Scientific History outside the Western World

I have read a few books chronicling the development of science(predominantly physics and to lesser extents chemistry and biology/medicine) through the ages(Gribbin’s ‘Science: A History‘ being the most recent), to as we know it today.

Invariably, all of them begin more-or-less from Copernicus’ revolutionary idea(no pun intended) of a heliocentric universe. Then they move on to the story of Kepler and Tycho, following it up with Galileo and then finally with the towering genius of Newton and his achievements. Along the way, a few minor characters(Huygens etc.) and their contributions are touched upon. This usually ends the Cosmology section of the book and the author then shifts the topic over to physics(I mean Kinematics, Electromagnetism). Next we have great minds like Watt, Kelvin, Faraday, Maxwell etc. tell their story. Since these events took place between the 18th-20th century, without the Church quashing brilliant minds, the author has a lot to cover with a lot of characters. Finally, we come to the last section of the book which covers the developments of 20th century physics. So we have relativity and quantum physics taking centre stage. We have contributions made(small or big) to the framework of physics in a highly collaborative manner from scientists all over the world – the US, Europe, India, Japan, Russia(USSR then).

All these books, however, take a very western view to the story of science. I always wonder, what was the story of science like in other regions and cultures of the world?

Let us divide the entire history of science from the start of civilization to today, we can broadly divide the timeline into three sections – prehistory(till about 1000 AD), mid-history(from 1000 AD to to about mid-19th century) and modern history(mid-19th century onwards, to date).

During prehistoric times, several civilizations grew more or less together in several different regions. We had the mesopotamian civilization, Harappan(& later the Aryan) civilization in northern India, civilizations in China, Mongolia etc. A little later the Greek and, a little later, the Roman civilizations also came up. By all accounts(which are admittedly western, such as texts by Herodotus, Suetonius, Pliny, Gibbons etc.) we are led to believe that technology progressed equally in all the civilizations. In fact, during prehistory, the shining light of all knowledge was in Alexandria. Major contributions to mathematics came from outside the western world – notably Algebra from the Arabs and the concept of 0 from India.

It is during mid-history that a veil is thrown over our eyes and we see very little of how science progressed outside of Europe. During the time that Europe was in the dark ages, we had cultures flourishing in Asia. The Persians were at their greatest and so were several civilizations in India(the Mughal civilization peaked at the time). Yet, we have now the Copernican revolution and Keplers Laws. To my mind, it is incredible that all other civilizations and cultures had absolutely no scientific progress. Most of the texts that survive now of those periods talk about how great their culture was. We had amazing architecture during the time, some of which are still in great shape. Yet, we know so little of their science. This is not like the Mayan or Aztec civilization which died out(due to various reasons) and took their secrets and science with them. In India, or indeed Asia, we have never had a time in history when a civilization was completely wiped out.

For all the accomplishments in science in the Western world, during mid-history, did civilizations have a corresponding accomplishment? We don’t know. When Copernicus came out with his helio-centric theory, what were other civilizations at? We don’t know. When Newton discovered the laws of gravitation, did other civilizations still believe the earth was flat? No idea.

It is only in modern history, that we see a serious intermingling of the West with East. Sure, this led to the evils of imperialism but it also led to a lot of collaborations in science. We now hear of the Raman Effect, Bose-Einsteinian physics, Bosons, Chandrasekhar Limit only due to this coming-together of cultures.

I am currently on the lookout for books by scientific historians which talk about the developments in Asia(or in fact any non-western civilization). In case any of you out there know any, will be much obliged if you could point it out in the comments.

P.S – While I’ve been complaining about the lack of knowledge on scientific progress in Asia(and predominantly India), we know even less about the different cultures in Africa. North Africa during pre-history was the centre stage for the Egyptian Civilization, one of the most advanced civilizations of the time. After their glory days were behind them, what happened?

2 thoughts on “Scientific History outside the Western World

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