Radical thought: The scientific sun rose in the East

Margaret Wertheim is the author of "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet."

Is science a purely Western enterprise? That’s the conventional wisdom drummed out with monotonous regularity in the pages of so many science journals and books. Our science is empirically based, they say; all other systems of knowledge are myths and fabulations. In “Lost Discoveries,” Dick Teresi sets out to demonstrate that, on the contrary, the roots of Western science lie in many other cultures.

As Teresi’s book shows, our science did not spring fully grown from Ionian and Renaissance soil but draws upon a wide variety of work. Egyptians developed the foundations of geometry; Pythagoras’ famous theorem was known to the Babylonians; we inherit our number system, including the critical innovation of zero and the use of a decimal point, from India. Moreover, many cultures made scientific discoveries long before the West came to similar conclusions. In the first millennium BC, Indians posited the idea of atoms. Around AD 1000, the Maya had a sophisticated mathematics and astronomy far in advance of what existed in medieval Europe.

Bias against other scientific traditions is rife in Western culture. In January 2000, Science magazine, the journal of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, published a timeline it called “Pathways of Discovery” that detailed 96 of what the editors deemed the most important scientific achievements in history. Of the 96, just two were attributed to non-Western cultures: the discovery of zero in India and the astronomical observations of the Maya and Hindus. Moreover, the journal gave credit for the printing press to Johannes Gutenberg, although the Chinese and Koreans had invented such devices two centuries earlier. Before 600 BC, the whole of human history was deemed “prescientific,” for in the editors’ view, science began with the Greeks.


Teresi, a noted science writer, rightly wishes to challenge this arrogant Eurocentrism. He begins his wide-ranging discussion with an analysis of what is commonly touted as the definitive start to modern science -- Copernicus’ discovery of the heliocentric cosmos. Far from being the first to hit upon this idea, Copernicus was following in the footsteps of ancient thinkers, notably Aristarchus of Samos, who had proposed a sun-centered system in the 3rd century BC. Copernicus’ debt to Aristarchus is well known: He even acknowledged it in his famous book “Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” More radically, Teresi notes that several hundred years before Aristarchus, Indian scholars “had understood that gravitation held the solar system together, and that therefore the sun, the most massive object, had to be at its center.”

Whether Aristarchus and other Greek helio-centrics, including Pythagoras, were influenced by the Indian tradition is a difficult case to make, though it is not an inconceivable linkage: Pythagorean legend long held that he had been to India. But Teresi has a more solid claim. In constructing his heliocentric model, Copernicus drew upon two novel mathematical theorems that had been discovered by Arab mathematicians, the Urdi lemma (a proposition in geometry) and the Tusi couple (which deals with the problem of how circular motion can generate linear motion). It is possible that Copernicus developed these mathematical insights himself, but there is evidence that he was aware of the earlier Arabic work, though he did not acknowledge it. Thus, says Teresi, the Copernican revolution, so seminal to the whole thrust of modern science, rests on a foundation of Arab scholarship.

Western science indeed owes an enormous debt to the Arab world. During the early Middle Ages, when European scholars turned away from nature to focus their attention on theological issues, Arabs cultivated the disciplines of astronomy, mathematics, optics and mechanics as they built upon the scientific heritage of the ancient Greeks. It was from the Arab world, one learns in “Lost Discoveries,” that Europe in the late Middle Ages got its basic scientific education.

The trouble with Teresi’s book, however, is that he seems incapable of judging scientific achievement in terms other than the degree to which it mirrors current Western concepts in mathematics, physics and cosmology. In a long chapter on physics, for example, he asserts that “[M]any ancient cultures had inklings of quantum mechanics.” What he actually means is that ideas which have come into Western thinking only with the development of quantum physics are similar in spirit to concepts developed hundreds, even thousands, of years ago by Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thinkers.

The idea of a pregnant void and of the fundamental role of chance are foundational to quantum mechanics and to ancient east Asian worldviews. The parallels have been spelled out in detail, and far more lucidly, in Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics” and Gary Zukav’s “The Dancing Wu Li Masters.” But what meaning should we attach to these parallels? For Teresi, the Asian views have validity only to the extent that they mimic the quantum picture. Likewise Indian and Chinese ideas about the constituency of matter are judged by how closely they mesh with contemporary particle physicists’ understanding of quarks and leptons. All other cultures’ creation accounts are adjudicated by their resemblance to big-bang cosmology.

Despite his title, then, the implication is that all other traditions are not truly scientific. At one point he quotes an American physicist who opines that “the Upanishads refer to an imaginary symbolic cosmos. Democritus was talking about the way things really are.” Though Teresi questions this view, one is left with the impression that he too sees non-Western knowledge systems as largely imaginative exercises. Again and again he circles back to the notion that Western science unveils the Truth by which everyone else must be judged.

That idea is fundamentally challenged by scholars of what is sometimes termed “ethnoscience.” Western science, they say, is simply one mode of science, which must be understood as a multivalent phenomenon, sometimes manifesting in radically different guises to any branch of the Western variety. For a good introduction, see Laura Nader’s “Naked Science.”

Thus although Teresi’s intentions are honorable, his book is shot through with the arrogance he wishes to redress. Perhaps that is not surprising given the book’s origin. His interest in the subject, he tells us, sprang from an assignment in the early 1990s, when he set out to write an article about “faulty multicultural science being taught in schools.” To his surprise, he found himself discovering a marvelous new realm of ideas. Teresi wants to share these ideas with us, but “Lost Discoveries” reads as if he is still trying convince himself that there is anything of intrinsic value here.