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Lost Discoveries : The Ancient Roots of Modern Science--from the Babylonians to the Maya Hardcover – November 1, 2002

2.9 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Did Nicolas Copernicus steal his notion that the earth orbited the sun from an Islamic astronomer who lived three centuries earlier? "The jury is still out," writes Dick Teresi, whose intriguing survey of the non-Western roots of modern science offers several worthy arguments that Copernicus in fact ripped off Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. Common belief is that Westerners have been the mainspring of most scientific and technical achievement, but in Lost Discoveries Teresi shows that other cultures had arrived at much of the same knowledge at earlier dates. The Babylonians were using the Pythagorean theorem at least 15 centuries before Pythagoras drew his first triangle, and in A.D. 200 a Chinese mathematician calculated an incredibly accurate value for pi. The Mayans and other Mesoamericans were outstanding sky watchers and stargazers. The greatest advances occurred in math and astronomy, though Teresi also devotes chapters to physics, geology, chemistry, technology, and even cosmology. Sometimes he is a bit overeager to ascribe great thoughts to long-dead people (he casually suggests that "many ancient cultures had inklings of quantum theory"), but on the whole his book is a reliable and fascinating guide to the unexplored field of multicultural science. --John J. Miller

From Publishers Weekly

Science journalist Teresi (coauthor of The God Particle) has combed the literature to catalogue the scientific advances made by early non-Western societies and to determine their impact on Western science. His work spans millennia and encompasses the full extent of the globe. He points out, for example, that five millennia ago the Sumerians concluded that the earth was round. He also provides information on cultures of the Middle East, India, China, Africa and Oceania, as well as a host of New World cultures, predominately those of Mesoamerica. Throughout, readers learn that scientific knowledge of various sorts in diverse forms has been a part of all cultures. In chapters on mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry and technology, Teresi makes a convincing argument that Western science has often been indebted to advances made elsewhere (mineralogy was studied in Africa as early as 5000 B.C.). Teresi is at his strongest in the section on mathematics, where he discusses the evolution of Arabic numerals from the ancient Indians and the earliest conceptualizations of zero and infinity. Much less compelling are his assertions that early societies foreshadowed the ideas of quantum mechanics. Although a bit uneven, Teresi offers a great deal of fascinating material largely ignored by many histories of science.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Later prt. edition (November 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684837188
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684837185
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,785,376 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I'm usually fascinated by histories of science that expand our understanding past the standard picture that science started with the ancient Greeks and has largely been carried out in the West. So I dived into Lost Discoveries with great excitement. Unfortunately, I soon found myself putting the book down and wandering off to other things. Having finally finished it, I see it as a remarkably comprehensive and valuable step towards a broader understanding of early and non-Western scientific contributions, but also as having some significant flaws.
On the positive side, Teresi has gathered together a great deal of scholarly work on Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Maya, and Arab science and mathematics, and presents it clearly and understandably. He more than makes the case that we need to deepen our understanding of the ancient roots of science and broaden our acceptance of the idea that science has existed in many non-Western cultures. Readers will come away not only with these big and very important ideas, but with many fascinating details about advances and discoveries made long before they were made in the West.
On the other side of the ledger, I found myself seriously put off by the author's willingness to present just about any story that ever expressed any culture's mythology about the creation or structure of the cosmos as a meaningful predecessor of current cosmological thinking. Maybe I'm just not post-modern enough to grant equal scientific weight to an ancient creation myth as to the inflationary Big-Bang theory. The ancient story may be poetic and psychologically very meaningful, but it can't predict the primordial percentages of hydrogen and helium, or the wrinkles in the cosmic microwave background.
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Format: Hardcover
This book contains a wealth of facts, many not widely appreciated. However, it is tragically flawed by its confused and ambiguous definitions of science, technology, and mathematics.
Science is the investigation of the natural world using REPRODUCIBLE observations as the ultimate arbitrators of truth and the organization and systemization of those observations. Mathematics is the investigation of the meaning of axiomatic systems using deductive logic as the arbitrator of truth. Technology is the body of knowledge and facilities used by humans to create artifacts. Both science and mathematics are tools in the process of creating technology.
Lacking a clear understanding of these definitions, the author wanders about in the last 4,000 years of history confusing the development of technologies with science, science with mathematics, technology with mathematics, and worst, myth with all three.
Thus, for example, he notes that Pythagorean triples (e.g., 5x5 = 4x4 + 3x3) were know to the ancient Babylonians 1000 years before Pythagoras lived. The Babylonians, however, did not state the theorem or prove it. This distinction is pivotal from the point view of a mathematician. Mathematics as we know it today began when the first theorem was proved.
Likewise, "reproducible observation", the essence of science, did not become an identifiable and prevalent methodology by which to seek truth about the natural world until about the time of Galileo Galilei in Sixteenth Century Europe.
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Format: Hardcover
In "Lost Discoveries," Dick Teresi sets out to prove (and largely succeeds) that many of our science discoveries, previously attributed to Hellenic and other white-European civilizations, were actually preceded by--or flat out ripped off from--non-white, non-Western types, such as the Chinese, Sumerians, Babylonians, Mesoamericans, Africans, Indians, etc. He selects several general areas of scientific endeavor--mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, geology, and mechanical invention--and shows examples from each of how Man's understanding of the laws of the universe is much older than we think. And he names names. The book ends up being a fantastic compendium of science knowledge, with enough interesting trivia to keep the average dinner-party know-it-all armed for a lifetime.
What Teresi explains is that claiming Copernicus was the first to hypothesize that Earth orbits the Sun is like claiming that Columbus was the first to discover America. That ignores the natives, the Mesoamericans, the Vikings, and probably a few more. The same can apparently be said about who decided Earth was round, who invented paper, and on and on. There were plenty of smart thinkers in older times, and their discoveries have been "lost" or ignored for a variety of reasons. These, too, Teresi tries to detail.
Part of Teresi's problem is deciding how to differentiate between a notion and scientific proof. A 3,000-B.C. barbarian looking out across the ocean, noting its curvature, and deducing that Earth is round is not the same as Columbus sailing three ships out there and not falling off. Teresi really begins to stretch matters in favor of the ancients when he drags out their cosmic mythologies and tries to claim its early quantum physics.
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