NY Times, Dec. 1, 2002
'Lost Discoveries': The Non-Western Roots of Science
By STEPHEN S. HALL
The Ancient Roots of Modern Science -- From the Babylonians to the Maya.
By Dick Teresi.
453 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $27.
In the early 1990's Dick Teresi went to Portland, Ore., where the county
school board had started a politically correct and ill-starred program
dedicated to ''multicultural science.'' Among the curriculum tools it
devised, he notes in ''Lost Discoveries,'' was a series of essays
explaining how the ancient Egyptians used sophisticated gliders for travel
and recreation, how the Incas floated above the Nasca plain in hot-air
balloons and how the Egyptians had also mastered advanced skills in
precognition and psychokinesis. Teresi was promptly dispatched by a
magazine to debunk these claims, which he did with relish. As he writes in
his book, ''One can only wonder why this ancient civilization, with
airplanes and telekinesis at its disposal, bothered with swords and spears
to fight its battles.''
It was wise of Teresi, a science writer and former editor of Omni magazine,
to establish his bona fides as a skeptic at the outset. He calls ''Lost
Discoveries'' a book of ''unkempt historical details,'' but in surveying
the non-Western roots of science he has created a very neat chronicle --
and a timely reminder -- of how much of the foundation of modern scientific
thought and technological development was built by the mostly overlooked
contributions of Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Polynesians and Mesoamericans.
How timely? A dozen pages into the text, I found myself wondering how many
publishers would have been courageous enough, after Sept. 11, 2001, to take
on a book that documents, among other things, the superiority of Arab
intellect and Muslim science in ancient and medieval times.
The ''standard model'' of the history of science locates its birth around
600 B.C. in ancient Greece, where the dramatis personae typically include
Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, Aristotle and other sages, who laid the
modern foundation for math and the sciences. It was this foundation, buried
during the Middle Ages, that was rediscovered during the Renaissance. What
were the peoples of India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, sub-Saharan Africa, China
and the Americas doing all this time? ''They discovered fire, then called
it quits,'' Teresi observes sarcastically. He admits starting this exercise
''with the purpose 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.''
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org