Prof Thanu Padmanabhan, a prominent theoretical physicist and cosmologist whose research spans a wide variety of topics in gravitation, structure formation in the universe and quantum gravity, is, at present, a Distinguished Professor at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics. He is actively involved in the popularisation of science and, along with theoretical physicist and wife Vasanthi Padmanabhan, has decided to explore the “uncharted” territory of the early history of science for an educated and informed reader. The author couple talks to Anuradha Mascarenhas about the two years of dedicated research that led to their book, ‘The Dawn of Science: Glimpses from History for the Curious Mind’. Excerpts from an interview:
After having authored several books — now textbook material at several universities — what prompted you to delve into the history of science?
This is not a monograph on the history of science written by a couple of historians of science for fellow historians of science. Our intention is that you should enjoy reading this book. Several books focus on the history of science but they do not cater to the lay public. When we started our research, we found that there are really very few books — and this is perhaps the first comprehensive book of its kind — which present the very early history of science in a storytelling format. There were a series of articles written for Resonance, a magazine brought out by Indian Academy of Sciences, some years ago. This 24-part series was popular and there was a demand for a book along similar lines.
Which period of history have you selected and what was the break-off point?
To do this in a modular and entertaining fashion, we have just picked 24 topics that cover different milestones in science — from antiquity till about the 17th century. We have stopped with Isaac Newton’s contribution to physics and Lavoisier’s (French chemist Antoine Lavoisier) to chemistry, which, we think, could be thought of as the end of a period that we would call the dawn of science. This endpoint, as well as the choice of the 24 milestones, does of course reflect our personal preferences. But we are quite sure that at least 20 out of these 24 will feature in any sensible listing of early milestones in scientific history. All these chapters, with the exception of one or two, will be easy to grasp for anyone with an exposure to high-school level science.
Could you tell us about the research effort?
Thanu: There was a lot of background research required for all the chapters. This is the first book that we have written together. To be honest though, I ended up writing 20 per cent of what my wife had researched and collected. She got the figures, equations, diagrams and the most important value addition of authenticating the facts.
Give us some examples of popular myths that you have tackled in the book.
People do not always pick up facts from the right sources. Many things we believed have turned out to not be completely true. Take for instance, one of the dramatic tales about Archimedes. It comes to us from the description of Marcellus in the works of Plutarch, in context of the Siege of Syracuse. Hieron II, the king of Syracuse, had a treaty of alliance with Rome. After his death, his grandson Hieronymus occupied the throne of Syracuse. During his reign, Rome suffered a major defeat in a war with Carthage and seemed to have been quite lost. Hieronymus, having misjudged the situation, switched his loyalties to Carthage, the winning side.
The Romans, of course, didn’t like this at all, and once they recovered, they sent a fleet commanded by Marcellus, laying siege to Syracuse. This, if Plutarch is to be believed, started the strange three-year war between the Roman fleet, on the one side, and a one-man army, Archimedes, on the other. The mechanical inventions Archimedes used in this war probably constituted the first massive application of superior technological knowledge of warfare. He is said to have constructed large mirrors and lenses to set Roman ships on fire and huge mechanical cranes to lift ships from the sea. This account was originally given by Polybius in his Universal History, penned about 70 years after Archimedes’ death, and acted as a source for Plutarch.
There is, however, some amount of controversy about whether Archimedes did all of this! The main reason being that people have not been able to reconstruct, for example, mirror systems that could cause serious damage to ships (compared to other weapons available at that time). We have included it because it seems to be a nice story, but in our footnote have cautioned the reader that the story is not substantiated. Of course, this book is not primarily about correcting historical myths, though we had to address the issue as we went along.
What are the unique features of the book?
The book is completely modular and you can dip into any of the chapters, independent of the others. So, you can read the chapters in any order that appeals to you. The chapters contain a special diagram called ‘When’ (and some of the chapters also have a diagram entitled ‘Where’). This diagram summarises the events in the historical period described in that particular chapter. To the left of the timeline, you can see the key events in science, while to the right we have given the key events in world history.
We have included chapters on the exploration of the high seas, the story of the calendar system and the development of printing in this collection of milestones. We strongly believe that they deserve a place here because of the symbiotic relationship they had with the more narrowly-defined aspects of scientific development. The book is intended for the lay public and not for historians of science. But there are ample references to the literature (with brief annotations) at the end of each chapter.
The development of science cannot be viewed in isolation as there has to be social and political context of the time as a reference point. Also, which was the most challenging chapter to write?
We have not shied away from commenting on the influence of social, economic and religious developments on science. Unfortunately, these influences have been rather negative in many crucial phases, but becoming aware of this fact is an important part of your education. In a similar spirit, we have tried to portray scientists as normal human beings with innate weaknesses and feelings (in spite of being the intellectual giants they were).
The chapter that was challenging and satisfying was on the Kerala School of Mathematics. Some historical facts described here, such as the development of calculus in South India, well before Newton and Leibniz (German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz), have come to light only in the last few decades and, hence, are not as widely known as they deserve to be. To that extent, the history of science is very much alive and evolving in itself.
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