”this timeline appearedin the Association’s journal, Science, one of the world’s most prestigious and widely read periodicals. Science,in fact,serves not only as a platform for front-edge research in various fields, but a source of news and other information for anyone interested in the sciences, from professional researchers and science writers to lay people. Thus, its timeline covering premodern times to the late 20th century must be seen as having some influence, like Sa`id’s. Yet what do we find? A mere three mentions, out of total 100, from nations other than Greece and Europe. India has two of these, for inventing the zero and making astronomical observations, while the third is for the Mayan “skywatchers.”Nothing of worth is noted for Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Persia, or medieval Islam. The message is clear as a desert night sky: no civilizations beyond ancient Greece and Europe ever contributed important knowledge or innovations to the long evolution of world science.
We are left, therefore, with a nagging question. What has happened in going from the year 1000 to 2000, from Sa`id al-Andalusi to the AAAS? Does it agree better with the historical record to erase the majority of the non-Western world from the history of science, while demoting India to a nation that has barely contributed at all? If not, are there larger reasons than accuracy alone for putting back the greater world into this history?
Such are among the questions we ourselves set out to answer in arecent book, A History of Science in World Cultures: Voices of Knowledge(Routledge, 2015). Tracing the evolution of technical knowledge in a number of major cultures, while also focusing on a broad range of specific case studies of scientific advance, our book reveals two key truths: first, that the history of science in the premodern era must be understood as a global history, even more global than Sa`id al-Andalusi believed; and second, that this global history is not at all a thing of the distant past but very much alive in the scientific thought and practice of the present day.
We chose to examine no less than eight major civilizations. A detailed look at the evolution of scientific and technological development in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Greece, China, Islam, and the New Worldshows beyond any doubthow this varied, pluricultural knowledge came to impact the European Renaissance, setting the stage for the 17th century Scientific Revolution. By comparing the achievements of these world civilizations, a number of central themes emerge as central to the evolution of scientific knowledge in human history.
Among these themes are: the importance of practical, theoretical, and also spiritual demands in advancing technical knowledge; the key role of influence that different scientific cultures had upon one another; the place and power of writing in scientific advance; visions of mathematical order in the universe and its visual representation; and what elements of the distant scientific past we continue to depend upon today. Topics often left unexamined in histories of science are treated in detail, such as the chemistry of mummification and the Great Library in Alexandria in Egypt, jewelry and urban planning of the Indus Valley, hydraulic engineering and the compass in China, the sustainable agriculture and dental surgery of the Mayas, and algebra and optics in medieval Islam.
Throughout, we return to the theme of science’s living past. Take the subject of numbers, for example. Each civilization had its own system, as we might expect—but not entirely. Every time we write down a number today, we are employing a system of 10 symbols (including zero) invented in India before the 8th century, a system then refined by Muslim mathematicians between the 9th and 13th centuries, then transferred to and later finalized in Europe, where they gained the misnomer “Arabic.”
Other illustrations are abundant. Transfer of scientific writings from Arabic into Latin in the late medieval period involved the retention of many Arabic terms: alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alkali, azimuth, elixir, monsoon, mummy, nadir, ream, sugar, and zenith. Going back much earlier, we find that the Babylonians developed the 360-degree circle and 60-minute hour that the Greeks later adopted. The Egyptians chose 24 hours for the duration of a day. The Chinese developed paper, printing, gunpowder, the compass, and acupuncturethrough the use of experimentation and documented observation. This applies no less to certain premodern civilizations in terms of medical knowledge, including surgical techniques, drugs and salves, psychological treatments, and prosthetics. If, in the 1600s, Isaac Newton was treated for fever with leaches, Chinese doctors could choose any of several herbal drugs, such as Fructus Zizyphi Jujubae (“black jujube”), while native peoples of Central and South America could employ quinine. Here, it is notable that the 2015 Nobel Prize for medicine was shared by researcher Tu Youyou, who isolated the active agent from a traditional herbal remedy for fever and used it to successfully treat malaria patients.
Focusing on Hindu contributions, we find that in different regions of the world, the base-10 numeral systemcompeted with systems from other cultures for eventual dominance. This happened early on in the Middle East,where the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian systems were known, stem.Some thinkers rejected the foreign Hindu system as it was indicative of Hindu dominance in their minds. Theyclung to the Roman or the Greek numeralsfor centuries since these systems were a part of the Christian world. Local decrees were issued against the use of one or another system, loyalties were defined by their use, lobbies were formed where the superiority of one system over the other was debated/discussed. Severus Sebokht (died, 662 A.D.), a Syrian natural philosopher mentions of such a rivalry between the Greek and Hindu numerals:
I will omit all discussion of the science of the Hindus, a people not the same as Syrians, their subtle discoveries in the science of astronomy, discoveries which are more ingenious than those of the Greeks and the Babylonians; their valuable method of calculation; their computing that surpasses description. I wish only to say that this computation is done by means of nine signs. If those who believe, because they speak Greek, that they have reached the limits of science, should know these things, they would be convinced that there are also others [Hindu] who know something.
This appears to confirm that Hindu numerals were in use by the seventh-century in Arabia.
In astronomy, an advanced tradition of scientific observation and mathematical characterization began very early in India. The spherical shape of the Earth was recognized by the ancient Hindus, possibly as early as the composing of the Vedas. In the Hindu scientific tradition, analogies drawn from nature, including poetic ones, were often used to give concepts an ordinary but also aesthetic visibility and to suggest the deep connections running through the cosmos at every level. The great 6th c. A.D. mathematical astronomer, Aryabhaṭa, for example,in his epochal work Aryabhatiya,employed a flower to demonstrate the distribution of various life forms on the Earth:
Half of the sphere of the Earth, the planets, and the asterisms is darkened by their shadows, and half, being turned toward the sun, is lighted according to their size. The sphere of the earth, being quite round, situated in the center of space, in the middle of the circle of asterisms [constellations or stars], surrounded by the orbits of the planets, consists of water, Earth, fire, and air. Just as the ball formed by a kadamba flower is surrounded on all sides by blossoms just so the Earth is surrounded on all sides by all creatures terrestrial and aquatic.
The motion of the stars that we observe in the sky, he stated, is an illusion. To explain the apparent motion of the Sun, heused an analogy of a boat in a river. “As a man in a boat going forward sees a stationary object moving backward just so in Sri-Lanka a man sees the stationary asterisms moving backward exactly toward the West.”The interpretation is that a person standing on the equator of Earth, that rotates from the West to the East, would see the asterisms (constellations or stars) moving westward. The other part of this analogy worth noting is that Aryabhata’s Earth was not stationary; it had diurnal motion.
But the moment one assigns spin motion to the Earth, it opens up a Pandora’s box of other questions, the most pressing of which is: Does the Sunstill need an orbit to revolve around the Earth? For if the Earth rotates, there is no need to invoke the Sun’s motion to explain day and night. Yet nowhere in the Aryabhatiya does the author struggle with this question. It is a fact that has intrigued astronomers for some time.
According to a detailed analysis given by B. L. van der Waerden, the motion of Mercury and Venus, as given by Aryabhata,describe in a heliocentric model. He also backs up this conclusion by considering a unique point in the Āryabhaṭīya: “It is highly probable that the system of Aryabhatawas derived from a heliocentric theory by setting the center of the Earth at rest.”This work was published in an edited book by David A. King and George Saliba, both established astronomers, and published by the New York Academy of Science, a prestigious organization.
A History of Science
By Scott Montgomery and Alok Kumar
It is striking to discover that a number of ancient civilizations developed their own methods for calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle. We call this the “Pythagorean Theorem,” but this is no less a misnomer than “Arabic numerals.” The Chinese, Babylonians, and Hindus solved the right triangle problem individually and earlier than the Greeks, a fact that suggests it defined a key mathematical issue in several domains, such as agriculture, architecture, and military matters. In the Hindu Sulba Sutra, for example, dated to the early first millennium B.C., a solution is given in these words: “Increase the side of the original square by a third, and this third by its own fourth less the thirty-fourth part of that fourth. This will be the diagonal.” That is:
a + (a/3) + (a/3 x 4) – (a/3 x 4 x 34) = 1.4142156a.
For a = 1, this gives us the value of √2. The actual value of √2 is 1.414213, so we can say the above is accurate to five decimal places. No evidence of how this rule was obtained, nor the similar rules for changing squares into circles and vice versa, is ever mentioned, unfortunately. Scholars have come up with a number of ingenious ways by which such proportions were derived. Yet these rules might also strike us today as something generalized from “experiment,” or rather experience—using bricks to physically lay out the desired transformations and then measuring the dimensions (doing this even repeatedly), rather than deriving them mathematically.
One final area we might briefly examine is medicine. Needless to say, this was a focus of much empirical knowledge, as well as testing, experimentation, and also religious involvement. It had to respond to a wide variety of needs, from illness to injury, some of them even bordering on the unexpected or macabre. In ancient India, earlobes or the nose were cut off as punishment for certain serious crimes. For example, in the epic poemRamayaṇa,composed sometime between the first and fifth centuries B.C., a woman, Surpanakha, sister of Ravana, loses both her nose and earlobes. Ravana takes care of the problem by asking his surgeon to reconstruct the lost features for his sister, suggesting that such prosthetics were fairly common. In fact, it is likely they were, since the physician Sushruta, known as the “Father of Plastic Surgery” lived centuries earlier, between 1000 and 800 BC. Noses or earlobes were repaired using an adjacent skin flap. This procedure is popularly called as “the Indian method of rhinoplasty.” Live flesh from the thigh, cheek, abdomen, or the forehead was used to make the new artificial parts.
Such are among the many examples and forms of evidence shared in our book, revealing the extent to which non-Western cultures, not merely Greece as the AAAS might have it, contributed significantly to the world history of science.
We are living in a world where violent extremism is on the rise. In such environment, it is essential to teach a common history of humanity. Practicing this will allow a homogeneity in our society. We admit that slowly the situation is improving. However, books, such as ours, are still like a flash in the night sky and do not form a pattern. Although AAAS did not find any important scientific discovery among the Arabs, the United Nations rightly chose to declare 2015 as the year of light and of Ibn Al-Haytham, to recognize his seminal contributions to optics.