Not so much a book review more a WHAT THE F…

This blog post is not about one of the books I read whilst in hospital but about one that I had on order through inter library loan and picked up on Monday when I came out of hospital; to this book there is a back story.

As I have related on several occasions on this blog my initial interest in the history of mathematics was awakened by reading Eric Temple Bell’s Men of Mathematics, as a teenager. What particularly stirred my interest was the co-discovery/-invention[1] of the calculus by Gottfried Leibnitz and Isaac Newton during the last third of the seventeenth century, as calculus was my favourite mathematical discipline. Over the years I intensified my interest in and knowledge of the history of calculus/analysis and at some point, I can no longer say when, I stumbled upon the very interesting so-called Kerala School of mathematics in medieval India, roughly the period 1300 to 1600 CE, who developed various infinite series and their sums well before the same series were discovered by various European mathematicians in the seventeenth century. I first read about this school in George Gheverghese Joseph’s rather shrill The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics[2] and then later in Kim Plofker’s somewhat more sober Mathematics in India.[3] I included the Kerala School in my very brief outline of the history of calculus here.

Sometime back, somebody on the Internet, who believes that the history of science is far too Eurocentric put together a bibliography of books dealing with non-European history of science that included George Gheverghese Joseph, The Crest of the Peacock. More recently I once again stumbled across this bibliography, however, it now contained the complaints of an Indian gentleman, called C.K. Raju, that George Gheverghese Joseph had plagiarised his work on the Kerala School in The Crest of the Peacock. He also included links to a website that included the letters and emails he had sent to the University of Manchester, where George Gheverghese Joseph had completed his postgraduate studies, detailing his accusations of plagiarism. He also named his own book on the subject, Cultural Foundations of Mathematics: The Nature of Mathematical Proof and the Transmission of the Calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE.[4] Oh, I thought that looks interesting, especially as it is generally thought that no transmission took place between Kerala and Europe, I must see if I can get hold of a copy of that and indeed I could and this was the book that I picked up from the university library on Monday.

Eager to find out what Mr Raju had to say about transmission I turned straight to this section of his book and as I read my eyes got bigger and bigger, as it goes in the fairy tales, as Mr Raju idea of history has more to do with fairy tales than anything that happened in the real world.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow analysis of Mr Raju’s fairy tales but just pick out some bits and pieces to give you an idea. He starts of by claiming that during the 11th century translation movement, which he claims wrongly all took place in Toledo, the Christians who were so ashamed that they were acquiring their knowledge from Islam declared that it actually all came from white, European Greece. A trick and a lie, you get the picture. He says that “Euclid” is a mythical creature of the imagination. Further he claims that Ptolemy never existed and that the Almagest was a compendium of various astronomical texts from various, non-Greek, sources put together by the Arabs in the Middle Ages.

He repeats as factual history the Persian legend that when Alexander invaded Persia he translated all of the Persian knowledge into Greek and then destroyed the Persian originals therefore all supposed Greek knowledge is actually Persian. The following passage blew my mind completely:

For example, until just before the time of Alexander, the Greeks regarded any kind of scientific thought as an offence punishable by death, as is clear from the trials of Socrates and Anaxagoras, and the subsequent flight of Aristotle. How could any scientific thought have been produced in such an atmosphere? Why would it have been produced—to what economic process did it relate? The absence of serious answers to these questions tends to collaborate that Aristotle was at best merely a translator of books looted during Alexander’s conquests (and at worst merely a brand name used by later translators or scribes to increase the prices of their products).

So all you Aristotle scholars have been wasting your time, he didn’t even exist.

Another statement that tickled my fancy was part of his general claim that the Church controlled knowledge and forbade scholars from naming any non-Christian sources, he writes:

Thus in the days of the Inquisition there was little likelihood that even an honest European would have acknowledged knowledge from any non-Christian sources: Similar remarks, with some slight modification, would apply a fortiori to those high up in the church hierarchy like Clavius, Tycho Brahe, etc.

The vision of the solidly Lutheran Danish aristocrat, Tycho Brahe, as high up in the Catholic Church hierarchy is one to treasure.

To close I will just mention an interesting proposal from Mr Raju in the history of astronomy. There is a fairly well substantiated theory that sometime in the early part of the first millennium CE Greek astronomy was transmitted to India. It is most significant that the Indians began to use the Greek deferent-epicycle model for determining planetary orbits. Raju argues that the Greeks with their abacus arithmetic (sic) were mathematical incapable of having developed the deferent-epicycle model, which was in fact invented by the Indians with their much superior mathematics and then later included by the Arabs in the Almagest (see above) and falsely attributed to the non-existent Ptolemy! He seems to be completely unaware that the deferent-epicycle model is attributed to Apollonius, who doesn’t play any role whatsoever in his historical fantasy.

I could go on but I grow weary and I have no desire to read more of Mr Raju fantasies. At no point does he present any serious evidence for his fairy tales and it should come as no surprise that he is not a historian of mathematics or science but a statistician turned computer scientist. My biggest wonder is that was published by Pearson Longman a normally serious publishing house, maybe Pearson Longman India has other standards than their London mother house.

[1] Choose the term that best fits your personal philosophy of mathematics.

[2] George Gheverghese Joseph, The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics, Penguin Books, London, 1992

[3] Kim Plofker, Mathematics in India, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2009

[4] C.K. Raju, Cultural Foundations of Mathematics: The Nature of Mathematical Proof and the Transmission of the Calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE = History od Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilisation Volume X Part 4, Pearson Longman, Delhi, 2007


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2 responses to “Not so much a book review more a WHAT THE F…

  1. Merry Maisel

    Thanks for pursuing a few of the questions I’ve had about Raju since encountering him on the HASTRO list. A friend of mine just pointed me at this blog. I do wish, however, you’d go back and change all instances of Ragu back to Raju; I’ve been told that Americans misspell those they dislike, but this was told to me by an American with too much self-regard…

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