Book Reviews

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science — from the Babylonians to the Maya by Dick Teresi, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2002; 464 pages, ISBN 0684837188, hardback, $27.00.

Science, we are generally told, originated with the Greeks around 600 BC, developed in the European Renaissance, and was perfected in the modern West. Because of educators' interest in cultural diversity, multicultural science curricula began to appear in various school districts in the 1980s, but unfortunately many contained distorted, inaccurate, and speculative information. In the early 1990s Dick Teresi, science writer and cofounder of Omni magazine, accepted an assignment to expose and document faulty multicultural science being taught in American schools.

I began to write with the purpose of showing that the pursuit of evidence of nonwhite science is a fruitless endeavor. I felt that it was only responsible, however, to attempt to find what meager legitimate non-European science might exist. 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. — p. 15

In this unusual history the author shares with the general reader his explorations in mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry, and technology, discussing contributions from Egypt, the ancient Near East, Islam, India, China, ancient America, and Oceania. Mainstream rather than "New Age" in its scientific outlook, the manuscript was reviewed for factual accuracy by nine prominent scholars, some with a non-Western and others with a Western bias. Their comments, when differing in interpretation, are often included in the extensive endnotes. The bibliography provides a starting place for further research on specific topics.

Why have we been taught that the ancient Greeks alone developed a scientific approach to nature — particularly when the Greeks themselves credited their cultural origins and learning mainly to the Egyptians and Phoenicians, and many of their greatest thinkers acknowledged studying in Egypt, the Near East, and India? Mr. Teresi explains that the ancient view was accepted in Europe until 18th- and 19th-century savants, worried about Egyptian pantheism and averse to Semitic influences, asserted a purely Indo-European origin for Greek and Roman culture and the local development of its scientific and other thought. By the 20th century this new view had become an unquestioned "fact."

Today many academics continue to dismiss the scientific knowledge of non-European cultures on the grounds that it is either merely "practical" or insufficiently "abstract," as the case may be, or that it is mixed with religious ideas, while Greek and older European science are held to no such standard. The typical attitude has been condescending: "Morris Kline, the best-known modern historian of mathematics, has characterized the Babylonian and Egyptian math as the 'scrawling of children.' He called the Indian mathematicians 'fools''' (p. 87), despite the mathematical sophistication of all three cultures in relation to the ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans. Nor were the European Dark Ages global, for elsewhere scholars and researchers continued their studies and experiments unabated. While until recently medieval Islamic scholars were credited solely with preserving classical knowledge, the author makes clear that they not only synthesized Classical, Indian, and Chinese science and technology, but made numerous scientific advances which filtered into Europe from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance — contributions that are still generally ignored.

The specific non-European discoveries that make up nearly all the book are too numerous to detail. In India, for example, the atomic theory appeared centuries before it did in Greece. Indian mathematicians not only used the zero and devised algebra, logarithms, trigonometry, and the ancestors of our current numerals, but also developed a form of calculus centuries before Leibnitz and Newton. These discoveries were adopted and expanded by medieval Moslems, who among other accomplishments invented decimal fractions (e.g., .5 for 1/2). Again, all three of the discoveries that Francis Bacon credited with marking the beginning of the modern world — gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and printing — came from China. When Gutenberg set the Mainz Bible in print in 1456, Chinese libraries already held editions of numerous books printed in movable type, a technology developed in the 1040s. The Chinese still preserve thousands of printed texts from every period going back 2,000 years.

A review can only touch on the bountiful information this master researcher reveals, and the observations and intuitive conclusions of ancient thinkers who lacked modern scientific technology are remarkable. Lost Discoveries offers a fascinating and enthusiastic introduction to the rich scientific history of non-Western cultures.

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The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky: Volume 1, 1861-1879, ed. John Algeo, Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, IL, 2003; 634 pages, ISBN 0835608360, hardcover, $29.95.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) is the chief figure in the modern theosophical movement, cofounder of the Theosophical Society and author of much theosophical source literature, including The Secret Doctrine (1888) and The Voice of the Silence (1889). The fourteen volumes of her Collected Writings contain articles and letters she wrote for publication as well as documents written for her students and items from her Scrapbooks. Now Theosophical Publishing House adds to this series her collected personal correspondence, beginning with 136 letters written between 1861 and January 1879, immediately before she and H. S. Olcott arrived in India from America, via Europe. The period includes Blavatsky's stay in America, the founding of the Theosophical Society, and the writing of her first book, Isis Unveiled. The majority of the letters are to her relatives, Olcott, and a few early theosophists; to those interested in Spiritualism such as A. N. Aksakoff, Professor Hiram Corson, and General F. J. Lippitt; and to two Hindus involved with the Arya Samaj founded by Dayanand Sarasvati, with which organization the Theosophical Society was briefly allied.

All the letters in this handsome volume have been carefully read against original autographs, where available, or against the most authoritative print versions. Most are introduced with a headnote, and additional information about subject matter and sources appears in endnotes to each letter. Variant readings from different sources and questions of authenticity are also noted. Despite such scholarly apparatus, the book has a friendly feel. Fourteen informative short essays give background on subjects central to the letters, including a brief sketch of the first thirty years of Blavatsky's life. These essays give necessary context for the letters rather than rehashing scholarly controversies or going into too much detail. Helpfully, foreign and unusual words and phrases are translated or defined where they appear in the text, and a valuable Glossary-Index covers people, organizations, and terms that occur in several places. A bibliography is also included.

The editor and assistant editors have approached this task with a great respect for their subject, and their careful work has produced a valuable reference for those interested in H. P. Blavatsky and in early theosophical history.

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)


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The first key to wisdom is assiduous and frequent questioning. For by doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we arrive at truth. — Peter Abelard