Sheng Li (gmachine1729) wrote,
Sheng Li
gmachine1729

Some thoughts on Greek, Persian, Arab, Indian, and Chinese science

Originally published at 狗和留美者不得入内. You can comment here or there.

Reading more about history, I’ve come to notice that China’s main historical disadvantages vis-a-vis the outside world in the digital age are no longer there. 1) the writing system, which made it such that even though Chinese invented movable type printing in 11th century, it was only a marginal improvement due to requirement of thousands of types 2) the lack of development of deduction method and axiomatic system 3) the imperial examination system, which marginalized development of science and technology. As far as raw intelligence and brainpower is concerned, the evidence suggests that East Asians are higher, including at the tail, especially at M. If one regards the Chinese to have underperformed in modern times, the Japanese less burdened by aspects of traditionalism were extremely successful at modernizing. Even in science, Hantaro Nagaoka proposed a Saturnian model with positive charge concentrated at the center refuting Thompson’s plum putting model, several years between Rutherford gold foil experiment. Interestingly, Nagaoka was as a college student doubtful of the natural aptitude of East Asians in science, but decided that the Japanese might have a chance after perusing the history of Chinese science and technology.

As for Chinese mathematics, it’s interesting how different the approach was from that of the Greeks. It was a very concrete, problem solving based, high M approach. Of course, I personally find theoretical discoveries like proof of existence of irrational numbers and the infinitude of prime numbers to be much more impressive and certainly much more profound. It’s amazing how lopsided the Greeks were, coming up with axiomatic geometry and number theory yet unable to discover the decimal system or algebra even. In contrast, the Chinese in third and fifth centuries, inscribing 6\cdot 2^n-gons in circles got for pi in explicit decimals 3.1416 and 3.1415927, whereas several centuries earlier Archimedes got lower and upper bounds in fractions.

Chinese are certainly stronger at the implementation, execution, concrete problem solving, and social organization. Chinese weakness vis-a-vis the outside world, including India, was coming up with profound ideas in science. But in today’s day and age, deep science is pretty much over. Nowadays, even if you get a theoretical breakthrough in the likes of that of Mochizuki, less than a handful people can understand it. Heck, it takes at least a few years to learn all the work of Grothendieck. I mentioned India, seeing how Madhava figured out Maclaurin series for sine, cosine, arctan in the 14th century! And the word sine can be trace back to Sanskrit origins as well. Arabs and Persians had also figured out law of sines, law of cosines, and algebra. Algebra and algorithm are both Arabic loanwords. West also got the decimal system from Islamic world, through a book translated by Fibonacci in 13th century. Moreover, Alhazen was a pioneer of the scientific method, scientifically justifying the intromission theory of light, in contrast to the theory of the Greeks that light goes out of the eye. Chinese would have gotten much further in science, if the school of Mo Tzu, which was critical of Confucianism, did not lose prominence. In the writings of Mohist school, points and lines were defined, the phenomena of image through a pinhole inverted was described, with justification per light traveling in rays, and there was an emphasis on logic and deduction (with investigation of whether or not a white horse is a horse as an example).

I remember by early high school, it was obvious to me that the modern world, especially science, was created by whites, such being more reason to view the Chinese as smart but derivative and less creative. Of course, I think this was accentuated by Eurocentric education in the American school system. Ironically, in high school, once when I explained stuff like how to calculate the velocity of satellite in circular orbit before I took a physics class, some girl responded to me,

We’re not Asian!

I told her quite bluntly that it was white Europeans who developed modern science. Now that I know more, it’s apparent to me that some very important ideas in theoretical science the West actually got from the Persians and Arabs, such as decimal system, algebra, negative numbers.

Finally, I shall say that I’ve seen the theory that the 14th century Black Death, which killed off half the European population, raised the white European IQ substantially, with of course regression afterwards. I am very inclined to believe it now. Culturally though, it was the invention of movable type printing by a civilization using an alphabet that was the big game changer. It was after that that Europeans began to read the works of the Greeks preserved by the Byzantines, Persians, and Muslims, often after translating them to Latin.

Lots of Chinese who went to America in 80s and 90s were rather self-hating and West worshipping. They saw first hand how much poorer China was than America then, and made some rather ridiculous conclusions based on that. However, I had in high school on my own learned about Chinese scientists and engineers in the Republic of China and Mao era, reading Baidu’s online encyclopedia at home. I eventually realized that most of those Chinese immigrant parents in STEM were basically idiots compared to them, and even more ignorant about that generation than I was, instead so caught up in the mindset of “reform and opening up” of Deng Xiaoping. And needless to say, my disillusionment with America and West only increased once I realized that modern China per external influence is much more Soviet than Western. Greece also in some sense is more connected to Russia than to West, with the Byzantine Empire later converting Kievan Rus’ to Eastern Orthodox, not to mention that Indo-Europeans originated in Ukraine, Volga, and Kazakhstan, which is rather close to Greece. As for the China-Russia connection, it began indirectly in the 13th century with Mongol conquest of Kievan Rus’. The Russian word for China Китае (Kitay) is derived from “Qidan”, a Mongolic group that ruled much of North China well before that.

Tags: 理工科文化, 科学史
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