Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lost Discoveries

Lost Discoveries: the Ancient Roots of Modern Science -- from the Babylonians to the Maya
© 2002 Dick Teresi

I spotted this while collecting books for a paper on the emergence of Renaissance science, and it looked so interesting that I knew I’d be reading it properly instead of scanning and making notes. I’m glad I did, for it’s as enjoyable a book about human history and science as I’ve ever read.

Author Dick Teresi establishes from the start that while the traditional western-centric narrative of scientific progress is simplistic, chauvinistic, and incorrect, previous attempts at a multicultural view of scientific history have repeated those mistakes while being patronizing to boot. The traditional narrative, which Teresi believes began only 150 years ago, holds that science was born in Greece, where it defined the classical world until that era’s demise. While the ideas of the Greeks were kept safe by the Arabs,  scientific progress did not resume until the Renaissance, and science has remained the province of the Western world ever since -- only becoming global after colonialism exported it. Attempts to overturn this narrative have gone so far as to reduce the Greeks to nothing more than unoriginal borrowers, and given rise to wild speculative theories like ancient Egypt having gliders and using the Pyramids as air-control towers.

Teresi hopes -- and I think, succeeds -- with this book to project a broader and fairer view. Chapters on mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry, and technology show that cultures across the globe have all explored the natural world in their ways, and that further, many systems of thought are the result of interplay between these cultures. The combination of Greek and Indian ideas in math, for instance, supplemented the Arab world’s own knowledge in the same. Cultures have had different approaches, often ignoring parts of science while promoting others as their cultural values suggest, but no culture has failed to investigate the world in which they live. The book thus appealed to me in the same way history as a whole does: it reminds me that so many people have lived and asked questions, just as I do, and they have tried to answer those questions in a delightful variety of ways.

There is, however, a difference between explaining the natural world and doing so scientifically. Teresi’s use of science in this book is limited to the popular use of it -- information relating to the world we live in. Lost Discoveries records a range of empirical and speculative approaches on the part of people to find the truth. Only one chapter suffers in content, that of cosmology. After explaining the modern view -- theories based on the big bang -- Teresi then repeats every mythological story that references an eternal universe that begins with massive expansion and that might tend to be cyclical in having a growth, death, and rebirth cycle. This is reaching: those stories are supernatural accounts, not investigations of the natural world. Contemporary science remains based on Greek, Indian, and Islamic math, or uses Babylonian calendars, or used Chinese technology. How are these account of cosmic birth a root or base of modern science? They have their place, but I don’t think it is in this book.

Despite this weakness, the book as a whole is strong. I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it to anyone interested in the global history of our attempts to explain the natural world.  Teresi presents a varied, rich, and fair account that has increased my appreciate for the human heritage as a whole.

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