Monday, July 19, 2010

Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science--from the Babylonians to the Maya

Okay, this is the last of the books I picked up when checking out child development books. (So I'm easily distracted, what can I say.) It was an interesting read, but annoying too because I found the author's style of writing distracting and poorly planned. For instance, he jumped around so frequently without any explanation that I had a hard time following which culture he was talking about, despite the fact that I already knew most of the information he was presenting. Also, his own personal biases were hard to miss (as when talking about the big bang theory--he's actually very much a creationalist).

He starts out the book by explaining that most of Europe and US teach Greeks were the great scientists, Arabs acted as storehouse of Greek knowledge until it was rediscovered again during the Renaissance. That was what I was taught, by the way. He then cited how a more PC, multi-cultural approach is becoming popular and how he thought it was hogwash and so started to write a book on how it really was the Greeks--only to find that that's not correct and the multi-cultural approach is more accurate. All well and good, if only it had come across as sincere and not a gimmick. However, throughout the books there's little comments here and there ridiculing the societies and concepts he's vaulting as so advanced, which was more convincing that he truly had begun writing a book saying the Greeks were the only advanced society in the way of the sciences, yet at the same time it came across really crass. I think he meant them to be funny, only they weren't.

I did enjoy his explanation of why so much of non-Greek science is dismissed; mostly because it was used for religious and superstitious reasons, (yet religion still plays such a large role in our society and science to this day). Or because the sciences were only used for practical purposes, or how things which had no proof were dismissed, or because things were only theorized yet not experimented upon they were dismissed, or because things were only experimented upon and not theorized they were dismissed. (Yes, notice the double standards?) For instance, the Indians, Babylonians, and Egyptians all used the Pythagorian theorem centuries before Pythagoras, in fact Pythagoras is thought to have learned it in his travels East and only created a proof when his less numeral-literate countrymen wouldn't believe it. His proof is really his major contribution. And also how Copernicus when making his model of the universe used two theorems of math that he offered no proof or explanation for, yet were *new* to Europe, and are considered by some mathematicians as important as his solar system model. Copernicus didn't act like they were new, because they weren't new. He studied at Padua, where Arab texts were readily available, and the theorems, discovered by Arabs, were well known and well documented in Arab texts there. However in Europe at that time, attributing anything to Arabs would have been suicide. And those stories go on and on.

Another random note: Stigler's law of eponymy--formulated by statistician Stephen Stigler states that no scientific discovery is named after it's original discoverer, which is true even of Stigler's law. Hee. Hee.

My favorite chapter was on Cosmology. He points out how our cosmology (the Big Bang) is treated like a religion and quotes cosmologist Edward Harrison, "The universe in which we live, or think we live, is mostly a world of our own making. The real Universe is unknown; it is everything, and we will never know what it is in its own right, independent of our changing opinions. There are, however, universes, which are our models of the Universe, and cosmology is a study of these universes. A universe is a mask fitted on the face of the unknown Universe. Our universe is the only rational universe. Ones that came before us are mythologies. Contemporaries who disagree with our cosmology are crackpots. Cosmoslogy is a new-time religion." Those disagreeing contemporaries committ professional suicide. (As a side note, I found it interesting that instead of discussing ancient advances in cosmology, almost the whole chapter is ridiculing our current big bang theory. Again, not that I disagree, I just find it amusing. Although he mocked Stephen Hawking too--Ruff!) He does point out how similar our Big Bang theory is to Indian cosmology. Indians are very abstact thinkers, I have to say. I loved just thinking about this (from a 9th century Hindu text):

Some foolish men declare that Creator made the world....

If God created the world, where was he before creation?
If you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he now?
No single being had the skill to make this world--
For how can an immaterial god create that which is material?

How could God have made the world without any raw material?
If you say he made this first, and then the world, you are faced with endless regression.

If you declare that this raw material arose naturally you fall into another fallacy.
For the whole universe might thus have been its own creator, and arisen equally naturally.

Know that the world is uncreated, as time itself is, without beginning and end....
Uncreated and indestructible, it endures under the compulsion of its own nature.

The author suggests to read the above paragraph again and substitue "Big Bang" in for God and Creator. Fun stuff. Or here's a Maori chant that he compared to an alternative theory of a plasma universe.

From the nothing the begetting
From the nothing the increase
...The power of increasing
The Living Breath;
It dwelt with the empty space,
And produced the atmosphere which is above us
...The great firmament above us dwelt with the early dawn
And the moon sprung forth;
The atmosphere above us dwelt with the heat,
And thence proceeded the sun
...Then the heavens became light.

In another chapter about physics, he talks about Zoroastrianism (the Babylonian religion), and how their physics interprets light and darkness not only as physical but also as God is light literally, and the Devil is darkness, literally. From that came another belief system where two opposing brothers suggest a theory of matter and energy. Where the one brother makes a world of pure light, and then later a second world that was material in nature. The material world was conquered by his evil brother, thus all physical existence became a mixture of good and evil, light and darkness. Anyway, that whole chapter was intereting too. Again, the Indians, have a complex way of looking at the universe, but so often it ties right into what scientists now believe (like the string theory, and quantum physics.) Fascinating.

Now I really need to go do the breakfast dishes as it is almost noon and time for lunch. Ouch.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

Science is boring to me today. But, you are not. Thanks for the review.