History of science is global history

The simple statement that the history of science is global history is for me and, I assume, for every reasonably well-informed historian of science a rather trivial truism. So, I feel that James Poskett and the publishers Viking are presenting something of a strawman with the sensational claims for Poskett’s new book, HorizonsA Global History of Science[1]; claims that are made prominently by a series of pop science celebrities on the cover of the book. 

“Hugely Important,” Jim al-Khalili, really? 

“Revolutionary and revelatory,” Alice Roberts what’s so revolutionary about it?  

“This treasure trove of a book puts the case persuasively and compellingly that modern science did not develop solely in Europe,” Jim al-Khalili, I don’t know any sane historian of science, who would claim it did.

“Horizons is a remarkable book that challenges almost everything we know about science in the West. [Poskett brings to light an extraordinary array of material to change our thinking on virtually every great scientific breakthrough in the last 500 years… An explosive book that truly broadens our global scientific horizons, past and present.”] Jerry Brotton (The bit in square brackets is on the publisher’s website not on the book cover) I find this particularly fascinating as Brotton’s own The RenaissanceA Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2006) very much emphasises what is purportedly the main thesis of Horizons that science, in Brotton’s case the Renaissance, is not a purely Western or European phenomenon.

On June 22, Canadian historian Ted McCormick tweeted the following:

It’s not unusual for popular history to present as radical what has been scholarly consensus for a generation. If this bridges the gap between scholarship and public perception, then it is understandable. But what happens when the authors who do this are scholars who know better?

This is exactly what we have with Poskett’s book, he attempts to present in a popular format the actually stand amongst historian of science on the development of science over the last approximately five hundred years. I know Viking are only trying to drum up sales for the book, but I personally find it wrong that they use misleading hyperbole to do so. 

Having complained about the publisher’s pitch, let’s take a look at what Poskett is actually trying to sell to his readers and how he goes about doing so. Central to his message is that claims that science is a European invention/discovery[2] are false and that it is actually a global phenomenon. To back up his stand that such claims exist he reproduces a series of rather dated quotes making that claim. I would contend that very, very few historians of science actually believe that claim nowadays. He also proposes, what he sees as a new approach to the history of science of the last five hundred years, in that he divides the period into four epochs or eras, in which he sees science external factors during each era as the defining or driving force behind the scientific development in that era. Each is split into two central themes: Part One: Scientific Revolution, c. 1450–1700 1. New Worlds 2. Heaven and Earth, Part Two: Empire and Enlightenment, c. 1650–1800 3. Newton’s Slaves 4. Economy of Nature, Part Three:  Capitalism and Conflict, c. 1790–­1914 5. Struggle for Existence 6. Industrial Experiments, Part Four: Ideology and Aftermath, c. 1914–200 7. Faster Than Light 8. Genetic States.

I must sadly report that Part One, the area in which I claim a modicum of knowledge, is as appears recently oft to be the case strewn with factual errors and misleading statements and would have benefited from some basic fact checking.

New Worlds starts with a description of the palace of Emperor Moctezuma II and presents right away the first misleading claim. Poskett write:

Each morning he would take a walk around the royal botanical garden. Roses and vanilla flowers lined the paths, whilst hundreds of Aztec gardeners tended to rows of medicinal plants. Built in 1467, this Aztec botanical garden predated European examples by almost a century.[3]

Here Poskett is taking the university botanical gardens as his measure, the first of which was establish in Pisa in 1544, that is 77 years after Moctezuma’s Garden. However, there were herbal gardens, on which the university botanical gardens were modelled, in the European monasteries dating back to at least the ninth century. Matthaeus Silvaticus (c.1280–c. 1342) created a botanical garden at Salerno in 1334. Pope Nicholas V established a botanical garden in the Vatican in 1544. 

This is not as trivial as it might a first appear, as Poskett uses the discovery of South America to make a much bigger claim. First, he sets up a cardboard cut out image of the medieval university in the fifteenth century, he writes:

Surprisingly as it may sound today, the idea of making observations or preforming experiments was largely unknown to medieval thinkers. Instead, students at medieval universities in Europe spent their time reading, reciting, and discussing the works of Greek and Roman authors. This was a tradition known as scholasticism. Commonly read texts included Aristotle’s Physics, written in the fourth century BCE, and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, written in the first century CE. The same approach was common to medicine. Studying medicine at medieval university in Europe involved almost no contact with actual human bodies. There was certainly no dissections or experiments on the working of particular organs. Instead, medieval medical students read and recited the works of the ancient Greek physician Galen. Why, then, sometime between 1500 and 1700, did European scholars turn away from investigating the natural world for themselves?[4]

His answer:

The answer has a lot to do with colonization of the New World alongside the accompanying appropriation of Aztec and Aztec and Inca knowledge, something that traditional histories of science fail to account for.[5]

Addressing European, medieval, medical education first, the practical turn to dissection began in the fourteenth century and by 1400 public dissections were part of the curriculum of nearly all European universities. The introduction of a practical materia medica education on a practical basis began towards the end of the fifteenth century. Both of these practical changes to an empirical approach to teaching medicine at the medieval university well before any possible influence from the New World. In general, the turn to empiricism in the European Renaissance took place before any such influence, which is not to say that that process was not accelerated by the discovery of a whole New World not covered by the authors of antiquity. However, it was not triggered by it, as Poskett would have us believe. 

Poskett’s next example to bolster his thesis is quite frankly bizarre. He tells the story of José de Acosta (c. 1539–1600), the Jesuit missionary who travelled and worked in South America and published his account of what he experienced, Natural and Moral History of the Indies in 1590. Poskett tells us: 

The young priest was anxious about the journey, not least because of what ancient authorities said about the equator. According to Aristotle, the world was divided into three climatic zones. The north and south poles were characterized by extreme cold and known as the ‘frigid zone’. Around the equator was the ‘torrid zone’, a region of burning dry heat. Finally, between the two extremes, at around the same latitudes as Europe, was the ‘temperate zone’. Crucially, Aristotle argued that life, particularly human life, could only be sustained in the ‘temperate zone’. Everywhere else was either too hot nor too cold.

Poskett pp. 17-18

Poskett goes on to quote Acosta:

I must confess I laughed and jeered at Aristotle’s meteorological theories and his philosophy, seeing that in the very place where, according to his rules, everything must be burning and on fire, I and all my companions were cold.

Poskett p. 18

Instead of commenting on Acosta’s ignorance or naivety, Aristotle’s myth of the ‘torrid zone’ had been busted decades earlier, at the very latest when Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450–1500) had rounded the southern tip of Africa fifty-two years before Acosta was born and eight-two year before he travelled to Peru, Poskett sees this as some sort of great anti-Aristotelian revelation. He writes:

This was certainly a blow to classical authority. If Aristotle had been mistaken about the climate zones, what else might he have been wrong about?

Poskett p.18

This is all part of Poskett’s fake narrative that the breakdown of the scholastic system was first provoked by the contact with the new world. We have Poskett making this claim directly:

It was this commercial attitude towards the New World that really transformed the study of natural history. Merchants and doctors tended to place much greater emphasis on collecting and experimentation over classical authority.[6]

This transformation had begun in Europe well before any scholar set foot in the New World and was well established before any reports on the natural history of the New World had become known in Europe. The discovery of the New World accelerated the process but it in no way initiated it as Poskett would have his readers believe. Poskett once again paints a totally misleading picture a few pages on:

This new approach to natural history was also reflected in the increasing use of images. Whereas ancient texts on natural history tended not to be illustrated, the new natural histories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were full of drawings and engravings, many of which were hand-coloured. This was partly a reaction to the novelty of what had been discovered. How else would those in Europe know what a vanilla plant or a hummingbird looked like?

Poskett pp.29-30

Firstly, both ancient and medieval natural history texts were illustrated, I refer Mr Proskett, for example, to the lavishly illustrated Vienna Dioscorides from 512 CE. Secondly, the introduction of heavily illustrated, printed herbals began in the sixteenth century before any illustrated natural history books or manuscripts from the New World had arrived in Europe. For example, Otto Brunfels’ Herbarium vivae eicones three volumes 1530-1536 or the second edition of Hieronymus Bock’s Neu Kreütterbuch in 1546 and finally the truly lavishly illustrated De Historia Stirpium Commentarii by Leonhard Fuchs published in 1542. The later inclusion of illustrations plants and animals from the New World in such books was the continuation of an already established tradition. 

Poskett moves on from natural history to cartography and produced what I can only call a train wreck. He tells us:

The basic problem, which was now more pressing [following the discovery of the New World], stemmed from the fact that the world is round, but a map is flat. What then was the best way to represent a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane? Ptolemy had used what is known as a ‘conic’ projection, in which the world is divided into arcs radiating out from the north pole, rather like a fan. This worked well for depicting one hemisphere, but not both. It also made it difficult for navigators to follow compass bearings, as the lines spread outwards the further one got from the north pole. In the sixteenth century, European cartographers started experimenting with new projections. In 1569, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator produced an influential map he titled ‘New and More Complete Representation of the Terrestrial Globe Properly Adapted for Use in Navigation’. Mercator effectively stretched the earth at the poles and shrunk it in the middle. This allowed him to produce a map of the world in which the lines of latitude are always at right angles to one another. This was particularly useful for sailors, as it allowed them to follow compass bearings as straight lines.

Poskett p. 39

Where to begin? First off, the discovery of the New World is almost contemporaneous with the development of the printed terrestrial globe, Waldseemüller 1507 and more significantly Johannes Schöner 1515. So, it became fairly common in the sixteenth century to represent the three-dimensional world three-dimensionally as a globe. In fact, Mercator, the only Early Modern cartographer mentioned here, was in his time the premium globe maker in Europe. Secondly, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries mariners did not even attempt to use a Ptolemaic projection on the marine charts, instead they used portulan charts–which first emerged in the Mediterranean in the fourteenth century–to navigate in the Atlantic, and which used an equiangular or plane chart projection that ignores the curvature of the earth. Thirdly between the re-emergence of Ptolemy’s Geographia in 1406 and Mercator’s world map of 1569, Johannes Werner published Johannes Stabius’ cordiform projection in 1514, which can be used to depict two hemispheres and in fact Mercator used a pair of cordiform maps to do just that in his world map from 1538. In 1508, Francesco Rosselli published his oval projection, which can be used to display two hemispheres and was used by Abraham Ortelius for his world map from 1564. Fourthly, stereographic projection, known at least since the second century CE and used in astrolabes, can be used in pairs to depict two hemispheres, as was demonstrated by Mercator’s son Rumold in his version of his father’s world map in 1587. Fifthly, the Mercator projection if based on the equator, as it normally is, does not shrink the earth in the middle. Lastly, far from being influential, Mercator’s ‘New and More Complete Representation of the Terrestrial Globe Properly Adapted for Use in Navigation’, even in the improved version of Edward Wright from 1599 had very little influence on practical navigation in the first century after it first was published. 

After this abuse of the history of cartography Poskett introduces something, which is actually very interesting. He describes how the Spanish crown went about creating a map of their newly won territories in the New World. The authorities sent out questionnaires to each province asking the local governors or mayors to describe their province. Poskett notes quite correctly that a lot of the information gathered by this method came from the indigenous population. However, he once again displays his ignorance of the history of European cartography. He writes:

A questionnaire might seem like an obvious way to collect geographical information, but in the sixteenth century this idea was entirely novel. It represented a new way of doing geography, one that – like science more generally in this period – relied less and less on ancient Greek and Roman authority.

Poskett p. 41

It would appear that Poskett has never heard of Sebastian Münster and his Cosmographia, published in 1544, probably the biggest selling book of the sixteenth century. An atlas of the entire world it was compiled by Münster from the contributions from over one hundred scholars from all over Europe, who provided maps and texts on various topics for inclusion in what was effectively an encyclopaedia. Münster, who was not a political authority did not send out a questionnaire but appealed for contributions both in publications and with personal letters. Whilst not exactly the same, the methodology is very similar to that used later in 1577 by the Spanish authorities. 

In his conclusion to the section on the New World Poskett repeats his misleading summation of the development of science in the sixteenth century:

Prior to the sixteenth century, European scholars relied almost exclusively on ancient Greek and Roman authorities. For natural history they read Pliny for geography they read Ptolemy. However, following the colonization of the Americas, a new generation of thinkers started to place a greater emphasis on experience as the main source of scientific knowledge. They conducted experiments, collected specimens, and organised geographical surveys. This might seem an obvious way to do science to us today, but at the time it was a revelation. This new emphasis on experience was in part a response to the fact that the Americas were completely unknown to the ancients.

Poskett p. 44

Poskett’s claim simply ignores the fact that the turn to empirical science had already begun in the latter part of the fifteenth century and by the time Europeans began to investigate the Americas was well established, those investigators carrying the new methods with them rather than developing them in situ. 

Following on from the New World, Poskett takes us into the age of Renaissance astronomy serving up a well worn and well know story of non-European contributions to the Early Modern history of the discipline which has been well represented in basic texts for decades. Nothing ‘revolutionary and revelatory’ here, to quote Alice Roberts. However, despite the fact that everything he in presenting in this section is well documented he still manages to include some errors. To start with he attributes all of the mechanics of Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy–deferent, eccentric, epicycle, equant–to Ptolemy, whereas in fact they were largely developed by other astronomers–Hipparchus, Apollonius–and merely taken over by Ptolemy.  

Next up we get the so-called twelfth century “scientific Renaissance” dealt with in one paragraph. Poskett tells us the Gerard of Cremona translated Ptolemy from Arabic into Latin in 1175, completely ignoring the fact that it was translated from Greek into Latin in Sicily at around the same time. This is a lead into the Humanist Renaissance, which Poskett presents with the totally outdated thesis that it was the result of the fall of Constantinople, which he rather confusingly calls Istanbul, in 1453, evoking images of Christians fleeing across the Adriatic with armfuls of books; the Humanist Renaissance had been in full swing for about a century by that point. 

Following the introduction of Georg of Trebizond and his translation of the Almagest from Greek, not the first as already noted above as Poskett seems to imply, up next is a very mangled account of the connections between Bessarion, Regiomontanus, and Peuerbach and Bessarion’s request that Peuerbach produce a new translation of the Almagest from the Greek because of the deficiencies in Trebizond’s translation. Poskett completely misses the fact that Peuerbach couldn’t read Greek and the Epitome, the Peuerbach-Regiomontanus Almagest, started as a compendium of his extensive knowledge of the existing Latin translations. Poskett then sends Regiomontanus off the Italy for ten years collecting manuscripts to improve his translation. In fact, Regiomontanus only spent four years in Italy in the service of Bessarion collecting manuscripts for Bessarion’s library, whilst also making copies for himself, and learning Greek to finish the Epitome.

Poskett correctly points out that the Epitome was an improved, modernised version of the Almagest drawing on Greek, Latin and Arabic sources. Poskett now claims that Regiomontanus introduced an innovation borrowed from the Islamic astronomer, Ali Qushji, that deferent and epicycles could be replaced by the eccentric. Poskett supports this argument by the fact that Regiomontanus uses Ali Qushji diagram to illustrate this possibility. The argument is not original to Poskett but is taken from the work of historian of astronomy, F. Jamil Ragip. Like Ragip, Poskett now argues thus:

In short, Ali Qushji argued that the motion of all the planets could be modelled simply by imagining that the centre of their orbits was at a point other than the Earth. Neither he nor Regiomontanus went as far as to suggest this point might in fact be the Sun. By dispensing with Ptolemy’s notion of the epicycle, Ali Qushji opened the door for a much more radical version of the structure of the cosmos.[7]

This is Ragip theory of what motivated Copernicus to adopt a heliocentric model of the cosmos. The question of Copernicus’s motivation remains open and there are numerous theories. This theory, as presented, however, has several problems. That the planetary models can be presented either with the deferent-epicycle model or the eccentric model goes back to Apollonius and is actually included in the Almagest by Ptolemy as Apollonius’ theorem (Almagest, Book XII, first two paragraphs), so this is neither an innovation from Ali Qushji nor from Regiomontanus. In Copernicus’ work the Sun is not actually at the centre of the planetary orbits but slightly offset, as has been pointed out his system is not actually heliocentric but more accurately heliostatic. Lastly, Copernicus in his heliostatic system continues to use the deferent-epicycle model to describe planetary orbits.

Poskett is presenting Ragip’s disputed theory to bolster his presentation of Copernicus’ dependency on Arabic sources, somewhat unnecessary as no historian of astronomy would dispute that dependency. Poskett continues along this line, when introducing Copernicus and De revolutionibus. After a highly inaccurate half paragraph biography of Copernicus–for example he has the good Nicolaus appointed canon of Frombork Cathedral after he had finished his studies in Italy, whereas he was actually appointed before he began his studies, he introduces us to De revolutionibus. He emphasis the wide range of international sources on which the book is based, and then presents Ragip’s high speculative hypothesis, for which there is very little supporting evidence, as fact:

Copernicus suggested that all these problems could be solved if we imagined the Sun was at the centre of the universe. In making this move he was directly inspired by the Epitome of the Almagest. Regiomontanus, drawing on Ali Qushji, had shown it was possible to imagine that the centre of all the orbits of the planets was somewhere other than the Earth. Copernicus took the final step, arguing that that this point was in fact the Sun.[8]

We simply do not know what inspired Copernicus to adopt a heliocentric model and to present a speculative hypothesis, one of a number, as the factual answer to this problem in a popular book is in my opinion irresponsible and not something a historian should be doing. 

Poskett now follows on with the next misleading statement. Having, a couple of pages earlier, introduced the Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and the so-called Tusi couple, a mathematical device that allows linear motion to be reproduced geometrically with circles, Poskett now turns to Copernicus’ use of the Tusi couple. He writes:

The diagram in On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres shows the Tusi couple in action. Copernicus used this idea to solve exactly the same problem as al-Tusi. He wanted a way to generate an oscillating circular movement without sacrificing a commitment to uniform circular motion. He used the Tusi couple to model planetary motion around the Sun rather than the Earth. This mathematical tool, invented in thirteenth-century Persia, found its way into the most important work in the history of European astronomy. Without it, Copernicus would not have been able to place the Sun at the centre of the universe.[9] [my emphasis]

As my alter-ego the HISTSCI_HULK would say the emphasised sentence is pure and utter bullshit!

The bizarre claims continue, Poskett writes:

The publication of On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543 has long been considered the starting point for the scientific revolution. However, what is less often recognised is that Nicolaus Copernicus was in fact building on a much longer Islamic tradition.[10]

When I first read the second sentence here, I had a truly WTF! moment. There was a time in the past when it was claimed that the Islamic astronomers merely conserved ancient Greek astronomy, adding nothing new to it before passing it on to the Europeans in the High Middle Ages. However, this myth was exploded long ago. All the general histories of astronomy, the histories of Early Modern and Renaissance astronomy, and the histories of Copernicus, his De revolutionibus and its reception that I have on my bookshelf emphasise quite clearly and in detail the influence that Islamic astronomy had on the development of astronomy in Europe in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Early Modern period. Either Poskett is ignorant of the true facts, which I don’t believe, or he is presenting a false picture to support his own incorrect thesis.

Having botched European Renaissance astronomy, Poskett turns his attention to the Ottoman Empire and the Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din with a couple of pages that are OK, but he does indulge in a bit of hype when talking about al-Din’s use of a clock in an observatory, whilst quietly ignoring Jost Bürgi’s far more advanced clocks used in the observatories of Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel and Tycho Brahe contemporaneously. 

This is followed by a brief section on astronomy in North Africa in the same period, which is basically an extension of Islamic astronomy with a bit of local colouration. Travelling around the globe we land in China and, of course, the Jesuits. Nothing really to complain about here but Poskett does allow himself another clangour on the subject of calendar reform. Having correctly discussed the Chinese obsession with calendar reform and the Jesuit missionaries’ involvement in it in the seventeenth century Poskett add an aside about the Gregorian Calendar reform in Europe. He writes:

The problem was not unique to China. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII had asked the Jesuits to help reform the Christian Calendar back in Europe. As both leading astronomers and Catholic servants, the Jesuits proved an ideal group to undertake such a task. Christoph Clavius, Ricci’s tutor at the Roman College [Ricci had featured prominently in the section on the Jesuits in China], led the reforms. He integrated the latest mathematical methods alongside data taken from Copernicus’s astronomical tables. The result was the Gregorian calendar, still in use today throughout many parts of the world.[11]

I have no idea what source Poskett used for this brief account, but he has managed to get almost everything wrong that one can get wrong. The process of calendar reform didn’t start in 1582, that’s the year in which the finished calendar reform was announced in the papal bull Inter gravissimas. The whole process had begun many years before when the Vatican issued two appeals for suggestion on how to reform the Julian calendar which was now ten days out of sync with the solar year. Eventually, the suggestion of the physician Luigi Lilio was adopted for consideration and a committee was set up to do just that. We don’t actually know how long the committee deliberated but it was at least ten years. We also don’t know, who sat in that committee over those years; we only know the nine members who signed the final report. Clavius was not the leader of the reform, in fact he was the least important member of the committee, the leader being naturally a cardinal. You can read all of the details in this earlier blog post. At the time there were not a lot of Jesuit astronomers, that development came later and data from Copernicus’ astronomical tables were not used for the reform. Just for those who don’t want to read my blog post, Clavius only became associated with the reform after the fact, when he was commissioned by the pope to defend it against its numerous detractors.  I do feel that a bit of fact checking might prevent Poskett and Viking from filling the world with false information about what is after all a major historical event. 

The section Heaven and Earth closes with an account of Jai Singh’s observatories in India in the eighteenth century, the spectacular instruments of the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur still stand today. 

Readers of this review need not worry that I’m going to go on at such length about the other three quarters of Poskett’s book. I’m not for two reasons. Firstly, he appears to be on territory where he knows his way around better than in the Early Modern period, which was dealt with in the first quarter Secondly, my knowledge of the periods and sciences he now deals with are severely limited so I might not necessarily have seen any errors. 

There are however a couple more train wrecks before we reach the end and the biggest one of all comes at the beginning of the second quarter in the section titled Newton’s Slaves. I’ll start with a series of partial quote, then analyse them:

(a) Where did Newton get this idea [theory of gravity] from? Contrary to popular belief, Newton did not make his great discovery after an apple fell on his head. Instead in a key passage in the Principia, Newton cited the experiments of a French astronomer named Jean Richer. In 1672, Richer had travelled to the French colony of Cayenne in South America. The voyage was sponsored by King Louis XIV through the Royal Academy of Science in Paris.

[…]

(b) Once in Cayenne, Richer made a series of astronomical observations, focusing on the movements of the planets and cataloguing stars close to the equator.

[…]

(c) Whilst in Cayenne, Richer also undertook a number of experiments with a pendulum clock.

[…]

(d) In particular, a pendulum with a length of just one metre makes a complete swing, left to right, every second. This became known as a ‘seconds pendulum’…

[…]

(e) In Cayenne, Richer noticed that his carefully calibrated pendulum was running slow, taking longer than a second to complete each swing.

[…]

(f) [On a second voyage] Richer found that, on both Gorée and Guadeloupe, he needed to shorten the pendulum by about four millimetres to keep it running on time.

[…]

(g) What could explain this variation?

[…]

(h) Newton, however, quickly realised the implications the implications of what Richer had observed. Writing in the Principia, Newton argued that the force of gravity varied across the surface of the planet. 

[…]

(i) This was a radical suggestion, one which seemed to go against common sense. But Newton did the calculations and showed how his equations for the gravitational force matched exactly Richer’s results from Cayenne and Gorée. Gravity really was weaker nearer the equator.

[…]

(j) All this implied a second, even more controversial, conclusion. If gravity was variable, then the Earth could not be a perfect sphere. Instead, Newton argued, the Earth must be a ‘spheroid’, flattened at the poles rather like a pumpkin. 

[…]

(k) Today, it is easy to see the Principia as a scientific masterpiece, the validity of which nobody could deny. But at the time, Newton’s ideas were incredibly controversial.

[…]

(l) Many preferred the mechanical philosophy of the French mathematician René Descartes. Writing in his Principles of Philosophy (1644), Descartes denied the possibility of any kind of invisible force like gravity, instead arguing that force was only transferred through direct contact. Descartes also suggested that, according to his own theory of matter, the Earth should be stretched the other way, elongated like an egg rather than squashed like a pumpkin.

[…]

(m) These differences were not simply a case of national rivalry or scientific ignorance. When Newton published the Principia in 1687, his theories were in fact incomplete. Two major problems remained to be solved. First, there were the aforementioned conflicting reports of the shape of the Earth. And if Newton was wrong about the shape of the Earth, then he was wrong about gravity.[12]

To begin at the beginning: (a) The suggestion or implication that Newton got the idea of the theory of gravity from Richer’s second pendulum experiments is quite simply grotesque. The concept of a force holding the solar system together and propelling the planets in their orbits evolved throughout the seventeenth century beginning with Kepler. The inverse square law of gravity was first hypothesised by Ismaël Boulliau, although he didn’t believe it existed. Newton made his first attempt to show that the force causing an object to fall to the Earth, an apple for example, and the force that held the Moon in its orbit and prevented it shooting off at a tangent as the law of inertia required, before Richer even went to Cayenne.

(c)–(g) It is probable that Richer didn’t make the discovery of the difference in length between a second pendulum in Northern Europe and the equatorial region, this had already ben observed earlier. What he did was to carry out systematic experiments to determine the size of the difference.

(l) Descartes did not suggest, according to his own theory of matter, that the Earth was an elongated spheroid. In fact, using Descartes theories Huygens arrived at the same shape for the Earth as Newton. This suggestion was first made by Jean-Dominique Cassini and his son Jacques long after Descartes death. Their reasoning was based on the difference in the length of one degree of latitude as measured by Willebrord Snel in The Netherlands in 1615 and by Jean Picard in France in 1670. 

This is all a prelude for the main train wreck, which I will now elucidate. In the middle of the eighteenth century, to solve the dispute on the shape of the Earth, Huygens & Newton vs the Cassinis, the French Academy of Science organised two expeditions, one to Lapland and one to Peru in order to determine as accurately as possible the length of one degree of latitude at each location. Re-enter Poskett, who almost completely ignoring the Lapland expedition, now gives his account of the French expedition to Peru. He tells us:

The basic technique for conducting a survey [triangulation] of this kind had been pioneered in France in the seventeenth century. To begin the team needed to construct what was known as a ‘baseline’. This was a perfectly straight trench, only a few inches deep, but at least a couple of miles long.[13]

Triangulation was not first pioneered in France in the seventeenth century. First described in print in the sixteenth century by Gemma Frisius, it was pioneered in the sixteenth century by Mercator when he surveyed the Duchy of Lorraine, and also used by Tycho Brahe to map his island of Hven. To determine the length of one degree of latitude it was pioneered, as already stated, by Willebrord Snell. However, although wrong this is not what most disturbed me about this quote. One of my major interests is the history of triangulation and its use in surveying the Earth and determining its shape and I have never come across any reference to digging a trench to lay out a baseline. Clearing the undergrowth and levelling the surface, yes, but a trench? Uncertain, I consulted the book that Poskett references for this section of his book, Larrie D Ferreiro’s Measure of the EarthThe Enlightenment Expedition that Reshaped the World (Basic Books, 2011), which I have on my bookshelf. Mr Ferreiro make no mention of a baseline trench. Still uncertain and not wishing to do Poskett wrong I consulter Professor Matthew Edney, a leading expert on the history of surveying by triangulation, his answer:

This is the first I’ve heard of digging a trench for a baseline. It makes little sense. The key is to have a flat surface (flat within the tolerance dictated by the quality of the instruments being used, which wasn’t great before 1770). Natural forces (erosion) and human forces (road building) can construct a sufficiently level surface; digging a trench would only increase irregularities.[14]

The problems don’t end here, Poskett writes:

La Condamine did not build the baseline himself. The backbreaking work of digging a seven-mile trench was left to the local Peruvian Indians.[15]

This is contradicted by Ferreiro who write:

Just as the three men completed the alignment for the baseline, the rest of the expedition arrived on the scene, in time for the most difficult phase of the operation. In order to create a baseline, an absolutely straight path, seven miles long and just eighteen inches wide, had to be dug into, ripped up from, and scraped out of the landscape. For the scientists, who had been accustomed to a largely sedentary life back in Europe, this would involve eight days of back breaking labour and struggling for breath in the rarefied air. “We worked at felling trees,” Bouguer explained in his letter to Bignon, “breaking through walls and filling in ravines to align [a baseline] of more than two leagues.” They employed several Indians to help transport equipment, though Bouguer felt it necessary that someone “keep an eye on them.”[16]

Poskett includes this whole story of the Peruvian Indians not digging a non-existent baseline trench because he wants to draw a parallel between the baseline and the Nazca Lines, a group of geoglyphs made in the soil of the Nazca desert in southern Peru that were created between 500 BCE and 500 CE. He writes:

The Peruvian Indians who built the baseline must have believed that La Condamine wanted to construct his own ritual line much like the earlier Inca rulers.[17]

Also:

Intriguingly some are simply long straight lines. They carry on for miles, dead straight, crossing hills and valleys. Whilst their exact function is still unclear, many historians now believe they were used to align astronomical observations, exactly as La Condamine intended with his baseline.[18]

The Nazca lines are of course pre-Inca. The ‘many historians’ is a bit of a giveaway, which historians? Who? Even if the straight Nazca lines are astronomically aligned, they by no means serve the same function as La Condamine’s triangulation baseline, which is terrestrial not celestial.  

To be fair to Poskett, without turning the baseline into a trench and without having the Indians dig it, Ferreiro draws the same parallel but without the astronomical component: 

For their part, the Indians were also observing the scientists, but to them “all was confusion” regarding the scientists’ motives for this arduous work. The long straight baseline the had scratched out of the ground certainly resembled the sacred linear pathways that Peruvian cultures since long before the Incas, had been constructing.[19]

Poskett’s conclusion to this section, in my opinion, contains a piece of pure bullshit.

By January 1742, the results were in. La Condamine calculated that the distance between Quito and Cuenca was exactly 344,856 metres. From observations made of the stars at both ends of the survey, La Condamine also found that the difference in latitude between Quit and Cuenca was a little over three degrees. Dividing the two, La Condamine concluded that the length of a degree of latitude at the equator was 110,613 metres. This was over 1,000 metres less than the result found by the Lapland expedition, which had recently returned to Paris. The French, unwittingly relying on Indigenous Andean science [my emphasis] had discovered the true shape of the Earth. It was an ‘oblate spheroid’, squashed at the poles and bulging at the equator. Newton was right.[20]

Sorry, but just because Poskett thinks that a triangulation survey baseline looks like an ancient, straight line, Peruvian geoglyph doesn’t in anyway make the French triangulation survey in anyway dependent on Indigenous Andean science. As I said, pure bullshit. 

The next section deals with the reliance of European navigators of interaction with indigenous navigators throughout the eighteenth century and is OK. This is followed by the history of eighteenth-century natural history outside of Europe and is also OK. 

At the beginning of the third quarter, we again run into a significant problem. The chapter Struggle for Existence open with the story of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a natural historian, who having taken part in Napoleon’s Egypt expedition, compared mummified ancient Egyptian ibises with contemporary ones in order to detect traces of evolutions but because the time span was too short, he found nothing. His work was published in France 1818, but Poskett argues that his earliest work was published in Egyptian at the start of the century and so, “In order to understand the history of evolution, we therefore need to begin with Geoffroy and the French army in North Africa.” I’m not a historian of evolution but really? Ignoring all the claims for evolutionary thought in earlier history, Poskett completely blends out the evolutionary theories of Pierre Louis Maupertuis (1751), James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, (between 1767 and 1792) and above all Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, who published his theory of evolution in his Zoonomia (1794–1796). So why do we need to begin with Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire?

Having dealt briefly with Charles Darwin, Poskett takes us on a tour of the contributions to evolutionary theory made in Russia, Japan, and China in the nineteenth century, whilst ignoring the European contributions. 

Up next in Industrial Experiments Poskett takes us on a tour of the contributions to the physical sciences outside of Europe in the nineteenth century. Here we have one brief WTF statement. Poskett writes:

Since the early nineteenth century, scientists had known that the magnetic field of the Earth varies across the planet. This means that the direction of the north pole (‘true north’) and the direction that the compass needle points (‘magnetic north’) are not necessarily identical, depending on where you are.[21]

Magnetic declination, to give the technical name, had been known and documented since before the seventeenth century, having been first measured accurately for Rome by Georg Hartmann in 1510, it was even known that it varies over time for a given location. Edmund Halley even mapped the magnetic declination of the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the seventeenth century in the hope that it would provide a solution to the longitude problem. 

In the final quarter we move into the twentieth century. The first half deals with modern physics up till WWII, and the second with genetic research following WWII, in each case documenting the contribution from outside of Europe. Faster than Light, the modern physics section, move through Revolutionary Russia, China, Japan, and India; here Poskett connects the individual contributions to the various revolutionary political movements in these countries. Genetic States moves from the US, setting the background, through Mexico, India, China, and Israel.  I have two minor quibbles about what is presented in these two sections.

Firstly, in both sections, instead of a chronological narrative of the science under discussion we have a series of biographical essays of the figures in the different countries who made the contribution, which, of course, also outlines their individual contributions. I have no objections to this, but something became obvious to me reading through this collection of biographies. They all have the same muster. X was born in Y, became interested in topic Z, began their studies at some comparatively local institute of higher education, and then went off to Heidelberg/Berlin/Paris/London/Cambridge/Edinburg… to study with some famous European authority, and acquire a PhD. Then off to a different European or US university to research, or teach or both, before to returning home to a professorship in their mother country. This does seem to suggest that opposed to Poskett’s central thesis of the global development of science, a central and dominant role for Europe.  

My second quibble concerns only the genetics section. One of Poskett’s central theses is that science in a given epoch is driven by an external to the science cultural, social, or political factor. For this section he claims that the external driving force was the Cold War. Reading through this section my impression was that every time he evoked the Cold War he could just have easily written ‘post Second World War’ or even ‘second half of the twentieth century’ and it would have made absolutely no difference to his narrative. In my opinion he fails to actually connect the Cold War to the scientific developments he is describing.

The book closes with a look into the future and what Poskett thinks will be the force driving science there. Not surprisingly he chooses AI and being a sceptic what all such attempts at crystal ball gazing are concerned I won’t comment here.

The book has very extensive end notes, which are largely references to a vast array of primary and mostly secondary literature, which confirms what I said at the beginning that Poskett in merely presenting in semi-popular form the current stand in the history of science of the last half millennium. There is no separate bibliography, which is a pain if you didn’t look to see something the first time it was end noted, as in subsequent notes it just becomes Smith, 2003, sending you off on an oft hopeless search for that all important first mention in the notes. There are occasional grey scale illustrations and two blocks, one of thirteen and one of sixteen, colour plates. There is also an extensive index.

So, after all the negative comments, what do I really think about James Poskett, highly praised volume. I find the concept excellent, and the intention is to be applauded. A general popular overview of the development of the sciences since the Renaissance is an important contribution to the history of science book market. Poskett’s book has much to recommend it, and I personally learnt a lot reading it. However, as a notorious history of science pedant, I cannot ignore or excuse the errors than I have outlined in my review, some of which are in my opinion far from minor. The various sections of the book should have been fact checked by other historians, expert in the topic of the section, and this has very obviously not been done. It is to be hoped that this will take place before a second edition is published. 

Would I recommend it? Perhaps surprisingly, yes. James Poskett is a good writer and there is much to be gained from reading this book but, of course, with the caveat that it also contains things that are simply wrong. 


[1] James Poskett, Horizons: A Global History of Science, Viking, 2022 

[2] Take your pick according to your personal philosophy of science.

[3] Poskett p. 11

[4] Poskett p. 16

[5] Poskett 16

[6] Poskett p. 23

[7] Poskett p. 59

[8] Poskett p. 61

[9] Poskett p. 62

[10] Poskett p. 62

[11] Poskett p. 84

[12] Poskett pp. 101-104

[13] Poskett p. 107

[14] Edney private correspondence 27.07.2022

[15] Poskett p. 108

[16] Ferreiro p. 107

[17] Poskett p. 111

[18] Poskett p. 110

[19] Ferreiro p. 107

[20] Poskett pp. 111-112

[21] Poskett p. 251

5 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of botany, History of Cartography, History of Geodesy, History of Islamic Science, History of Navigation, Natural history, Renaissance Science

5 responses to “History of science is global history

  1. I sympathise with the author’s irritation at the general belief that science began with the Greeks and Romans and then re-flowered in the German renaissance. You are right that historians of science know better, but historians of science are still a minority, sad to say. On the other hand, the writer doesn’t seem to have gone to deeply into what people read at university level, or whether most students ever got more than the lecturer’s digests. As a matter of interest, Francesco Datini had a botanical garden in fourteenth-century France – if a ‘botanical garden’ means a collection of local and foreign plants.

  2. The author is a university professor for the history of science.

    As I wrote at the end of my review “I find the concept excellent, and the intention is to be applauded. A general popular overview of the development of the sciences since the Renaissance is an important contribution to the history of science book market” but I find the level of sloppiness and the factual inaccuracies simply unacceptable.

    As far as botanical gardens are concerned, I believe a lot of aristocrats had them long before the universities but I don’t know enough details about them to include them in my review. However, I think I had already made my point.

  3. The “map/encyclopedia produced by surveying individual territories with local experts” sounds a lot like Chinese gazetteers, which existed for centuries (and which Polo clearly was familiar with, among other possible sources).

    • That’s interesting, I wasn’t aware of it, but I know relatively little about the history of Chinese cartography. However, given the hight level of Chinese bureaucracy it seems obvious.

  4. Jim Harrison

    This author seems to practice a highfalutin version of one of Trump’s rhetorical tics: “Lincoln was actually a Republican. Many people don’t know that…”

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