Toward a Unified Metaphysical Understanding: The Ancient Roots of Science    
 The Ancient Roots of Science
picture 2008-04-30, by John Ringland

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Quotes from a review of the book Lost Discoveries -

The "standard model" of the history of science locates its birth around 600 B.C. in ancient Greece, where the dramatis personae typically include Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, Aristotle and other sages, who laid the modern foundation for math and the sciences. It was this foundation, buried during the Middle Ages, that was rediscovered during the Renaissance. What were the peoples of India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, sub-Saharan Africa, China and the Americas doing all this time? "They discovered fire, then called it quits," Teresi observes sarcastically. He admits starting this exercise "with the purpose of showing that the pursuit of evidence of nonwhite science is a fruitless endeavor. . . . Six years later, I was still finding examples of ancient and medieval non-Western science that equaled and often surpassed ancient Greek learning."

The Babylonians developed the Pythagorean theorem at least 1,500 years before Pythagoras was born. Indian mathematicians performed multiplication and algebra, and even ventured toward calculus, a millennium before Europeans. An Arab astronomer, Ibn al-Shatir, spelled out the theory of planetary motion 150 years before Copernicus. The "Mercator projection" was used by Chinese cartographers centuries before the birth of Mercator. In the third century B.C., physicists in China pretty neatly summarized Newton's first law of motion.

Centuries before Gutenberg, the Chinese used movable type; by A.D. 868 block printing was so widespread that government authorities issued edicts to curtail the proliferation of printed astrological calendars. In order to play their famous ball games, the Aztecs invented vulcanized rubber centuries before Goodyear, and the Chinese were manufacturing "Bessemer steel" nearly 2,000 years before Sir Henry Bessemer "invented" the process. Francis Bacon once commented on the "obscure and inglorious origins" of the magnetic compass, gunpowder, and paper and printmaking, three inventions that he claimed transformed civilization. "They all came from China," Teresi writes, and were invented centuries before the West became aware of them.

The Egyptians first mastered fractions, and Babylonian mathematics essentially created a B.C. version of the calculator, with its tables of reciprocals, squares, cubes, square roots and cube roots. A science historian quoted here says the Babylonian creation of a "place-value notation system" -- a way of writing numbers, for example, with a place for ones, tens, hundreds, and so on -- was similar in impact to invention of the alphabet. The Maya and the Indians of Asia independently created the number zero in the early centuries after the death of Christ. In discovering algebra, the ancients invented a language of science that wouldn't be appreciated for several millenniums. "A modern scientist, measuring lengths in angstrom units and time in femtoseconds, might find himself more comfortable in third-millennium B.C. Egypt than in third-century B.C. Greece or even in 17th-century A.D. Italy," Teresi writes.

Similar advances were recorded in astronomy. Teresi notes that "the ancient Indians, long before Copernicus, knew that the earth revolved around the sun and, a thousand years before Kepler, knew that the orbits of the planets were elliptical; the Arabs invented the observatory and named most of our popular stars; the Chinese mapped the sky; and the Amerindians noted important events with daggers of light or optical snakes that thrill us to this day." An annotated bone fragment dating back 3,500 years demonstrates that the Chinese had by then measured the length of the year to be 365 1/4 days; NASA scientists recently used these "oracle bones" to help determine how much the earth's rotation is slowing down. Humankind's ancient skills in hydrology, metallurgy, mining and steel making, to mention a few areas of practical endeavor, inspire awe and, in the author, a little irony too, about the sometimes lethal nature of multicultural technology transfer: "The Crusaders encountered the sharp end of Saracen weapons, which were made of steel mined in Africa, forged in southwestern India and fashioned in Persia and the Middle East."

"Many ancient cultures had inklings of quantum theory."

There is the Chinese geologist Chang Heng, who in A.D. 132 invented an early seismograph that not only detected earthquakes but indicated the direction in which the primary shock wave originated. We meet the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, one of the early directors of Baghdad's "House of Wisdom" in the ninth century, whose name survives in the term we use for any special method of solving a problem (algorithm). The caliph al-Mamun built an observatory in A.D. 829 with a quadrant 20 feet in radius, dwarfing the celebrated instrument of Tycho Brahe seven centuries later. For those of a more pragmatic bent, the ancient Harappan culture, which flourished from about 3000 to 1500 B.C. in what is now Pakistan and western India, is credited with developing wood-covered sit-down lavatories, built into the outer walls of houses and connected to a sophisticated network of municipal drainage. We even learn that the ancient Egyptians concocted potions using hippopotamus fat to control dandruff.

we encounter the Arab scholar al-Biruni, active around A.D. 1000, who brilliantly analyzes the geology of India as a vast alluvial plain while contemporaries in Europe still interpret the earth through the prism of the biblical flood...

The larger question underlying "Lost Discoveries" is why this astonishing record of human achievement has been ignored or dismissed for so long. Part of our reluctance to acknowledge it may stem, understandably, from cultural pride, although this has sometimes expressed itself in ungenerous ways. Teresi notes that Morris Kline, a prominent American historian of mathematics, once dismissed the mathematical achievements of the Egyptians and Babylonians as "the scrawling of children just learning how to write," and the British historian of science G. R. Kaye is quoted here exhorting his colleagues to search for and celebrate "traces of Greek influence" in the history of knowledge. "Our pop science historians -- Bronowski, Daniel Boorstin, Carl Sagan, et al. -- have certainly been faithful to that directive," Teresi writes. But that is hardly the only reason. "Of the thousands of texts in which the Maya recorded their findings," he also notes, "only four survived the Spanish book burnings." A sad subtext of the entire book is just how precious, and perishable, even fundamental knowledge can be.

we emerge with a tremendous respect for cultures that have had the courage to confront their own belief systems by the logical, systematic and rigorous collection of factual evidence, which is why science has always been considered such a threatening enterprise by defenders of hierarchies and orthodoxies.

The above image was sourced from: Ancient Chinese Technology

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