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Eman Cheema 1

University of Toronto 23
November, 2013

Political and social modernization of states and societies has long been synonymous with
Westernization. This concept extends to the progress of science as well, as though scientific
discovery or the pursuit of answers about life in a measured manner in itself is limited to the
Western world. Whereas, science does not have a culture or a religion; it is not limited to
political or geographical domains. The Sumerian writing and number notation system, the Hindu
and Buddhist Invention of Zero and the contributions made by Islamic scientists are testaments
to the fact that science, contrary to popular belief, is not exclusively Western.
As explained in Robert K. Logans book, The Poetry of Physics and the Physics of
Poetry, the first signs of science began to emerge in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and China, as
these were agricultural, political economies that began to develop technologies to further
enhance their lifestyles and living. These ancient cultures were the first to acquire knowledge of
mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, botany, zoology, medicine and mechanics; in the case of the
Chinese, even magnetism and clockworks.
The culture of Mesopotamia is an umbrella term used to describe the cultures that
developed in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates river systems (Logan). The first of these
cultures there was that of the Sumerians, a non-Semitic speaking people, the origin and language
of which remains a mystery to this day (Logan). They were conquered by a Semitic-speaking
people, the Akkadians, who are known more commonly as the Babylonians (Logan). The
Sumerians were the first culture to have invented writing and mathematical notation, which is
now an integral part of the scientific process and discovery (Logan). It is believed that this idea
of writing spread to China in the east, and Egypt in the West; from there on, it spread to other
cultures of the Old World, which consisted of Eurasia and Africa or regarded collectively as the
part of the world known to Europeans before European contact with the Americas) (Logan).
Eman Cheema 2
University of Toronto 23
November, 2013

Writing was invented independently in the New World by the Mayans (Logan). Writing systems
are essential for cultures to engage in scientific activity, as the recording of the characteristics of
physical environments allow for there to exist worldviews or a framework for understanding the
significance of observations made regarding human surroundings. Understanding the
significance of the information collected on human surroundings crafts a purpose for people and
the environments in which they reside. The need for understanding the nature of the world and
what it consists of is not limited to any particular religion, culture, geographical or political
domain. Curiosity is universal, and natural, and not exclusively Western. Science is the pursuit of
relinquishing ignorance and is often considered to be limited to the Western world due to the
exponential growth of scientific activity and discovery in the West; as a result of this assumption,
science is often demonized by non-Western cultures. However, the Sumerian invention of
writing is testament to the fact that scientific discovery is not an exclusively Western
phenomenon, rather the result of a human need to understand and adapt to surroundings.
The widely-held belief that science is Western practice is understandable, given that the
scientific revolution occurred in Renaissance Europe (Logan). However, the roots of the
scientific revolution can also be said to have took place in Ancient India and the Medieval
Islamic World. More than 2,000 years ago, Hindu and Buddhist mathematicians invented zero
and that has led to the discovery of positional numbers, simpler arithmetic calculations, negative
numbers as well as the notions of infinitesimals, infinity, fractions and irrational numbers
(Logan). All of these discoveries were essential elements in the breakthroughs of Copernicus,
Kepler, Galileo and Newton, as they provided a platform for these scientists to build or expand
on. Historians of mathematics have always been perplexed that the idea of zero was a discovery
of the Hindus and not the Greeks; this confusion stems not from having examined the origin and
Eman Cheema 3
University of Toronto 23
November, 2013

development of Greek mathematics, rather from comparing Hindu and Greek philosophies
(Logan). Paradoxically, it was the rational and logical thought patterns of the Greeks that
hindered their development of Algebra and the invention of zero (Logan). Parmenides logically
arrived to the conclusion that non-being could not be, and Aristotle reaffirmed this by arguing
that vacuums could not exist (Logan). According to Professor Robert K. Logan, these
philosophical arguments created an environment in which the conceptualization of zero was
discouraged (Logan). In contrast to these Greek notions, non-being was a state of existence that
Hindus and Buddhists actively sought, in their attempt to achieve Nirvana (oneness with the
whole cosmos); they were not confined by an intellectual tradition of formal logic (38). Hindus
and Buddhists were less constrained, and more imaginative in their thinking; this proved to be
invaluable asset not only to them, but also to science (Logan). The Maya civilization in what is
now Mexico used zero in various forms (Crilly). A little later, astronomer Claudius Ptolemy,
influenced by the Babylonians, used a symbol akin to the modern zero as a placeholder in his
number system (Crilly). As a placeholder, zero could be used to distinguish between examples
(in modern notations) such as 75 and 705, instead of relying on context as the Babylonians had
done (Crilly). This might be compared with the introduction of the comma into the English
language; both a zero and a comma help with reading the correct meaning (Crilly). But, just as a
comma comes with a set of rules for use, there had to be a set of rules for the use of zero (Crilly).
Which is where seventh-century Indian mathematician Brahmagupta comes in; he treated zero as
a number, not merely as a placeholder and set out rules for dealing with it (Crilly). These
included the sum of a positive number and zero is zero and the sum of zero and zero is zero
(Crilly). In thinking of zero as a number rather than a placeholder, Brahmagupta was quite
advanced. The Hindu-Arabic numbering system which included zero in this way was
Eman Cheema 4
University of Toronto 23
November, 2013

promulgated in the West by Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) in his Liber Abaci (The Book of
Counting) which was first published in 1202 (Crilly). As a result of the discovery of zero, the
world has progressed to the technologically advanced state it is in today. It has granted ease of
task performance and accessibility of information to a greater portion of the world. The
development of zero, and everything that is built upon it, has created an environment that
encourages growth, further invention and discovery. The invention of zero has allowed for there
to exist a concept of quantifying the shape, size, location, and development of human
surroundings. Recording observations and quantifying them according to a number system which
zero is a part of has made room for progress in the world. For example, from numerical evidence,
a conclusion about a particular communitys behavior can be made. Such a conclusion can then
be analyzed from different perspectives. Stemming from different analyses, different course of
actions can be mapped out for the future to pursue a better way of behaving. The present number
system was invented by the Hindus, and is possibly the most important application of zero. From
Hindus, place numeration (representation of all numbers by ten symbols) was transmitted to
Europe by Arab and Persian scholars (Logan).
Between the seventh and sixteenth centuries, a very vital level of scientific activity took
place in the Islamic world, in which Arabic was the lingua franca (Logan). During this time,
learning in Europe went into a decline, with the exception of theology (Logan). In his book,
Pioneers of Science, Oliver Lodge described the significance of the contributions made by
Islamic medieval science in the following manner:
The only effective link between the old and new science is afforded by the Arabs. The
dark ages come as an utter gap in the scientific history of Europe, and for more than a
thousand years, there was not a scientific man of note except in Arabia. (Lodge)
Eman Cheema 5
University of Toronto 23
November, 2013

Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid dynasty from 750 to 1258, became a cultural, and literary
hub; it was home to minds that produced original and stimulating research (Logan). As Baghdad
gained momentum in making progress in the fields of art and science, it established a library and
academy to further aid growth and learning, which in many ways rivaled the original library at
Alexandria (Logan). In The Poetry of Physics and the Poetry of Physics, Professor Robert K.
Logan examines factors that contributed to the intense literary and scientific activity in the Arab
world; one of these factors was the sudden availability of paper in the mid-eighth century,
replacing more expensive media of parchment, such as papyrus or leather. The Arabs borrowed
the knowledge of producing paper from the Chinese, and later passed it on the West (Logan).
The contributions Muslims made to the overall development of modern science was of two
types; the first being advancements and discoveries they made entirely on their own, the second
being the role they played in the preservation of the scientific accomplishments made in Ancient
Greece, India, China, Persia and their transmission to Europe (Logan). The Muslims made
significant advances in the fields of medicine and pharmacology (in terms of observation,
diagnosis and treatment with drugs), and chemistry (Logan). They have also been credited with
laying the foundations for an empirical approach to science with their contributions to the
formulation of the scientific method (Logan). Muslims possessed a vast amount of knowledge
pertaining to chemistry. They were able to perform procedures such as distillation, liquification,
oxidization, crystallization, filtration and purification skillfully. As a result of their skill and
knowledge, Muslims were able produce what in modern day are considered necessities such as
soap, shampoo, and most importantly, medicines (Logan). Islamic medieval science gave rise to
the term algebra from Al-Khwarizmis Kitab-al-Jabr, and made contributions to mathematics
and logic (Logan). Arabic astronomical observations were more accurate than those previously
Eman Cheema 6
University of Toronto 23
November, 2013

made because of improvements in their astronomical instruments. Arabs increased the size of the
armillary sphere and astrolabe and thus reduced the errors of observation. They were able to
calculate the radius of the earth and the meridian degree with only 1 percent error, by A.D. 820.
In the meantime, Europe was still slumbered under the illusion that the earth was flat (Logan).
The fact that the Arabs transmitted their study and findings to Europe is indicative of the fact that
science was previously thought to be universal. It is a testament to the fact that in intellectual and
academic spheres, knowledge was prized way too much to be kept a secret within cultures or
states; it had to be shared for the pool of information to grow. The notion that limits science to
the West is false, and fairly recent, in that case. Without the efforts of different communities
towards expanding the universal reservoir of knowledge, the world would lack several
commodities and services that are considered necessities in most parts of the world, today. The
Arabs built upon the scientific information they received from the Ancient Greeks, Chinese,
India and Persia. Then, they transmitted the refined, improved and advanced information to
Europe, which Europeans further worked on. This demonstrates the universality of science; it
can be considered a global project, rather than being reduced to an international race orchestrated
by power-hungry state heads.
The notion that non-Western cultures abhor science, and are underdeveloped nations as a
result of religious conflicts with scientific progress, is a fallacy. It was the Hindu and Buddhist
religious pursuit to achieve Nirvana or oneness with the entire cosmos that lead to the invention
of zero. This means that religion in such a scenario proved to have aided, rather than a deterred,
scientific activity. What is often overlooked in a discussion regarding the stagnancy of
underdeveloped nations in scientific matters is the fact that because they lack power, they lack
resources, and because they lack resources, their means of being innovative are hindered to a
Eman Cheema 7
University of Toronto 23
November, 2013

great degree. Nations lack of power is a different conversation; but it does play in to what
nations can offer to scientific spheres. Science has made so much progress that there now exists a
need to keep information from getting to the wrong set of minds, lest more weapons of mass
destruction come about. This need to protect scientific development also has political roots; it
does not stem from a lack of intelligence (which is different from knowledge) or a lack of ability.
Science is universal, and not exclusively Western; yet, to make advancements, a certain degree
of financial and security is required. Many great minds currently cannot afford to make scientific
advancements because they lack the freedom and the resources to do so. The political climate of
nations has greatly limited the advancement of science in non-Western cultures, causing for
scientific activity to take place primarily in areas that are considered Western. This reinforces the
notion that science is exclusively Western, even though it is not true. However, the
interdependence of politics and scientific progress is rarely ever considered, or brought to light in
mainstream media. Non-western cultures do not discourage scientific progress, but rather
encourage it. In Islam, there are several Hadiths (words of the Prophet Muhammad, secondary to
the Word of God, which is the Quran) that urge Muslims to pursue education and discovery. In
the book of Al-Tirmidhi, a collection of Hadiths, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have advised
Muslims to acquire knowledge and impart it to the people (107). This could have been a factor
that might have encouraged Muslims to have preserved, improved and transmitted scientific
information to Europe. Another Hadith states that, God, His angels and all those in Heavens and
on Earth, even ants in their hills and fish in the water, call down blessings on those who instruct
others in beneficial knowledge (422). This further demonstrates the encouragement of scientific
activity in non-Western cultures, shattering the popular belief that science is a Western construct.
Eman Cheema 8
University of Toronto 23
November, 2013

The invention of zero, the contributions of Islamic scientists and the invention of writing
by the Sumerians, when contextualized by the cultures in which they were discovered, prove that
science is universal, and not exclusively Western. From the three cases explored, it becomes
evident that curiosity and the pursuit to relinquish ignorance is natural, and not limited to any
one culture, religion or region.

Eman Cheema 9
University of Toronto 23
November, 2013

Works Cited
Crilly, Tony. 50 Mathematical Ideas You really Need To Know. London: Quercus, 2007. Print.
"Hadiths on Knowledge." Knowledge and Islam. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Lodge, Oliver. Pioneers of Science. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2003. Print.
Logan, Robert K.. The Poetry of Physics and the Physics of Poetry. Singapore: World Scientific,
2010. Print.