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Lost Discoveries : The Ancient Roots of Modern Science--from the Babylonians to the Maya Hardcover – November 1, 2002
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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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"I began to write with the purpose of showing that the pursuit 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.... "My embarrassment at having undertaken an assignment with the assumption that non-Europeans contributed little to science has been overtaken by the pleasure of discovering mountains of unappreciated human industry, four thousand years of scientific discoveries by peoples I had been taught to disregard."
One reviewer has correctly noted that science consists of reproducible experiments, and I pretty much agree. But not all science is reproducible or even falsified or tested (consider super string theory). While I would not call Indian ideas of vibrations the precursor of quantum physics, I would not go as far as Morris Kline, whom Teresi noted characterized Babylonian and Egyptian math as the "scrawling of children, and called Indian mathematicians "fools."
Teresi's book is full of eye-opening accounts of ancient science that was as much real science as anything our "scientists" of 300 or 400 years ago cooked up. Is map-making a science? Chinese made Mercator projection maps almost 2000 years ago. Is astronomy a science? Ancient Chinese not only kept records of but also predicted solar and lunar eclipses. And recently Nasa has referred to ancient Chinese records in their efforts to determine how much the earth's rotation has slowed down. They used ancient Chinese records because they were meticulous, scientific observations.
Of course, Teresi's book is so chock full of facts that, inevitably, he slipped up on some. For example, on page 240 he wrote that "According to Confucius, there are also records of drilling with bamboo poles for natural gas in Szechwan in 211 B.C." Indeed, there was such drilling (2000 feet deep!), but if Confucius wrote about it, he was also a prophet, because Confucius died 268 years before this. But everyone, even an ex editor of Omni, slips up.
If writing this book opened Teresi's eyes, it can also open readers' eyes--unless they are determined to restrict the definition of science so narrowly that even some modern physics would not qualify.
I highly recommend this book. And if you're interested in ancient Chinese inventions, as I am, having lived in China over 20 years (in Xiamen, former Amoy), I highly recommend "Chinese Science and the West", written a couple decades ago by Clarke. Absolutely intriguing--and objective (based, I think, on a BBC series).
Non-Western scientific background is definitely a topic worthy of a book for the general reader, and, although there's some fascinating stuff here (and a solid bibliography that will expand anyone's reading list), "Lost Discoveries" suffers from several shortcomings. One problem is the book's organization. Teresi divides his discussion into distinctions that were unknown a few centuries ago--mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry, and technology--and then divides each of these chapters by localities. As a result, the book has little narrative flow and makes for some awfully dry reading--the type of disconnected paragraphs one usually finds in textbooks or reference works. I found it difficult to read this book for more than a few pages at a stretch.
Furthermore, since modern scientific specialties were, of course, unknown to ancient investigators, his categorization results in some odd choices. For example, beliefs concerning the shape of the earth (round, flat, or square) are discussed in geology as well as cosmology. Similarly, he arbitrarily divides up the work of alchemists among several chapters. Since ancient and medieval studies span many disciplines, there is a lot of annoying (and often verbatim) repetition: we read about the yin-yang duality and ch'i in the sections on astronomy, physics, geology, and chemistry; about Jainism with regards to cosmology, physics, and chemistry; and how Avicenna influenced physics, geology, and chemistry.
Teresi was cofounder of Omni Magazine, which had a reputation (some might call it notoriety) for including articles on topics that strayed well beyond science and into paranormal exploration and New Age quackery. Although "Lost Discoveries" is usually on firmer scientific ground, the author occasionally recalls his earlier career with an eager enthusiasm to find direct or symbolic connections between ancient learning and modern scientific investigation. This is particularly true in his chapter on cosmology. (Teresi's obvious distaste for Big Bang theory doesn't help here.) The Mangaian creation myth, describing an infant universe emerging from a coconut root, may offer interesting literary and cultural insights, but it in no way "anticipates" modern cosmological theories of an inflationary universe. Elsewhere, it's simply preposterous to find intimations of quantum theory in the ancient Indian "yadrccha" (chance) or of the Higgs field in the Buddhist "maya" (the weight of the universe). One may as well argue that William Bennett is a quantum physicist every time he walks into a casino.
It's too bad that Teresi didn't organize his research by civilization and time period, compare these societies on their own terms (rather than ours), chart their influences on each other and on subsequent cultures, and avoid misguided attempts to find inklings of 21st-century theories and knowledge in every ancient myth. Readers looking for a stronger investigation of the wonders of non-Western science, technology, and civilization should check out Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" or Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's "Civilizations."
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