On the occasion of India’s 60th Independence Day, the news world and blogosphere is abuzz with the news story that Calculus was created in India, 250 years before Newton.
The official news source says:
A little known school of scholars in southwest India discovered one of the founding principles of modern mathematics hundreds of years before Newton according to new research. Dr George Gheverghese Joseph from The University of Manchester says the ‘Kerala School’ identified the ‘infinite series’- one of the basic components of calculus — in about 1350.
And there is strong circumstantial evidence that the Indians passed on their discoveries to mathematically knowledgeable Jesuit missionaries who visited India during the fifteenth century. That knowledge, they argue, may have eventually been passed on to Newton himself.
While admitting factors such as the obscure medieval Malayalam language of the source, Dr. Joseph further adds the European imperialist angle:
There were many reasons why the contribution of the Kerala school has not been acknowledged — a prime reason is neglect of scientific ideas emanating from the Non-European world — a legacy of European colonialism and beyond.
For some unfathomable reasons, the standard of evidence required to claim transmission of knowledge from East to West is greater than the standard of evidence required to knowledge from West to East.
There are several cynical responses to this current news item. From ‘What’s new? We knew this all along!’, to ‘So what? Of what use was the Indian invention if it remained in obscurity in a remote Indian region?’.
To be fair, the press journalists obviously not trained in mathematics, did exaggerate. The Taylor Series of trigonometric functions and representation of Pi are building blocks of Calculus. They do not, in themselves, form the entire branch of mathematics that is Calculus. Not surprisingly, Dr. Joseph’s origins are from Kerala!
There is nothing new in this discovery as Wikipedia shows. But I’m inclined against dismissing and ignoring this news altogether, for three reasons:
1. Imperialism certainly plays a factor in how knowledge spreads. While these medieval Indians used mathematics to create almanacs and calendars, the Europeans used it for navigating to conquer other lands. It is because of imperialist adventurous travelers that knowledge spread during most of mankind’s history. Imperialism and its derivatives are still very much in action. For instance, check the history of Wikipedia’s article on the Kerala School, after this story broke out in major news circles.
2. The truth about this was known before, but it was known only to a select few. Forget calculus, how many knew the truth about Pi? Shashi Tharoor wrote about it, but we couldn’t make him the UN Secretary General. The excellent project and site, History of Indian Science and Technology provides fascinating insights into the scientific achievements of Indians in fields such as township planning, water management, healthcare, surgery, metallurgy, etc. It even has a paper on exactly how and why the Taylor series and building blocks of Calculus were imported to Europe from India (PDF).
But how many of us know all this? Indians need to learn the art of marketing from the Westerners. We excel in science and technology, arts and philosophy. But we cannot sell well. We cannot put the right ‘spin’, such that the world takes notice. Once the exaggerated headlines hit the world press, the blogosphere pounces on them, tearing them to shreds in analysis and comments and trackbacks. That’s how information is disseminated. True, it’s not always correct. But at least more people will think of India the next time they encounter Calculus!
3. This story highlights how we must cherish and safeguard our knowledge assets. Most scientific texts of the ancient times are in a dilapidated condition, neglected in universities and shrines. There are projects by the Government and Google to digitize them, as I’d written earlier. Just like corporations prize knowledge management, countries should too!
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