The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science
Arun Bala challenges Eurocentric conceptions of history by showing how Chinese, Indian, Arabic, and ancient Egyptian ideas in philosophy, mathematics, cosmology and physics played an indispensable role in making possible the birth of modern science.
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Uncovering modern science’s non-European roots.
Reviewed by Jeffery Ewener"THE DIALOGUE OF CIVILIZATIONS IN THE BIRTH OF MODERN SCIENCE"
xii + 230 pages
In the spring of 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus lay dying. His great work – The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres – was, at the urging of his supporters and despite his own misgivings, now at the printers. According to legend, a copy of the book was rushed from the press to Copernicus’s bedside and placed in his hands before he died.
This was the book that launched the modern world – beginning with the unprecedented transformation of our understanding of the natural world, generally known as the Scientific Revolution.
Just as today, when astronomers and cosmologists use the latest mathematical models to re-think old assumptions and justify radical new theories, so Copernicus based his work on the most advanced mathematics and astronomy of his day. And in the early 16th century, these came from Iraq, where the Maragha School, a group of Arab scholars named for the Maragha observatory in the arid mountains of western Iran, had for centuries produced the most accurate mathematical updates to the standard Ptolemaic model of planetary motion.
This use by Copernicus of the work of scientists from the Islamic world was recognized only some fifty years ago, and was immediately controversial. It was clear that Copernicus could not have used the original Ptolemaic models inherited from the Greeks, or he could not have made his heliocentric system work. But now it appeared that his revolutionary new astronomy depended crucially on Arab scientists and their mathematical models, except where he reversed the relative positions of the earth and the sun.
Of course, the whole point of Copernicus is that he reversed the positions of the earth and sun. He raised our world into the heavens to sit among the stars, initiating what would become modernism’s apotheosis of nature itself. It hardly detracts from the greatness of this achievement that he obviously had precursors. He, as Newton said of himself, “stood on the shoulders of giants”.
But that raises the question addressed by Arun Bala, in this slender and erudite book. Who exactly were those giants?
What makes this question interesting – and not some 500-year-old game of journalistic gotcha – is the way world history pivots so abruptly around Copernicus’s deathbed. The hundred and fifty years that followed him were filled with names that even the least scientific of us knows – Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton – brilliant minds at work on a common project to test and measure and analyze the world around us, eventually coming to understand it more systematically than human beings ever had before.
But the effect of this Scientific Revolution was wider still, for it demonstrated the sheer explanatory power of a rational, empirical approach to the natural world. In the 18th century this same approach was applied to the social world, stimulating new and hugely consequential ideas of popular sovereignty and economic freedom. Applied to mechanics, it powered the Industrial Revolution. Out of these arose a new world – military, economic, artistic, philosophical, psychological – which had energy and appetite enough to reproduce itself across the globe.
From the Scientific Revolution, then, the modern world seems to simply unfold, like a flower from its bud. Those who love modernity – for its technological marvels, its spectacular wealth, its personal freedom – as well as those who hate it – for its social breakdown, its vapid consumerism, or the 13,000 children it lets starve to death each day – all agree upon its provenance. The modern world, and modern science which made it possible, began in Europe, spread out from Europe, were a gift or curse from Europe to the rest of the world.
Bala systematically undermines this