“Most histories of science do not begin with the Aztecs in Mexico,” writes James Poskett after surveying the extensive botanical gardens, menagerie and aviary located in the palace of Moctezuma II.
But it was not just Aztec gold that the conquistadors carried back with them to Spain in the 16th century; they also took knowledge, specimens and language – evidence, in short, of the kind of sophisticated and scientific society many at the time assumed only existed in Europe.
Poskett, a professor at the University of Warwick, is not content to repeat the accepted wisdom of most histories. Instead, Horizons aims to draw attention to the field’s unsung heroes across five centuries of learning, as well as contextualize our view of science around key events in history around the world.
Criss-crossing four periods of profound historical change, the book challenges the prevailing Eurocentric scientific narrative and emphasizes the idea of sustained arcs of progress elsewhere in the world instead of fleeting “golden ages”. With colonial statues falling and university curricula under scrutiny, Horizons comes at a time when western historical narratives are rightly being reappraised from the perspectives of previously marginalized voices.
“The idea that there was no science in Africa before the era of European colonization is a myth,” Poskett writes. In the medieval kingdom of Benin – well before the observations of Copernicus or Tycho Brahe – a group of astronomers wonderfully known as the Society of the Rising Moon were employed to keep track of the movements of the stars. Nor were they alone: astronomy on the continent was widespread, valued as it was for religious, agricultural and navigational purposes.
It is a similar story in Islamic science, where a supposed medieval “golden age” implies that there was a subsequent period of decline. In fact, from sultan and astronomer Ulugh Beg’s calculation five centuries ago of the length of the solar year to within 25 seconds of our modern value, to Copernicus’s reliance on Islamic scholars for his heliocentric vision of the universe, to the 200 original works of astronomy produced in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries, it is more accurate to see progress as a constant.
Horizons jumps around geographically, its fragmentary format gradually filling in the gaps in the story of science. Who was the Polynesian navigator who enabled Captain Cook’s traversal of the Pacific? Why did 19th-century Latin America prove such a fertile ground for evolutionary thought? Why were so many modern Japanese scientists descended from samurai?
Poskett deftly blends the achievements of little-known figures into the wider history of science. Chapter summaries and introductions can feel overly signposted, veering at times towards a lecturing style for sleepy undergraduates, but the book brims with clarity as a result.
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This is crucial in such a fundamental retelling of the story of science – especially one in which political context is always pertinent. In early 20th-century China, for example, members of the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance saw an explicit link between Darwinism and the country’s political situation. “Revolution is the universal principle of evolution,” wrote one, not long before 2,000 years of dynastic rule came to an end. And in Russia, the physicist Yakov Frenkel termed the behavior of electrons in a metal “collective excitation”, setting his vision of quantum mechanics firmly within the lexicon of the Soviet regime he had been imprisoned for supporting.
The relationship between science and politics remains fraught. Last year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro threatened a 90 per cent cut to federal science funding before awarding himself the National Order of Scientific Merit, while in the UK Brexit continues to cause uncertainty around research funding. It is by acknowledging the global, collaborative picture of its past – the kind painted here by Poskett – that science can hope to remain dynamic and progressive. Not only will the history of science benefit, but its future too.
Horizons: A Global History of Science by James Poskett, Viking, £ 25, 464 pages
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