[ Giants’ Shoulders is a monthly round-up of the most interesting blogs and articles from the history of science. For previous editions, please see the archive.]
We begin this whirlwind circumnavigation of the world with a link between Charles Darwin and the Mughal empire, both of which shared - perhaps for different reasons, a passion for pigeons, which suggests that Darwin knew about Abu’l-Fazl’s chapter on the subject. In a similar vein, it is worth recalling Sawai Jai Singh ( the astronomer-king of Jaipur, who created the solar observatory ) and his European connections.
An ancient Gandhari manuscript is the subject of this expansive article on “how to decipher a 4000 year-old tax return”. Down south near the waters of Sri Lanka, archaeologists prepare to excavate the oldest known shipwreck in the Indian Ocean. Such long oceanic journeys, and the fighting of wars oversea depended heavily on techniques of food processing and preservation.
Chemical preservation is also employed to archive biological specimens for centuries. The Asian origins of a rare elephant foetus purchased by none other than Carl Linnaeus are examined in this fascinating summary of a lecture by Anna Marie Roos. Sometimes nature creates time capsules of its own, buried not too deep beneath its skin. Suvrat Kher talks about the first dinosaur fossil discovered in India, in 1828 by Captain Sleeman of the Bengal Army.
A highly suspect claim that spectacles, or reading eyeglasses - were invented in India is taken to the surgery table by The Renaissance Mathematicus.
Meanwhile, Jaipreet Virdi has revealed some beautiful photographs of Indian women studying medicine in the 19th century. Around the same period, the beginnings of physical astronomy in India (pdf) at the Kodaikanal observatory are essayed in the latest issue of Current Science. We also find - in a history of the cafeteria at the Indian Institute of Science, a “link between masala dosas and war”.
Moving up to ancient China, Carla Nappi writes about the Qing Bodies project, “a long-term multi-media foray into considering various forms of scientific and medical writing in the Qing period from the perspective of a history of storytelling”; for example, consider this inventive translation of a Manchu recipe as drama. There is more on Chinese heritage in this post about The Year of the Horse which began on January 31. And who knew that the famous device known as the Yellow Emperor’s south-pointing chariot features in a Japanese fairy tale?
As our caravan moves west, the review of a new book called “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane” provides a nice summary of the history of sciences in the region.
A single leaf from an Arabic version of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica is noticed by bintbattuta, and starts floating on a trade wind towards the dark continent.
The African Fold
The sunrise in your gray eyes speaks
the history of man with no words.
Silence spirals across the sky.
This nautiloid look from the inside.
An astronomer in the Namibian desert tells his story through an evocative poem.
Carla Klehm in The Appendix Journal narrates an expansive history of the Kalahari desert through the culture of glass beads. She writes:
Glass beads help link the archaeologist to a time and a place beyond ancient texts and oral histories, when this part of Africa—thousands of miles from the Indian Ocean—traded with the Middle East, India, Indonesia, and China. This is a story about the tiny trails of history the beads have left us.
Drawings of Egyptian mummies and “negros preparing indigo” are found in a post about 17th century French apothecary Pierre Pomet’s treatise: A Compleat History of Drugs.
Keeping in mind that jihadist rebels in Mali torched a large archive of scientific manuscripts, it is heartening to read about how some brave scholars smuggled a majority of them to safety in and out of Timbuktu.
Before stepping further, take a moment to see the many projects underway at the Endangered Archives project.
Europe & Americas
Worth glancing at is a missive from Poland, about Stanisław Lubieniecki’s monumental Theatrum cometicum, a compendium of “all comets that have been mentioned in historical records that were available in the mid-seventeenth century and which appeared on the firmament in the period between the biblical flood and the year 1665 C.E.”
Surely the comets must have been visiting the firmament long before the humans evolved enough to become astronomers, before the continents drifted apart from a primordial Pangea.
Some 50 million years ago, Africa was pushed north in Europe creating a long mountain range. Andalucia was part of this.
A geologist looks at the history of Andalucia with a dizzying sense of the passage of time:
Around 3000 years ago (1100BC) the Phoenicians reached Andalucia, founding the town of Cadiz. A culture that reached across the Mediterranean they were also involved in trade with the British Isles. Tin from Cornwall in England was smelted with Spanish copper and the resulting bronze traded on.
A very pleasant news this month came from the British Isles, where both the British Library and the Wellcome Trust have unloaded huge cargoes of scientific archives online for the public to use. The BL’s inventive software bot known as The Mechanical Curator is worthy of much analysis. What does the algorithmic analysis of digitized manuscripts mean for history studies? A post by Whitney Trettien on automatic layout analysis might illustrate some of that.
Sadly, questions of gender-bias in the scientific world continue to cause much consternation.
The history of alchemy has also been under a lot of scrutiny recently. No surprise that it is finally being recognized by the media as a proto-science, rather than pseudoscience. Especially notable is the lifelong involvement of Sir Isaac Newton, whose highly complex personality continues to inspire much debate.
From here we set sail across the Atlantic with the illustrious chemist Joseph Priestly, to meet Thomas Jefferson in America at the end of the 18th century.
The voices from North America speak of a new book showcasing the history of globes, the silver teapot of Benjamin Franklin, Louis Pasteur’s studies on yeast and beer.
Lastly, a look at how the inhabitants of Marshall Islands used stick charts to map the waves.
Hic Sunt Dracones
If we have missed certain regions of the globe, it is because I have not come across active scribes from that region on the internet. Some of them are inaccessible due to their native language, some due to the lack of intercultural bridges, and some mainly due to my own ignorance. I hope you will pardon any such omissions.
However, a vibrant community of science historians are constantly feeding the river of information on Twitter, and you’ll never step into the same river twice. The tag they use is #histsci
The host for the next edition of Giants’ Shoulders will be announced shortly by Thony Christie at The Renaissance Mathematicus, and if you’d like to host a future edition please drop him a line. Needless to say, but I am very grateful to Thony for giving me this opportunity. You can find me on twitter as @fadesingh.
[ Header Image: anonymous painting, India c. 1850, Middle Image is a cartographic painting by artist Fernando Vicente]