Boldly challenging conventional wisdom, acclaimed science writer and Omni magazine cofounder Dick Teresi traces the origins of contemporary science back to their ancient roots in an eye-opening account and landmark work. This innovative history proves once and for all that the roots of modern science were established centuries, and in some instances millennia, before the births of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. In this enlightening, entertaining, and important book, Teresi describes many discoveries from all over the non-Western world -- Sumeria, Babylon, Egypt, India, China, Africa, Arab nations, the Americas, and the Pacific islands -- that equaled and often surpassed Greek and European learning in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry, and technology. The first extensive and authoritative multicultural history of science written for a popular audience, Lost Discoveries fills a critical void in our scientific, cultural, and intellectual history and is destined to become a classic in its field. Get a FREE e-book by joining our mailing list today! Plus, receive recommendations for your next Book Club read.
|Published (Last):||12 July 2005|
|PDF File Size:||16.54 Mb|
|ePub File Size:||1.77 Mb|
|Price:||Free* [*Free Regsitration Required]|
Michael S. Now considered a classic, this book first introduced students to the significance of Babylonian and Egyptian astronomy and mathematics while other researchers were still focusing on the ancient Greeks. As graduate students, however, we both approached the text as an unwanted assignment on a topic of little interest, and found the material incomprehensibly dull and overly historiographical.
Yet, in the intervening years, we have come to appreciate Neugebauer's work, not just for its novel subject matter, but also for its conclusions on the importance of the transmission of knowledge among cultures. We even appreciate its dullness. Someone had to do the painstaking work of finding the sources, going through the archives, and translating the material.
Neugebauer's book is still dull, but it is also powerful. We couldn't wait to read Teresi's book, hoping that the work would be both powerful and lively. Since one of us is an assistant professor and the other a graduate student with ample teaching experience, we are perhaps overly sensitive to teaching issues of diversity in our undergraduate courses, including the history of science and technology.
Non-western science--from Japanese theories of evolution to indigenous knowledge before Columbus--plays an increasingly central role in our teaching. We hoped Teresi's book would be just the text for our endeavors. Dick Teresi is a science writer and former editor of Omni magazine, and his book is written in a popular style for a broad audience.
This makes Lost Discoveries easily readable, filled with interesting stories and humorous anecdotes. It is far from dull. But, it is also not very powerful. To his credit, Teresi absorbed an enormous amount of scholarly literature, from Neugebauer to Joseph Needham to Alfred Crosby, and has synthesized that secondary literature into a comprehensive survey of the importance of non-Western cultures in the history of the mathematical and physical sciences.
But unlike our experience with Neugebauer, we found the text exciting but short on meaningful discussions. Each chapter covers a different "science," beginning with mathematics, followed by astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry, and ending with technology. His thesis is that much of Western science was preceded by, or actually taken from, non-Western sources. The material, however, is not new, and Teresi shies away from engaging in important historiographical issues brought up by the text itself.
Teresi is probably correct that the "prevailing opinion" 6 still holds that modern science owes very little to non-European cultures. He cites, for instance, a recent issue of Science magazine 14 January where a timeline listed the most important scientific discoveries throughout history. Teresi amasses a long list of scientific discoveries and technological inventions to correct such a telling oversight. All three inventions, for instance, that Francis Bacon noted as contributing to the beginning of the modern world--gunpowder, the compass, and paper and printing--were invented first by the Chinese.
The Babylonians developed the Pythagorean theorem fifteen centuries before Pythagoras and Chinese mathematicians calculated a value of pi a thousand years before Europeans.
The long litany of non-Western discoveries and contributions to science can be persuasive in Teresi's repackaging, but he skirts some of the more fundamental questions concerning the act of "discovery" and the transmission of those discoveries across cultures.
The Babylonians developed the Pythagorean theorem, but they did not provide a geometrical proof, the beauty of Pythagoras's work. Which is more important and why? The Chinese came up with a value of pi, but it is unclear if they understood irrational numbers, an interesting question that Teresi does raise, but relegates to a long endnote It is one thing to assert that gravitation holds the universe together, as did the Hindu Rig-Veda over two thousand years before Newton; it is quite another to do what Newton did: produce a mathematical system based on the law of universal gravitation that answers questions ranging from the motion of planets and comets, to the shape of the earth and the motion of the tides.
How do we judge such complex questions of priority in "discovery? On the one hand, he attempts to blur the definition of science, arguing against any strict difference between science and, say, alchemy or astrology.
This leads Teresi to argue that we should not use Western notions to judge Eastern concepts. On the other hand, he insists on comparing non-Western science to Western values and definitions. He often begins with Western notions--be it gravity, or zero, or the big bang--and explains earlier, non-Western notions as similar to, predating, and often influencing the modern concepts.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his discussion of cosmology. He notes that creation stories from all around the world, past and present, fall into rather simple categories. One of these categories includes those cosmologies where creation comes into being spontaneously and without cause. He examines a host of different cosmologies, from a Hindu version where the universe is hatched from a golden egg, to a Mangaia Oceania version where the universe grows from a coconut root.
The interesting and, we think, problematic conclusion is that these cosmologies are similar to the modern day big bang theory, where the universe also spontaneously comes into being without cause. That the Hindu or Oceania versions come from a religious foundation, argues Teresi, should not separate them from cosmologies thought up in modern astronomy laboratories. There are indeed similarities among modern and ancient cosmologies--most notably that they all attempt to understand how we got here--but these similarities tend to break down upon closer scrutiny.
The telling point is the differences, not the similarities. This again becomes a problem in his discussion of the similarities between the modern-day Higgs field--a hypothetical field that pervades all of space and gives weight to particles--and what the Hindus referred to as "maya"--that which gives illusory weight to the universe. Discussing the similarities between the two, Teresi notes that the "Indians came closest to modern ideas of atomism, quantum physics, and other current theories" The two are indeed similar in the most general of senses, but too general for such a statement to bear the weight of meaning or significance.
Teresi's discussion of mathematics and astronomy is stronger and more convincing, perhaps because more work has been done on these subjects by past researchers. Teresi argues that the foundation of Western mathematics was an "intellectual gift from the Indians, Egyptians, Chinese, Arabs, Babylonians, and others" He examines in some detail the types of mathematics practiced in each of these cultures.
His discussion of astronomy follows a similar course. The Babylonians, notes Teresi, greatly influenced Greek astronomers, a point that can be seen in Ptolemy's Almagest, the foundation text for ancient Western science. They developed the zodiacal reference system, dated eclipses, and used the degree as the basic unit of angular measurement. The Egyptians, too, played a significant if unsung role, giving us our day year as well as the division of the day into 24 hours. Teresi spends some time on India, noting that it served as the "crossroads and catalyst between the past and future of the science [of astronomy]" Unfortunately, only India serves this "crossroads" function, and he rarely looks at the diffusion of knowledge among cultures or the roles played by trade and exploration.
And even with India, he focuses more on the thesis that India developed its own science rather than India's role in the translation of science to the West. The most pressing questions, we believe, are not who discovered what and when, but how scientific knowledge is transferred between and among cultures.
Moreover, as the question of what constitutes a "discovery" is a tricky one, we believe he is wrong to attribute our past deference to include non-Western notions as simply "too damaging to our Western pride" 5 and The limitations of language and the scarce amount of and accessibility to sources are more at fault than European pride or prejudice.
A good example is the case of Mesoamerican culture, where little written record exists. Historians and archeologists, however, have begun to find other ways to uncover their accomplishments, most notably, through the new field of archaeoastronomy.
Teresi outlines these new advances. The Mayans developed a complex calendrical system dating back to B. They also produced astronomical tables that positioned not only the moon and Sun, but also Mars and Venus.
He also outlines the fascinating contributions of the American Indians to what we would call pharmacology and psychopharmacology, demonstrating that indigenous medicine was not mere happenstance, but involved a complex process and understanding of flora and fauna.
Again, none of this information is new, but Teresi does introduce American Indians' views of nature and the cosmos in an informative framework in which to compare and contrast with European science. Teresi's discussion of geology, chemistry, and technology are far less interesting, as he falls back on a long list of non-Western accomplishments in these separate areas.
The aim of incorporating the viewpoints and "lost" traditions of cultures other than Anglo-American and European should move beyond documenting their many mathematical and scientific achievements.
We look at other cultures, other previous but "lost" discoveries, to uncover more fundamental questions concerning knowledge creation and systems of values. How is knowledge produced, how is it transferred across cultures, and what changes occur during this transference and why; what are the social, political, economic, and cultural forces which sustain scientific and technological development; and most importantly, what does this tell us about value systems, judgments, and creative abilities among different cultures?
Teresi fails to confront these questions. He does not mention why Europeans languished while other cultures flourished, nor why these other cultures languished while Europe took the lead. This is the most alarming omission, as the entire book sets the stage for just such a discussion. After eight chapters covering seven different sciences, a "Conclusion" was conspicuously missing. These drawbacks should not blind us to the text's strengths. At one point 87 , Teresi asks, "Are students being adequately informed of the contribution of non-Western cultures?
It could be used, for instance, as a supporting text for the first half of a World Civilization or Western Civilization course, helping to incorporate the history of science as a theme from a cross-cultural perspective.
We would use it for a history of ancient science course for several reasons. First, Teresi does a comprehensive job gathering a considerable amount of material on the science and technology of non-Western cultures; the "select bibliography" covering each chapter is a helpful introduction to this past literature, and could be used by students as a basis for research projects or book reports. Second, it is written in a journalistic style, full of wit and excitement that other texts covering similar material have failed to use.
These are the strengths of the book: its repackaging of a large amount of secondary material in an easily readable and enjoyable style. Dick Teresi tentatively raises interesting questions about what it means to "discover" something in science, and historiographical questions on how to compare different cultures at different times. He also hints at the importance of the social and cultural backdrop of discovery, as well as the forces required to sustain and advance on such discoveries.
He does not, however, sufficiently answer any of these questions, nor does he expand on the hints. Thus, the third reason we would assign the text would be for what it fails to do.
Lost Discoveries sets up the correct questions, questions that are not answered in the text but ones that students and teachers alike could confront throughout a course on the history of ancient science.
Students probably would not read Otto Neugebauer. They will read Teresi and come to class ready to jump into the good stuff that Teresi fails to cover.
Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read. Want to Read saving…. Want to Read Currently Reading Read. Other editions. Enlarge cover. Error rating book.
The often suppressed or overlooked scientific work of non-Western thinkers is given a clear-eyed airing by science historian Teresi The God Particle , not reviewed and found to be deeply impressive. Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all Science writer Ackerman Ah-Choo!