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.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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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.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bala, first three chapters

The first few chapters of Bala's book are mostly occupied with critiquing previous studies of the rise of science.  Bala notes that when historians take up the "Why not there?" question in regard to some other society, they often wind up citing factors that could also apply to the West in the late Renaissance and early modern eras (when science emerged).  For instance, the Chinese bureaucracy is sometimes critiqued for making society too orderly, but the Western European countries that made important contributions to the Scientific Revolution also had reasonably efficient civil services (except Italy, which gave us Galileo despite not having enjoyed orderly, punctual, and efficient bureaucracy since the Roman era).

Also, when critics get to the Greeks, instead of asking "Why didn't the ancient Greeks develop modern science?" the response is never "Well, they were deficient in X, Y, and Z..." but rather "Oh, come on, cut them some slack!"  If the justification for the slack is the magnitude of their contributions, well, I certainly agree that the Greeks did amazing things for math and philosophy (and also technology, at least via Archimedes), but the Chinese had some pretty amazing technological achievements by the standards of the pre-scientific era. And the Muslims did a lot to preserve and extend Greek achievements, with Ibn Al Haytham decisively debunking some bad Greek ideas about light and vision. Why do historians respond to "Why not China?" or "Why not the Muslims?" with a list of defects rather than a list of excuses?

On the other hand, some historians apparently cut Greece some slack because of a perceived continuity between the Greeks and modern science.  If the continuity is simply that the early modern scientists were influenced by the Greeks, well, yes, especially in regards to mathematics, but remember that Galileo's greatest achievement was to debunk Aristotelian physics rather than improve it.  On the other hand, if it is perceived cultural continuity, I don't really know what that means.  Modern science mostly came from Western Europe, not Greece.  The Europeans who gave us science had a range of religious views, but they were mostly from Christian backgrounds (plus a handful of Jews), not pagan Greek backgrounds.  If we're going to say that Aristotle and Newton came from the same culture then I think we have to include Mesopotamia and Egypt in that culture as well.  The cultural lines from Mesopotamia and Egypt to Greece are at least as clear as those from Greece to England.  Frankly, the English are weird.  Separated from the Continent in multiple senses, they charted their own path after the collapse of Rome.  They have a legal tradition built on Anglo-Saxon law rather than Roman law.  They split from the Roman Catholic Church (and in a very different manner than the Greek Orthodox Christians).  Even the language is weird compared to most other European tongues.

Besides the fact that Egypt and Mesopotamia gave us writing, arithmetic, geometry, agriculture, sailing, walled cities, etc. etc. etc., European culture was strongly influenced by an Abrahamic faith. Of course, Judaism had many differences from other Semitic religions, and Christianity picked up influences from Mithraism and Zoroastrianism, but if you want to go there you aren't going to find an argument that clearly separates Christianity from the Middle East, because Mithraism and Zoroastrianism have deep Iranian roots.

Anyway, that was a long digression on things besides the emergence of science, but if we're going to draw a line from Aristotle to Newton then we have to include a whole lot of other people in the same civilization.  Otherwise we have to recognize that modern England and ancient Greece were two very different civilizations, and we can't cut the Greeks any slack that we wouldn't cut for other civilizations.

Besides, if the Greeks taught us anything, it's that you can be awesome at math and bad at physics.  That's an important lesson.

One other thing that I learned from Bala:  While Greek mystical and philosophical traditions treated the heavens as being very different from the earth, the Chinese treated them as being subject to the same principles.  They would have been OK with Galileo finding mountains on the moon and moons around Jupiter, and Newton assuming that objects fall to earth for the same reason that the earth is attracted to the sun.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Next book: The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science by Arun Bala

The next book will be The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science by Arun Bala. I picked it up on a whim at a used bookstore.  Originally published in 2006, the book opens by referencing the "Science Wars" of the 1990's, when idiots ran around saying that "Science is just a Western cultural construct rooted in assumptions that are something something Western hegemonic patriarchal racist something something and that's just, like, your opinion, man."  On the first page, Bala makes an important point:  Both the traditionalists and the postmodern idiots ran around assuming that modern science is a purely Western thing.  The purpose of this book is to use the historical record to debunk that assumption, and show non-Western influences on the Scientific Revolution of Europe.

If you think about it, the whole idea of science as a purely Western cultural construct is obvious bullshit, as evidenced by the number of Chinese and Indian scientists in US universities, as well as the global competitiveness of Japanese corporations making electronics and medical equipment based on the fruits of 20th century physics.

Interestingly, the "Science Wars" mostly ended on January 20 of 2001, when Bush The Lesser succeeded Clinton I and appointed to the executive agencies people who don't like environmental science.  At that point everyone in academia agreed that science is awesome.  At least for political purposes.  The reign of Barack Augustus has seen some academic and cultural pushback against science, but mostly from the kool-aid drinkers within STEM, not from the PoMo literary critics and sociologists arguing that science is just, like, your opinion, man.  The critics within STEM agree that science is great, they just think it's culture is terrible, and like all dangerous lies it's partly true.  Of course, they argue that the problem has something to do with the expert voice, and that takes us back to the problems of the First Great Awakening, but that's a discussion for another time.

Anyway, I'll be curious to see what Bala comes up with.