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Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Bala, chapter 13

I was not aware that the Jesuits were operating schools in China and moving in Chinese astronomical circles in the 16th century. Good job, Fathers.

Bala, chapter 11

Two quick thoughts on chapter 11: Bala finally lists an impressive roster of Chinese technologies that reached Europe in the late Middle Ages.  Second, apparently the Chinese and Arabs understood blood circulation well before the Europeans did.  And while he does not present firm evidence of Chinese medical texts reaching Europe, he notes that there had been extensive direct interaction between Europe and China before Europeans figured out the circulatory system, so it is quite plausible that Europeans were influenced by the Chinese in this area.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Bala chapter 9

This chapter is about atomism.  Apparently atomic ideas held a place of prominence in Islamic science, for theological reasons, but were marginal in Greek science because Aristotle rejected them.  It is thus hard to argue that atomism in modern science is a Greek legacy.  More interestingly, the Arab philosopher Averroes argued in favor of Aristotle and in the process offered an argument in favor of science and against clerical philosophy, one taken up by European scholars to the alarm of the Church. Ironically, his defense of incorrect science was used to carve out a space in which science could eventually thrive.

However, given the paucity of evidence for atoms during the time in question (my recollection is that evidence for them didn't really come into play until the 18th century) it is hard for me to treat older ideas for or against atoms as no more than wildass speculation. Like string theory.

sySTEM of a downturn

A fascinating quote in today's Science:
“Of every 100 people who walk in [to earn a bachelor's degree], we have about eight who stay through getting a bachelor's degree in STEM and actually working in STEM. And for minority students, it's even worse. It really is dismal,” said Roni Ellington, associate professor of mathematics education at Morgan State University.
Wow, that sounds dire! We lose 92% of the talent!

Leaving aside the fact that the assertion is made without a link to statistical evidence or context on how the number was arrived at, there are two problems with this assertion:

1) Part of the "problem" is that most people with STEM degrees do not work in jobs classified as being in STEM. On any given day you have to roll the dice to see if the narrative is "See, people are leaving STEM!!1!!11!" or "See, STEM training makes you very versatile and prepares you both for STEM careers and alternative careers!"  Nobody ever says "Hmm, maybe it's because the economy doesn't need as many STEM professionals as the shills claim..."

2) Just a few years ago Science published an article in which people admitted that the retention rate in STEM is better than most other majors, and the rate at which people switch into STEM from other majors is higher than the rate at which people switch from STEM into other majors.  They also admitted that they had not examined this prior to 2013, proving that there is indeed a shortage of people with scientific reasoning abilities in the United States...at least among the sorts of people who compile statistics on STEM shortages.

But let's not let "facts" get in the way of a good "The sky is falling!" narrative.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Bala, Chapter 7

In Chapter 7 Bala makes three main points:
1) Copernicus' work relied on trigonometric advances made by Indian mathematical astronomers and carried back to Europe by Jesuits who had done missionary work in India.  I think he makes a good case here, though a lot of it relies on details of archaic mathematical techniques that I know little about.  Modern algebraic and trigonometric notations make so many calculations so easy that it's often nearly impossible for somebody not trained as a historian of science to read even Isaac Newton's work, let alone the work of astronomers trained in the Ptolemaic tradition.

2) Copernicus rejected an ugly Ptolemaic concept called the "equant", something that I can't bother myself to deeply comprehend because (like everything else involving planets in the Ptolemaic model) it's such an ugly thing.  Apparently the Arab astronomers loathed the equant because they saw the universe as a manifestation of God's perfect, pure divine will, and the equant was just freaking ugly.  Certainly Copernicus must have read some of the Arab critics of the equant, but before we judge the magnitude of their influence on Copernicus I must say that I recall reading in Kuhn's Copernican Revolution a few years ago that European astronomers apparently spent several centuries trying to introduce some new concept that could simplify planetary motion.  I take this to mean that everyone, not just the Arabs, was aware how ugly Ptolemy's model of planetary motion was.  A longing for a simpler, unifying model seems to be a universal personality trait among physical scientists.

3) While Bala doesn't claim a line of influence from India to Copernicus on this point, he notes that Indian astronomers had also tried heliocentric models, and had tried to answer the "OK, but if the earth is spinning so fast why don't we fly off?" objection by invoking physical models that involved the earth carrying us along.  Their physics was hardly Galilean, but there are at least parallels in that they attempted to simplify the universe with a heliocentric model coupled to a theory of motion.  Interesting stuff.

Bala, Chapter 6

Three interesting points in Chapter 6:

1) Apparently a lot of Chinese technological innovations spread to Europe via the intermediary activity of Mongol merchants.  Alas, too few examples are given, with most of the writing focusing on the geopolitics of European-Mongolian-Chinese interaction and too little on the specific innovations that made their way to Europe.  That makes it hard for the reader to really appreciate the type or extent of Chinese influence.

2) Having already noted that the Arabs added a lot to what they received from the Greeks, Bala points out another problem with a narrative of Greek learning merely being passively held in reserve by the Arabs:  It's just plain weird.  It's almost a death and resurrection narrative.  Europe reaches great heights under the Greeks, then there is a decline, the spirit of Greek learning is held in secret by the Arabs, then it is reborn in Europe.  Even if we leave aside the lack of agency on the part of the Arabs, it's a good amount of self-abasement by the Europeans.

I've seen other writers argue that there was nothing particularly dark about the Dark Ages; Bala's analysis is that Europeans did this so that they could save face when they adopted Arab science and technology.  Something went wrong after the fall of the Roman Empire, but eventually Europeans re-discovered their glorious heritage.  They can claim a redemption, rather than admitting that they learned something from the Arabs.

3) In this chapter Bala emphasizes something that I also noted in an earlier post:  It's kind of weird to claim that Western Europeans and Greeks were part of the same civilization. When the Greeks were doing philosophy the people of Western Europe were mostly illiterate farmers, herders, and fishermen.  (Like most other people on earth for most of human history.)  In fact, a lot of the Western Europeans of the Renaissance and early modern era were actually descended from people who had entered Europe as barbarian invaders.  What, exactly, is the link between Western Europeans and ancient Greeks, beyond the fact that they both speak Indo-European languages and Greek writings eventually made their way to Western Europe?

Besides, as Bala notes, Hellenic civilization extended throughout much of the Mediterranean, especially the eastern Mediterranean, and into Egypt.  And, what do you know, Arab/Muslim civilization is/was in those regions.  The people of Egypt, Syria, and Turkey today are at least as connected to the Greeks as the people of the British Isles are.  Yeah, the Turks, Egyptians, and Syrians got their religion from the Arabian peninsula, but Western Europeans mostly practice an Abrahamic faith as well.  OK, a few eccentrics do rituals at Stonehenge, but the similarities between Christianity and Islam are at least as strong as the ancient Indo-European ties between Celtic and Greek mythologies.

One point Bala hasn't emphasized yet is that even if one wanted to make a narrative of Dark Ages, from an intellectual standpoint there was nothing very productive or enlightened about the Roman era.  The Romans contributed comparatively little to math, science, or philosophy.  The fall of the Roman Empire might have been a point of political, military, and economic decline for Europe, but the point of intellectual decline probably came with the integration of Hellenic civilization into the Roman Empire.  Just sayin'.  I love Italians, being a quarter dago and all, but we didn't contribute much to science until Galileo, you know?  (Fortunately, Galileo was sufficiently awesome that for the remainder of time Italians can point to him and feel sufficiently justified, just as Newton did for the English.)

Bala, chapters 4&5

The short version of these chapters is that you need to think very carefully before concluding either that one culture got an idea from another, or that a culture really developed an idea from its own heritage rather than contact with another culture.  For instance, both the ancient Greeks and the ancient Chinese had an idea of atoms. But modern Europe did far more to develop atomic theory in its current form than China did.  Therefore, one could not credit the Chinese with developing a scientific understanding of atoms free from European influence. While there is an understandable desire to give due credit to non-European civilizations, credit for our modern understanding of atoms rests with Europe.

On the other hand, the Europeans and the Arabs both read the ancient Greeks, but the Europeans did not do much to build on Greek physics until they had contact with the Arabs, who had done a lot to further develop the subject. Therefore, the Arabs deserve a share of credit for Europe moving physics forward.