Thursday, November 18, 2010

Toby E. Huff's "Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution"

Toby E. Huff is Research Associate in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University (and Chancellor Professor Emeritus in the Department of Policy Studies at UMass Dartmouth.). He has been attempting to understand why modern science arose only in Western Europe and not in China or the Islamic world. He first explored this big question in The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (1993, 2nd 2003).

His new book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective, brings the discussion up to the end of the seventeenth century and Sir Isaac Newton’s grand synthesis, The Principia Mathematica.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to the new book and gave this report:
The scientific revolution unfolded in Europe in the 17th century and needs to be seen against the backdrop of the cultural climates of China, Mughal India, and the Ottoman Empire. Not to be forgotten in this context is the invention of the telescope in 1608 and Galileo’s use of this discovery machine in 1609-10 to reveal the rough, cratered surface of the moon and the four satellites of Jupiter. These discoveries added weighty new evidence to support the Copernican, heliocentric hypothesis. Subsequently the telescope revolutionized the practice of astronomy in Europe by encouraging and enabling the constant search for celestial novelties.

So what if the telescope went to China, Mughal India, and the Ottoman Empire during these early years when it was transforming European thought and practice? Would it have the same impact outside of Europe where it is thought that astronomy had a glorious past?

Page 99 of my book takes the reader into the so-called Rites Controversy in China in the 1660s, approximately four decades after the telescope arrived. At that time Adam Schall von Bell, a Jesuit scientist who was a student in Rome and heard Galileo speak at the Roman College in 1611, was now at the helm of the Chinese Bureau of Astronomy and Mathematics. Because of the clear predictive superiority of European astronomy, still based on the geo-heliocentric models of Tycho Brahe (who died in 1601), the Chinese had been persuaded to adopt the new Western system. But being in charge of that Bureau meant that Schall had to make divinatory decisions within the traditional Chinese astrological system. In this case he had to choose an auspicious date and site for an Imperial burial. When Chinese scholars hostile to Schall and the new system repeatedly attacked Schall, his authority waned. He, his European and Chinese associates ended up under house arrest, sentenced to death.

This is perhaps the most dramatic encounter between “East” and “West” involving the new astronomy and the telescope. It was taken to the Mughals and to the Ottomans during the first quarter of the seventeen-century, where at least one merchant lost his life for using a telescope to view forbidden scenes.

The book, however, contains much more about revolutionary scientific discoveries in Europe in other fields such as anatomy, microscopy, hydraulics, and electrical studies that set Europe off from other parts of the world for the next four hundred years.
Learn more about Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue