Modern science wasn’t invented in Europe but came about as part of a global exchange. Addressing this can help improve the current lack of diversity, says James Poskett
23 March 2022
We are usually told that modern science was invented in Europe sometime between 1500 and 1700. This was an era in which a small group of European pioneers overturned ancient superstition and developed the first modern scientific theories. Think of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and his heliocentric model of the universe or English mathematician Isaac Newton and his law of universal gravitation. This was the scientific revolution and it set the stage for what was to come: Europe continued to make incredible advances, leaving much of the rest of the world to catch up.
You are probably familiar with this story. It features in almost every popular account of the history of science. There is, though, one big problem with the idea that modern science was invented in Europe: it just simply isn’t true.
Over the past decade, historians have pieced together a very different account of the origin of modern science. It wasn’t a product of a unique European culture. Rather, it depended upon a global cultural exchange.
We now know that many of the pioneers of modern science in Europe relied on theories and observations borrowed from elsewhere. In his 1543 book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Copernicus cited no less than five Muslim scientific writers, including the Syrian mathematician Thabit ibn Qurra and the Iberian astronomer Nur ad-Din al-Bitruji. Most importantly, Copernicus made use of a mathematical technique first developed by the Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. Known as the Tusi couple, this allowed Copernicus to model the oscillating movement of the planets around the sun. Copernicus’s book even features an uncredited copy of a diagram taken from al-Tusi’s Memoir on Astronomy from 1261.
Copernicus is just one example of a much wider trend. Almost all the famous figures from the history of science in Europe relied on their global connections. When Newton was writing about gravity, he cited experiments conducted in Asia, Africa and the Americas. When Charles Darwin was collecting evidence for evolution, he consulted a 16th-century Chinese encyclopaedia. And when Albert Einstein began developing a new statistical account of quantum mechanics, he teamed up with the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose.
Europe certainly drew on the knowledge of the rest of the world. But there are also plenty of examples of scientists whose breakthroughs have been forgotten, just because they didn’t fit into the existing Eurocentric narrative. Take the Japanese physicist Hantaro Nagaoka. In 1903, at a scientific meeting in Tokyo, Nagaoka proposed a new model of the atom. Based on his calculations, Nagaoka established that the atom must consist of a group of negatively charged particles orbiting a large positively charged nucleus. He was right. But today, we tend to remember only Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand physicist whose article on the structure of the atom was published nearly a decade later.
This is a history that matters in the present. At a time when science continues to have deep inequalities – researchers from minority ethnic backgrounds make up only 12 per cent of the UK science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce – the need for a new history of science has never been so great.
From Mexican geneticists and Indian chemists to Chinese physicists and Ghanaian biologists, by understanding the true history of modern science and celebrating those whose contributions have been underappreciated, we can help to shape its future in a more inclusive way.
James Poskett is a historian of science and technology at the University of Warwick, UK, and author of Horizons: A global history of science
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