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Lost Discoveries: The Multicultural Roots of Modern Science from the Babylonians to the Maya Hardcover – 16 Sep 2002

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 453 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (16 Sept. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684837188
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684837185
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 3.6 x 24.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,206,726 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Leon Lederman Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and coauthor of "The God Particle" Wow, Teresi's "Lost Discoveries" is a romp through the history of mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry, and technology. Teresi must have pored through tons of ancient manuscripts and scholarly compendia to unearth a rich mine of historical achievements of largely non-Western civilizations that preceded and enabled the Golden Age of Greece. For science buffs who are curious about 'How do we know?' and 'How did we learn?' this is a spectacular canvas, and it illuminates the power of cultural diversity. Yes, there were peaks in the progress of science, but today science is the only universal culture, the same in the West, East, North, and South. Teresi's important book helps to explain why.

About the Author

Dick Teresi is the author or coauthor of several books about science and technology, including The God Particle. He is cofounder of Omni magazine and has written for Discover, The New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly, and is a frequent reviewer and essayist for The New York Times Book Review. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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THE most important scientific achievement in Western history is commonly ascribed to Nicolaus Copernicus, who on his deathbed published Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By S. Yogendra VINE VOICE on 17 May 2004
Format: Hardcover
Imagine a world without a zero or one where we did not know of what we call the Pythagoras' Theorem. Everything from beautiful buildings to complex space science would probably be impossible. But if you have ever wondered where zero came from or if Egyptian pyramids could really have waited for Pythagoras to propound his theorem, this is the one for you.
The book emerged from the author's honest search for the roots of science. I stress the 'honest' bit because too often, the vast contributions of the Orient, the ancient civilisations and the middle east are easily written off or unacknowledged in the West. Those in the UK are probably familiar with Kilroy's highly inaccurate portrayal of the contributions of the arabic civilisation to the world. But I digress.
Teresi underscores and unravels all those inaccuracies with historical attributions complimented by commentaries from scholars in the field. Written in an easy, smoothly flowing style, with occasional tangents that enrich a thread and bring you neatly back to the starting point to continue, this book is a delightful read of the journey of science (and by that I mean physics, maths, astronomy and all else he has written about), the evolution of the scientific method (as we know it) and how today's science owes so much to ancient civilisations.
It is a bit complex for a young child but would make a wonderful gift for a gifted teenager who is curious and keen on science. If only there were more than 5 stars..
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Mr Gary E Whorwood VINE VOICE on 18 Jun. 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book is an interesting read. Its main focus is to enlighten the reader as to the scientific achievements of various ancient civilisations. It appears to be well researched and whilst it seems to be trying to refute the common perception that most major scientific advances came out of the Western world, it does not go down the route of some other sensationalist works which try and ascribe ludicrous powers to our ancestors (e.g. it doesn't try and claim that the Egyptians had space travel).
This is a reasonably easy read and a fairly interesting walk into history. It doesn't require much scientific background to enjoy. I recommend it to anybody who has a passing interest in either science or ancient history.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 37 reviews
82 of 89 people found the following review helpful
A lot to offer, with a few flaws 1 Dec. 2002
By Robert Adler - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I'm usually fascinated by histories of science that expand our understanding past the standard picture that science started with the ancient Greeks and has largely been carried out in the West. So I dived into Lost Discoveries with great excitement. Unfortunately, I soon found myself putting the book down and wandering off to other things. Having finally finished it, I see it as a remarkably comprehensive and valuable step towards a broader understanding of early and non-Western scientific contributions, but also as having some significant flaws.
On the positive side, Teresi has gathered together a great deal of scholarly work on Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Maya, and Arab science and mathematics, and presents it clearly and understandably. He more than makes the case that we need to deepen our understanding of the ancient roots of science and broaden our acceptance of the idea that science has existed in many non-Western cultures. Readers will come away not only with these big and very important ideas, but with many fascinating details about advances and discoveries made long before they were made in the West.
On the other side of the ledger, I found myself seriously put off by the author's willingness to present just about any story that ever expressed any culture's mythology about the creation or structure of the cosmos as a meaningful predecessor of current cosmological thinking. Maybe I'm just not post-modern enough to grant equal scientific weight to an ancient creation myth as to the inflationary Big-Bang theory. The ancient story may be poetic and psychologically very meaningful, but it can't predict the primordial percentages of hydrogen and helium, or the wrinkles in the cosmic microwave background. Similarly, when Teresi writes that when particle physicists finally find the Higgs boson, they will validate the Buddhist idea of "maya," I found myself wishing that the author had used a finer sieve when chosing what to write about and what to leave out.
Still, anyone who is interested in the history of science, and at all curious about what kinds of science and mathematics predated or paralled the canonical Western scientific tradition, will find Lost Discoveries well worth reading.
Robert Adler, author of Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation
51 of 58 people found the following review helpful
Strong on fact, enfeebled on the philsosophy of science 2 Dec. 2002
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book contains a wealth of facts, many not widely appreciated. However, it is tragically flawed by its confused and ambiguous definitions of science, technology, and mathematics.
Science is the investigation of the natural world using REPRODUCIBLE observations as the ultimate arbitrators of truth and the organization and systemization of those observations. Mathematics is the investigation of the meaning of axiomatic systems using deductive logic as the arbitrator of truth. Technology is the body of knowledge and facilities used by humans to create artifacts. Both science and mathematics are tools in the process of creating technology.
Lacking a clear understanding of these definitions, the author wanders about in the last 4,000 years of history confusing the development of technologies with science, science with mathematics, technology with mathematics, and worst, myth with all three.
Thus, for example, he notes that Pythagorean triples (e.g., 5x5 = 4x4 + 3x3) were know to the ancient Babylonians 1000 years before Pythagoras lived. The Babylonians, however, did not state the theorem or prove it. This distinction is pivotal from the point view of a mathematician. Mathematics as we know it today began when the first theorem was proved.
Likewise, "reproducible observation", the essence of science, did not become an identifiable and prevalent methodology by which to seek truth about the natural world until about the time of Galileo Galilei in Sixteenth Century Europe. Thus, although there has been a great deal of under reporting by European historians of technologies developed by Chinese, Indian and other civilizations, this book fails to make the crucial distinction between science and technological development, the history of which trails back at least 40,000 years and is certainly not confined to white European inventors.
Some scientists, notably Richard Feynman, have claimed that the development of science does not much depend the pre-development of mathematics, asserting that when the scientific need arises the mathematics will be developed by the scientists. However, it is difficult to imagine that Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century science would have occurred had three thousand years of mathematical development not preceded it. The author rightly emphasizes the fact that much of this early mathematics can be attributed to non-Europeans. Unfortunately, this point is almost entirely lost in the jumble of imprecision engendered by the lack of coherent definitions of the disciplines of mathematics and science.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, throughout the book the author repeatedly reports myths or half-baked and unsupported ideas that seem to presage some modern scientific fact or theory, he then implies that the myths were the precursors of the science. For example, 3,000 thousand years ago an Indian cult had the notion that all things consisted of vibrations. The author reports this and then announces that this may have been the beginning of quantum mechanics. It is as though he was rummaging around in garbage dump, found a shoe box, held it up and proclaimed here is the precursor of the radio because it had about the same shape at that of early radios.
This book is worth reading because of its factual content, but constant mental surveillance is required to avoid being caught up in the author's confusion about the nature of the basic entities he is discussing and his persistent tendency to give primitive myths the status of the precursors of modern scientific knowledge.
76 of 89 people found the following review helpful
Trivia Mother Lode 19 Dec. 2002
By Christopher B. Jonnes - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In "Lost Discoveries," Dick Teresi sets out to prove (and largely succeeds) that many of our science discoveries, previously attributed to Hellenic and other white-European civilizations, were actually preceded by--or flat out ripped off from--non-white, non-Western types, such as the Chinese, Sumerians, Babylonians, Mesoamericans, Africans, Indians, etc. He selects several general areas of scientific endeavor--mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, geology, and mechanical invention--and shows examples from each of how Man's understanding of the laws of the universe is much older than we think. And he names names. The book ends up being a fantastic compendium of science knowledge, with enough interesting trivia to keep the average dinner-party know-it-all armed for a lifetime.
What Teresi explains is that claiming Copernicus was the first to hypothesize that Earth orbits the Sun is like claiming that Columbus was the first to discover America. That ignores the natives, the Mesoamericans, the Vikings, and probably a few more. The same can apparently be said about who decided Earth was round, who invented paper, and on and on. There were plenty of smart thinkers in older times, and their discoveries have been "lost" or ignored for a variety of reasons. These, too, Teresi tries to detail.
Part of Teresi's problem is deciding how to differentiate between a notion and scientific proof. A 3,000-B.C. barbarian looking out across the ocean, noting its curvature, and deducing that Earth is round is not the same as Columbus sailing three ships out there and not falling off. Teresi really begins to stretch matters in favor of the ancients when he drags out their cosmic mythologies and tries to claim its early quantum physics.
A minor annoyance is that the book's premise would have been better if discoveries were traced back to their true origin without regard to race. Show the evidence and the links, and let the chips fall where they may. Teresi patronizes "non-white, non-western" types by trying to validate their heritage; and jumps on the PC bandwagon as he insults European descendents by constantly reaching for the conclusion that old dead white guys are never as smart as we're led to believe. As if it matters. He even hints that due credit for non-white discoveries may have been suppressed over the centuries by a vast conspiracy fueled by racial prejudice. This book would have been better if he'd just left Rodney King out of it. --Christopher Bonn Jonnes, author of Wake Up Dead.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating ancient beliefs with tenuous modern connections 8 Sept. 2003
By D. Cloyce Smith - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author of "Lost Discoveries" claims he began to write "with the purpose of showing that the pursuit of evidence of nonwhite science is a fruitless endeavor," but his goal changed when he kept finding "examples of ancient and medieval non-Western science that equaled and often surpassed ancient Greek learning." The book he wrote instead is a compendium of miscellaneous ancient, non-Western discoveries or beliefs in what he calls the "hard sciences." (An unfortunate lapse: By "nonwhite," Teresi apparently means non-European; his investigation includes other Caucasian civilizations.)
Non-Western scientific background is definitely a topic worthy of a book for the general reader, and, although there's some fascinating stuff here (and a solid bibliography that will expand anyone's reading list), "Lost Discoveries" suffers from several shortcomings. One problem is the book's organization. Teresi divides his discussion into distinctions that were unknown a few centuries ago--mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry, and technology--and then divides each of these chapters by localities. As a result, the book has little narrative flow and makes for some awfully dry reading--the type of disconnected paragraphs one usually finds in textbooks or reference works. I found it difficult to read this book for more than a few pages at a stretch.
Furthermore, since modern scientific specialties were, of course, unknown to ancient investigators, his categorization results in some odd choices. For example, beliefs concerning the shape of the earth (round, flat, or square) are discussed in geology as well as cosmology. Similarly, he arbitrarily divides up the work of alchemists among several chapters. Since ancient and medieval studies span many disciplines, there is a lot of annoying (and often verbatim) repetition: we read about the yin-yang duality and ch'i in the sections on astronomy, physics, geology, and chemistry; about Jainism with regards to cosmology, physics, and chemistry; and how Avicenna influenced physics, geology, and chemistry.
Teresi was cofounder of Omni Magazine, which had a reputation (some might call it notoriety) for including articles on topics that strayed well beyond science and into paranormal exploration and New Age quackery. Although "Lost Discoveries" is usually on firmer scientific ground, the author occasionally recalls his earlier career with an eager enthusiasm to find direct or symbolic connections between ancient learning and modern scientific investigation. This is particularly true in his chapter on cosmology. (Teresi's obvious distaste for Big Bang theory doesn't help here.) The Mangaian creation myth, describing an infant universe emerging from a coconut root, may offer interesting literary and cultural insights, but it in no way "anticipates" modern cosmological theories of an inflationary universe. Elsewhere, it's simply preposterous to find intimations of quantum theory in the ancient Indian "yadrccha" (chance) or of the Higgs field in the Buddhist "maya" (the weight of the universe). One may as well argue that William Bennett is a quantum physicist every time he walks into a casino.
It's too bad that Teresi didn't organize his research by civilization and time period, compare these societies on their own terms (rather than ours), chart their influences on each other and on subsequent cultures, and avoid misguided attempts to find inklings of 21st-century theories and knowledge in every ancient myth. Readers looking for a stronger investigation of the wonders of non-Western science, technology, and civilization should check out Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" or Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's "Civilizations."
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
An innaccurate, poorly written, worthless book on a fascinating subject 23 Mar. 2006
By Procopius - Published on
Format: Paperback
This book is about the scientific achievements of non-Western peoples such as the Babylonians, Arabs, Mayans, Chinese and others. This is a fascinating subject that is given inadequate attention, and thus this could have been a great book. Unfortunately it's trash.

The book's author, Dick Teresi, is formerly from Omni magazine, a "science" magazine best known for its credulity about UFOs and the paranormal- not the best sign. The book is badly written, full of innaccuracies, exaggerations, and misinterpretations. At his loopiest, Teresi insists that ancient peoples anticipated modern theories such as quantum mechanics and modern cosmology, based upon very vague connections to their religious and metaphysicial beleifs. This rather indicates that Teresi has a limited understanding of the basis of science itself (based upon verifiability and predictability) and probably isn't qualified to write a book on this subject

Teresi also seems to have a big axe to grind against the West and against Western science, and the book is full of denigrations of Western civilization. Teresi goes beyond noting that it was influenced by non-Western achievements and seems to argue that it stole all its achievements from them. After awhile, this becomes irritating, especially since his reasoning is so poor.

The book had a lot of interesting information that I hadn't heard before, but given the book's low credibility, I was never sure whether the info was trustworthy.

It's too bad, because it's a fascinating subject, which deserves a better-written popularization than this.
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