Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science--from the Babylonians to the Maya Paperback – 7 Oct 2003
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"Deeply impressive...The often suppressed or overlooked scientific work of non-Western thinkers is given a clear-eyed airing by science historian Teresi."
Dava SobelAuthor of "Galileo's Daughter" and "Longitude"If you think, as I did, that science flowered in ancient Greece -- the way Athena sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus -- then read Dick Teresi's Lost Discoveries and revel in the global expression of early genius, from Sumerian mathematics and ancient Indian particle physics to the sky maps of the Skidi Pawnee and the rubber 'factories' of the Aztecs.
Dava Sobel Author of "Galileo's Daughter" and "Longitude" If you think, as I did, that science flowered in ancient Greece -- the way Athena sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus -- then read Dick Teresi's Lost Discoveries and revel in the global expression of early genius, from Sumerian mathematics and ancient Indian particle physics to the sky maps of the Skidi Pawnee and the rubber 'factories' of the Aztecs.
Dava Sobel Author of Galileo's Daughter and Longitude If you think, as I did, that science flowered in ancient Greece -- the way Athena sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus -- then read Dick Teresi's Lost Discoveries and revel in the global expression of early genius, from Sumerian mathematics and ancient Indian particle physics to the sky maps of the Skidi Pawnee and the rubber 'factories' of the Aztecs.
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.
Top customer reviews
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..
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.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
"I began to write with the purpose of showing that the pursuit of showing that the pursuit of evidence of nonwhite science is a fruitless endeavor...Six years later, I was still finding examples of ancient and medieval non-Western science that equaled and often surpassed ancient Greek learning.... "My embarrassment at having undertaken an assignment with the assumption that non-Europeans contributed little to science has been overtaken by the pleasure of discovering mountains of unappreciated human industry, four thousand years of scientific discoveries by peoples I had been taught to disregard."
One reviewer has correctly noted that science consists of reproducible experiments, and I pretty much agree. But not all science is reproducible or even falsified or tested (consider super string theory). While I would not call Indian ideas of vibrations the precursor of quantum physics, I would not go as far as Morris Kline, whom Teresi noted characterized Babylonian and Egyptian math as the "scrawling of children, and called Indian mathematicians "fools."
Teresi's book is full of eye-opening accounts of ancient science that was as much real science as anything our "scientists" of 300 or 400 years ago cooked up. Is map-making a science? Chinese made Mercator projection maps almost 2000 years ago. Is astronomy a science? Ancient Chinese not only kept records of but also predicted solar and lunar eclipses. And recently Nasa has referred to ancient Chinese records in their efforts to determine how much the earth's rotation has slowed down. They used ancient Chinese records because they were meticulous, scientific observations.
Of course, Teresi's book is so chock full of facts that, inevitably, he slipped up on some. For example, on page 240 he wrote that "According to Confucius, there are also records of drilling with bamboo poles for natural gas in Szechwan in 211 B.C." Indeed, there was such drilling (2000 feet deep!), but if Confucius wrote about it, he was also a prophet, because Confucius died 268 years before this. But everyone, even an ex editor of Omni, slips up.
If writing this book opened Teresi's eyes, it can also open readers' eyes--unless they are determined to restrict the definition of science so narrowly that even some modern physics would not qualify.
I highly recommend this book. And if you're interested in ancient Chinese inventions, as I am, having lived in China over 20 years (in Xiamen, former Amoy), I highly recommend "Chinese Science and the West", written a couple decades ago by Clarke. Absolutely intriguing--and objective (based, I think, on a BBC series).
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."
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