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A History of Science in World Cultures - Interview with Alok Kumar
Jul 1, 2016

Alok Kumar is professor of physics at the State University of New York, Oswego. His publications include Science in the Medieval World (1991 and 1996) and Sciences of the Ancient Hindus: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation (2014). Fethi Yaman interviewed Kumar about a recent book he co-authored with Scott Montgomery, A History of Science in World Cultures: Voices of Knowledge (Routledge, 2015).

Can you briefly describe your work and studies?

I grew up in India and my initial training was in atomic physics and chemical physics.  After my Ph.D., I came to Long Beach, California, to teach physics at California State University, some 35 years ago.  In my first year of teaching, I realized the plight of minorities in America and felt a need for improvement in the societal expectations from these students.  Also, I noticed a gender-based difference in societal expectations for the sciences.  I decided to do something about it. 

I got involved in several programs to promote a culture of science and technology among underprivileged and minority students.  Some of these programs were supported by the National Science Foundation.  I also decided to intellectually understand the reasons behind these low social expectations for the under-represented populations in the science community.  This is how I became interested in the history of science and found that science texts are essentially Eurocentric.  I raised this question: Why did the non-Western civilizations not contribute to science?  Later, I learned that I was not the first person to raise this question.  This question is popularly known as Needham’s question, raised by Joseph Needham, a British historian.

Joseph Needham, after a visit to China, recognized Chinese excellence in science and technology, and raised this question: “Why did modern science develop only in the Western world?”  He raised this question to demonstrate that this is indeed not the case and pointed out significant omissions in science texts, with specific examples from China.  He called these omissions in science texts “deeply unjust to other civilizations.  And unjust here means both untrue and unfriendly, two cardinal sins which mankind cannot commit with impunity.”  He also answered his famous question by publishing a multi-volume book, Science and Civilization in China.

I decided to answer Needham’s question by documenting the non-Western contributions to science, primarily focusing on India first.  This is how my first two books were published: (1) Science in the Medieval World, and (2) Sciences of the Ancient Hindus: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation

Tell us about your recent book. What are your aims with this book?

After publishing two successful books, I decided to focus on all global cultures, including non-Western cultures. This led to my recent book, A History of Science in World Cultures: Voices of Knowledge, which I wrote with Scott L. Montgomery.  

Covering ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Greece, China, the Islamic world, and the New World, this new book discusses the scope of scientific and technological achievements in each civilization and how the knowledge they developed came to impact the European Renaissance.  Themes covered include the influence these scientific cultures had upon one another, the power of writing and its technologies, visions of mathematical order in the universe and how it can be represented, and what elements of the distant scientific past we continue to depend upon today.  Topics often left unexamined in histories of science are treated in fascinating detail, such as the chemistry of mummification and the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, jewelry and urban planning in the Indus Valley, hydraulic engineering and the compass in China, the sustainable agriculture and dental surgery of the Mayans, and algebra and optics in the Islamic world. 

With specific examples, we showed that science is multicultural by nature.  Science does not belong to one particular culture or gender, it belongs to all who want to unfold the mysteries of nature.  In history, science was never confined to any one era, culture, or geographic region. Modern science certainly did not spring into a completely evolved form abruptly with the Renaissance in Europe.  Influences came from various parts of the world, like streams from many different sources join to form a river.

Have you seen any "common thread" among the many contributions made by different civilizations?

There are several common threads among the many contributions made by different civilizations.  First, there were no islands of science.  Major civilizations were never wholly self-created but depended on scientific and technological influences from other societies for their dynamism and growth.  As a result, there have always been scientific exchanges among cultures, even during ancient periods.  This is the reason why so many Greek philosophers went to Egypt, why Islamic philosophers learned from India, and how the European Renaissance was caused by the developments in the Islamic Middle East.  In the same spirit, Prophet Mohammad asked his followers who were students to even visit China — China being a far off land from the early medieval perspective. 

Second, every people or group of peoples who succeeded in building a major civilization, from ancient Sumer to Renaissance Europe, did so by advancements in science and technology.  These advancements brought materialistic benefits to its citizens and also made them prosperous and powerful.  This is what happened in India, Egypt, China, the Middle East, and Europe at different times for different durations.  As a result, the modern scientific pool of knowledge is global in origin.  For example, the number system came from India, many algebraic and arithmetical techniques came from India and the Middle East, astronomical observations were made in most cultures (many terms used in astronomy are Arabic in origin), etc.  Over time, those scientific cultures that made the most progress were those that remained open to new influences from outside and/or put significant resources into growing science and technology.  Civilizations require intellectual nourishment, including science and technology, for their continued existence.

Are these contributions looking for the "truth” or “purpose of life," or just to be the supreme power of their time?

All of the above.  Throughout history, new sciences were developed to fulfill religious and social needs.  These social needs included material prosperity and social stability. All major religions ask us to think about the creator and the creation.  Thinkers throughout history observed, experimented, and contemplated about the creation to get insights about the creator.  Thus, mathematics, astronomy, geometry, physics, and medicine were all considered sacred sciences throughout the ancient and medieval periods, at least in different regions of the world.  People became scientists to understand religion.  For example, Newton in England, Aryabhata in India, and al-Biruni in the Middle East did just that.  In my mind, a religious country naturally must have a large number of scientists and technologists.  This, in turn, should lead them to be prosperous and powerful.
Religious codes were defined in ways that urged innovations in both knowledge and institutions. Astronomy, medicine, and mathematics were all considered as sacred understandings in early Islam and among the ancient Hindus. Under the Abbasids, for example, knowledge of the heavens was used to locate the new capitol, Baghdad, built as a great circle to reveal God’s plan for humanity, and as a new model metropolis of tolerance, learning, and beauty. Among its innovative institutions were its many hospitals, libraries, and the Bait al-Hikma, or “House of Wisdom,” where Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit texts in the sciences were rendered into Arabic to help fulfill Islam’s destiny as the one true faith, able to gather and improve upon humanity’s best works.
In India, the great Aryabhata, in his 5th century book on mathematics and astronomy, stated that understanding the diurnal motion of the Earth could do nothing less than reveal to one’s mind the divine plan and thus lead to liberation: “Whoever knows the ten verses describing the movements of the Earth and the planets...passes through the paths of the planets and asterisms and reaches God.” Hindu medicine, Ayurveda (“knowledge of life”), especially that developed by Susruta, taught many forms of advanced surgery, but also that therapy should first employ religious acts, natural drugs, and training of the mind in ways that obeyed the divine structure of the world. Europe, then, inherited large portions of this knowledge via Islam in the 12th and 13th centuries. European authors, such as Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, were dominantly men of the church.  They adapted this material to a Christian worldview, rendering it a key ingredient in the rise of the universities, at the time one of Europe’s most inventive new institutions. 
Even with such clear examples as these, science texts continue to downplay the centrality of religion.  The schism between the “religious” and the “scientific,” which became orthodoxy only in the second half of the 19th century, still has an unfortunate hold on contemporary discourse. There is a tendency, as well, to secularize the past whenever major scientific advances are noted.  Thomas Huxley’s effort to pose religion as “organized superstition” against science as “organized common sense” remains with many of us. This is the trend we have tried to amend by providing an alternative in our book. In taking historical account of past discoveries, the religious culture in which they took place, and the innovations in society they brought, we have weaved a series of narratives that are richly cross-disciplinary and that go beyond conventional instruction in this important area.

What was the role of belief in an ultimate intellect/reason throughout history?

Belief in ultimate cause/intellect/reason has always been very prominent in all societies of the past, as it is today.  Most civilizations of the past did strongly believe in God, the ultimate cause/intellect/reason.  Whether it was Plato (Greece), Aryabhata (India), Said al-Andalusi (Spain), Newton, or al-Khuwarizmi, they all believed in an Almighty God.  They lived in different periods, in different locations, followed different religions, and, yet, believed strongly in God.  Like I shared before, the science texts of today do not correctly portray the true nature of discovery by separating science from other domains of knowledge.

Is there anything in history which separates one religion or civilization from others in terms of their contribution to knowledge and science? 

Perhaps not.  Although not all civilizations contributed equally to science, this was due to multiple factors.  All religions ask their followers to follow intellectual pursuits, whether the religion is Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity.  It does not mean that the followers of these religions followed the path prescribed by their scriptures.  For example, it is sad to observe that, in history, libraries were burnt, females were subjugated and discouraged from following intellectual pursuits, and sufferings were inflicted on scholars as well as average citizens in the name of religion.  This happened during the third-century B.C. in China, during the fourth-century in Egypt, during the thirteenth-century in Baghdad, during the fifteenth century in Spain, and during the twentieth-century in Germany, to mention just a few instances.  Invariably, in all cases, the societies lost their prosperity and glory. 

Usually people suggest that science and religion are contradictory to each other? What do you think about this from a historical perspective?

The contentions between science and religion are well publicized in history, with the examples of Galileo, Bruno, and others. As a result, it is commonly assumed that the sciences and religion are innately in conflict. The truth is that, for the great majority of our history, in most cultures, religious beliefs and scientific work supported each other and no barrier existed between the “scientific” and the “sacred.” The idea that the eternal struggle exists between science and religion dates from the modern period, and is fiction.  In contrast, astronomy, medicine, and mathematics were all considered as sacred understandings among the ancient Hindus, and in medieval Islam and medieval Christianity.  Readers may find this fact interesting: the Royal Society of London, formed in 1660, dedicated its work “to the glory of God the Creator, and the benefit of the human race.” This is a part of its charter even today.

In India, Aryabhata, a fifth century scholar, in his book Aryabhatiya, suggests people learn mathematics, geometry, and astronomy, to achieve liberation. It is these efforts to achieve liberation that led to the growth of geometry and arithmetic, including the invention of zero and infinity, in India. Elsewhere, in Europe, Roger Bacon, a thirteenth century scholar, considered mathematics essential to learning about the celestial world that controlled terrestrial events: “Of these sciences the gate and key is mathematics, which the saints discovered at the beginning of the world . . . and which has always been used by all the saints and sages more than all other sciences.” Bacon considered mathematics to be the first discipline that should be taught to children, even before singing or the alphabet.  In Islam, Muslims needed to establish the correct coordinates (latitude and longitude) of their cities so that they could determine the direction of Mecca (qibla) for prayer. Muslims from all over Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia used their astronomical and mathematical knowledge to solve this problem.  Astronomy, spherical geometry, algebra, and other scientific disciplines prospered during the golden period of Islam.  Perhaps the only generalization is that the history of religion and the history of science cannot be separated.

What are you working on as your next book?

Currently, I am working on two projects.   The first project deals with the way we remember facts.  Retention of knowledge is a serious issue for most science educators and students.  This is an important issue at an individual level; this is also equally crucial at the societal level.  All of us remember information by association.  Sentences are easier to remember than words in a random order.  Stories or poems are easier to remember than abstract texts.  I want to write a science text that collects scientific information in stories that a young mind can retain.  This book will use age-old practices that the Native Americans, Indians, and other oral cultures used to preserve their knowledge in going from one generation to another. However, in my case, we are interested in preserving the scientific heritage in the minds of our young generation long after they leave a school environment. 

The second project deals with the central role of religion in the progress of science and in the advancement of society and human affairs.  As I mentioned before, religions encourage humans to think about the creator and the world’s creation.  Learning about the physical world is a necessity for all religious people.  It is no coincidence that in medieval Europe, the church promoted four subjects (quadrivium) in the university curricula, and three of the four were geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy.   This is the reason that Roger Bacon, a thirteenth century scholar, considered mathematics “absolutely necessary to sacred science.”  Similarly, Aryabhata, in fifth-century India, considered astronomy, mathematics, and physics as sacred subjects, necessary to achieving salvation.

Anything else you would like to add for our readers?

The history of science is not the history of events; it is the history of cultures, intentions, and human minds.  It tells us how various cultures recognized issues that they found crucial, and how they resolved them.  Such knowledge is important in dealing with the unknown future we face.  Knowing what we were in the past helps us to understand what we are in the present, and who we will be in the future. If you don’t know your history, then you are like a limb that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. Further, all countries celebrate their great heroes, including the great scientific and mathematical minds of the past and present. Greece had Aristotle and Pythagoras, Italy had Galileo and Leonardo Fibonacci, England had Maxell and Newton, France had Laplace and Fourier, India had Kanada and Aryabhata, and the Middle East had al-Khwarizmi and al-Razi.  Just imagine erasing the name of Pythagoras and Aristotle from the current philosophy texts because they are ancient history and, therefore, irrelevant.  Would that be just and fair?  The answer is a clear and emphatic “no”.  However, this is exactly the case when we unjustly ignore heroes from the non-Western world.  We must correct this situation and my recent book is a step in this direction.  A lot more work is needed to take care of this issue.