Whether read or listened to, a story is essentially a colorless armature made of words, and it's up to each reader/listener to interpret it, imagine it, and people it with appearances, colors, movements, emotions. The process depends upon the individual's own experiences, since all things present grow from all things past.
This applies to history, too, that long story perpetually unfurling from past into moving present. Accurate tellings of history – encompassing perspectives of all involved peoples, cultures, backgrounds – are of course crucial to progress and identity in the modern world (all things present). And yet, the chronicling of scientific history that has cherry-picked white male Eurocentrism remains so in both school textbooks and popular belief. The biggest landmarks in scientific progress, whether the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the theory of evolution, or the rise of modern physics, are most often thought of as exclusively European phenomena. So, what of the rest of the world, those millions of other unmentioned people?
I was thrilled when I learned of a new book that presents a holistic history of science. Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science by science historian James Poskett sheds new light on the inextricable multicultural interconnectedness of science. Horizons traces the histories of astronomy, natural history, evolution, theoretical physics, and genetics across multiple continents and does away with popular notions of "isolated geniuses" in science, instead putting forth a much more collaborative narrative. Landmark moments in scientific progress are reframed as collective efforts, redistributing the credit so often singly attributed to household names like Copernicus and Isaac Newton.
The book first follows the development of natural history, medicine, and geography in the fifteenth century Americas, as Spaniards met the Aztecs and learned from them about unfamiliar plants and animals. These, they appraised by learning Aztec taxonomical classifications and mapmaking techniques in order to winnow out plants that were medicinal (i.e., profitable when sent back to Europe). Scholars back home soon realized that this newly expanded world around them did not mirror the static world described by ancient Greek and Roman texts, which they had upheld as unshakeable scientific truth. So, with the Aztec-led "discoveries" of "new" things not mentioned in these texts came a new approach to European science and medicine: making observations and testing ideas against experience. In other words, the essence of experiments.
Astronomy begins before celebrated signpost figures like Copernicus and Galileo. Its development has its roots in Islam. Since medieval times, astronomical observatories were essential to tracking the movement of the moon, to which the Islamic religious calendar is intimately tied (an interesting case in which science and religion were not at odds with each other). Indeed, Copernicus' heliocentrism calculations themselves hinged on a mathematical tool invented in thirteenth-century Persia as well as Muslim scientific texts made available to Europeans via trade with the Ottoman Empire. This runs counter to the popular notion that modern science began with the "Copernican Revolution," the 1543 publication of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.
The book also broaches dark sides of science not often covered in history classes. The Enlightenment, for example, rode on the coattails of colonialism and imperialism, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, too, European scientific advancement was built upon similar oppression and exploitation. Horizons superimposes science on empire. Isaac Newton's name would not be synonymous with gravity if it were not for the observations of Venus' transit made on slave-trading ships, which provided the initial evidence for his theory of universal gravitation and Principia. In the nineteenth century, too, colonial India's role in modern physical sciences had ties to the movement for independence from British rule. This unrest includes heavy-hitters like Prafulla Chandra Ray, the chemist who discovered nitrites and paved the path for the field of nitrite chemistry; Satyendra Nath Bose, responsible for Bose-Einstein statistics; Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, who discovered Raman scattering. The book also uplifts other people of color written out of history, including the Chinese scientist Zhao Zhongyao, whose experiment critical to proving the existence of the positron went unsung as the Nobel Prize for its discovery went to Carl Anderson (a fellow PhD student in the same lab who only later acknowledged that he had been directly inspired by Zhao's work).
The history of biological sciences is reframed by Horizons, too. Evolutionary thought did not birth from the 1859 publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Rather, records that predate that milepost exist of a Russian botanist and a Japanese philosopher who both developed theories of species arising from common ancestors (and even within Europe, so too did a French naturalist before Darwin was even born). Later amendments to Darwin's ideas evolved out of nationalistic movements across Asia. Socialist sentiments filtered into evolutionary thought: that mutual aid impacts evolution, rather than an isolated individual "struggle for existence." The age of genetics is also reframed as a breakthrough not beginning in 1953 with the reporting of DNA's structure, but rather in 1945 with the atomic bomb droppings that ended World War II, when Japan came to grips with the mutagenic aftereffects. Genetics was also already at the forefront of efforts by Mexican scientists working to improve maize crop yield, also prior to 1953.
There is a kinship between individuals, their homelands, and scientific output. Prafulla Chandra Ray discovered that coating radio receivers with cobalt increased their sensitivity, simply because he was trying to find materials resistant to India’s sweltering climate. In Japan, the 1891 earthquake that shook the country provided the stimulus for Hantaro Nagaoka's ideas about the structure of the atom (for which Rutherford got the credit). People in Japan, too, were more open to the concept of evolution than those in Christian Europe because of their familiarity with the Shinto principle that all life has a common origin. Innovation has often emerged in this upbringing-inspired way, and so this book is a gentle reminder of why it is so crucial to have people from diverse backgrounds in science.
The information in Horizons is absolutely essential, and even for that reason only I think it's a universally invaluable read. I did feel that at some places the level of detail was unbalanced, with repetitive points that had already been drilled home and less discussion of points relevant to the global nature of science. But maybe this was due to a lack of historical records. Also, the book's structure may or may not appeal to readers: each chapter is bookended by reiterative introductions and conclusions, like an academic paper. For a pop-history book, it was an explicitly lecture-like voice and format (this kind: 1. tell them what you're going to talk about, 2. talk about it, 3. tell them again what you just talked about). But maybe this hybrid format was intentional, the author perhaps intending his book to straddle use as a leisure read and as a textbook.
In any case, I found it an eye-opening read. It embraces the idea that the accessibility of sciences, whether to the general public or to cross-disciplinary scientific collaborators, requires proper communication of past, present, and future research. More accurate narratives fill the ellipses in history and pave the path for new scientific success stories.