I talk about things I find interesting. I find a lot of things interesting…

Book idea: History of knowledge transfer

by Ken Arnold on Wed 20 February 2013

This thing with Indian and Arabic math/astro makes me think it would be interest to read (write?) a book following that information flow.

Generally speaking, we in the west have historically thought of science as starting in Classical Greece, with information from previous civilization’s math/astro (e.g., from Babylonian civilization), then after some Roman engineering stuff, hibernating through the Dark Ages (or Middle Ages if you prefer that term) and suddenly rising, phoenix-like, in the Renaissance.

This is a paper-thin slice through reality. The first clue is that in Europe’s Dark Ages, nobody gave a crap about this stuff. All that knowledgey stuff had nothing to do with either daily life, administration, or the church. Which is all that people could possibly manage to write down during those times. Unless someone discovered a hidden cache of ancient texts under a rock somewhere, almost all of that information would have been lost.

What actually happened was that the Arab culture decided to forgo the Dark Ages, thank you very much. They recognized the value of knowledge and transcribed (some) and translated (mostly) those Greek texts. The also absorbed knowledge from other civilizations, notably India and to a lesser extent China. So when the earliest stirrings of Renaissance started, they started with the knowledge the Arabs had preserved and created themselves. Our first access to those ancient thinkers was through the Arabs, often translated from the Arabic.

I was taught a bit of this in High School. It’s gotten a bit better since. I think many people know that the Indians invented the zero, for example. But what, exactly. was being preserved is often hard to transcribe. It requires understanding what was thought a long time ago, why people thought it was important, who independently invented things, and so on. Knowledge arose and then bounced around the world like a very loss-ey, slow motion pinball machine. And much of it was poured down the dark oubliette of indifference into ignorance, only some of which is recovered.

I would be interested in a travelogue of the history knowledge — who learned what, where it went, what it meant to those who received it — focused on how it all ended up in Europe at the start of the Renaissance, which is the start of what is a relatively uninterrupted voyage to now. It is true that this voyage would double back and sometimes interrupt other people’s acquisition of knowledge, but for the most part the juggernaut starting with the Renaissance created a European technical dominance that is as yet ongoing, except that it is now becoming much more non-European.

So does anyone know about that book? If not, does someone want to write it? Do I?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *