Monday, January 9, 2012

my hero, zero

Our trip to Jantar Mantar on Sunday gave us a chance to reflect on the importance of Indian science and technology, especially the historical importance of dialog between Indian, Muslim, and European scientists and mathematicians. If you haven't seen the pictures of Jantar Mantar yet, it is an amazing kind of astronomical garden or park, as Alice described it a few days ago, built by Sawai Jai Singh II between 1728 and 1734.

From Chris Henke's India Photos
Its structures are meant for astronomical and astrological calculations, and we had a nice conversation at Jantar Mantar about the confluence of these two ways of observing and using the heavens during the era we think of as the rise of modernity and the scientific revolution. Kings and emporers sought to control and expand their empires through the predictive possibilities of astrology, and astronomy developed in tandem with these royal desires. Though today many of us would look back on one type of science and identify it as legitimate (astronomy) and label the other as superstition (astrology), these distinctions did not exist at the time, and point overall to the historical contingency of scientific thought. Sure, we make progress, but it makes one think about what we might consider true "science" and "superstition" down the road.

The other point I find fascinating about the sites we have been seeing in Rajasthan are the signs of influence and transaction between Indian and other cultural systems of belief and knowledge. Perhaps the most interesting of these transactions is the invention of zero, which seems pretty obvious, but eluded European mathematicians until the fourteenth century. According to India scholar Thomas Trautmann, the idea of zero was conceived by the Indian astronomer Aryabhata, who lived circa 500CE. Though we often think of many of our modern mathematical concepts as coming from Muslim culture, Trautmann describes a movement between Indian and Islamic scholars well before the advent of "globalization." Therefore, although we use the arabic name "algebra" for the use of variables to solve equations, Trautmann notes that Muslim scholars termed this method the "Indian reckoning."

Sources: Trautmann, Thomas R. 2011. India: Brief History of a Civilization. Oxford. See especially Chapter Seven.

Via YouTube: My Hero, Zero

1 comment:

  1. As a dad with two very young children, I can tell you that "zero" is a hard concept for the kids to grab. This is relevant, according to the link, we're not even sure when zero was invented.