Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science – from the Babylonians to the Mayans
By Dick Teresi
Simon & Schuster
By John Glassie
(Forbes FYI, December 2002)
Dick Teresi started this project with "the assumption that non-Europeans contributed little to science." As it turned out, he says, he found "mountains of underappreciated human industry, four thousand years of scientific discoveries by people I had been taught to disregard."
The result is a book that often actually makes the Europeans look pretty slack. Take, for example, the Hindu document Rig-Veda, which proposed that gravity held everything together 2,400 years before Sir Isaac Newton made the same proposal. Or take the Chinese, who were using fossils to study the history of the planet about a thousand years before 17th century Oxford scholars dismissed them as "false clues sown by the devil."
There are many such achievements in other cultures. But what about the long-held notion that Western math and science are themselves Western -- that is to say, Greek -- in origin? "If our math today were based entirely on Pythagoras, Euclid, Democritus, Archimedes, et al.," Teresi says, "it would be a highly deficient discipline." The Babylonians devised the place value system. The Indians came up with zero and negative numbers. The Egyptians weighed in with *pi* and the lowest common denominator. And the Arabs, traditionally viewed as mere preservationists of Greek learning during the Middle Ages, contributed crucial theorems upon which the Copernican Revolution is based.
Perhaps the greatest debt of all, for across-the-board innovation, goes to the mighty Sumerians, inhabitants of the Fertile Cresent, inventors of the wheel and writing, both in about 3500 B.C. They were the first to document the stars and the movement of visible planets, and instituted a 12-month, 360-day calendar based on the lunar cycle. These early Mesopotamians were busy: they also developed textiles, pottery, glass, bronze, architectural domes and vaults, weights and measures, canals and dikes.
There's no question that some of the real science conducted in non-European societies over the last few thousand years has served rather superstitious purposes. The Mesoamerican astronomers of a millennium ago, for example, would accurately time "ball games and associated bloodletting events" to an inferior junction of Venus or Jupiter's retrograde. But Teresi asks us to remember that Johannes Kepler, the father of Western planetary astronomy, was into horoscopes.
And he wonders if contemporary particle physicists theorizing about the Higgs bosun -- an "ether-like field that pervades all of space" -- weren't beaten to the punch by Samkhya philosophers of sixth-century-B.C. India. They called it, much more elegantly, *maya*.