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Monday, September 26, 2016


By Hugh Murray
            [This is a discussion of James E. McClellan III and Harold Dorn’s Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999]
This is not a traditional review, certainly not typical of my controversial discussions of books.  I came to this book because I was confused by several other works I had recently read.  I enjoyed reading Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – For Now, and reviewed it.  Though he expands his history to include much of the world, his approach to Western Europe is rather conventional.  There is a high point with ancient Rome about 2 millennia ago, but with the fall of Rome and the Empire in the West, Western Europe is so crippled that when Morris compares the top Western cities to compare them to those of China, he chooses cities Constantinople, Cairo, and Baghdad.
By contrast, Rodney Stark viewed the fall of the Roman Empire in the west as a turning point, freeing Europe to thrive, making great advances in the so-called “Dark Ages” so that the average west European lived healthier, longer, and more comfortably than most people on earth of that era.  Stark maintained that many essential inventions were made in Europe in the Dark Ages or shortly thereafter, and if not invented by European, adapted by them and improved by them so they were technically superior to those in the lands of the original inventors.
Another view was presented by Charles Freeman in The Closing of the Western Mind.  He describes the growth of Christianity and its intolerance toward other religions and other philosophies and sciences.  After Christianity gained power under Emperor Constantine, his successors eventually closed pagan temples and destroyed pagan culture – even closing the Olympic Games.  Christian hostility, even to pagan mathematics, was exemplified when a devout mob kidnapped Hypatia, then beat her, flayed her, and killed her.  With her murder the end of pagan math coincided with the end of the first female mathematician of antiquity.  Not only did the Christian Roman Empire persecute pagans, it also persecuted Christian heretics.  The older, pagan culture, more tolerant and open-to-speculation on varied topics – that era ceased.  Ideologically, religiously, the European mind had closed.  So how could there be invention and innovation in Dark Age Europe?
The more I read, the more confused I became.  If the minds of Europeans were so closed, how could their lives so improve in the Dark Ages?  Did they improve?  If Europe was so closed-minded, why would the scientific revolution eventually occur in Europe?  And not in China?  Or India?  Or the Islamic world?
Helping me answer these question is this textbook published in 1999, Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction, by James McClellan and Harold Dorn.
This review is not typical, but I shall use the authors’ own words to make their points.  In early civilizations based upon flooding and irrigation agriculture, knowledge of when the floods might occur, how high, the building and maintenance of irrigation and canals, storage of foods, the seasons, all became very practical items and governments and or temples would subsidize these engineering and climatic studies.
“Again and again, higher learning with practical applications was supported by state and temple authorities [in Egypt and other early hydraulic societies] and deployed to maintain the state and its agricultural economy.  Knowledge became the concern of cadres of professional experts employed in state institutions whose efforts…to service of sustaining society rather than to any individualistic craving for discovery…the scribal experts were anonymous, not a single biography of the individuals who over hundreds of years contributed to science in the first civilizations has come down to us.”(46)
The authors note a weakness in Greek science.  In Greece theoretical speculation rose on many topics, from the origins and composition of the world to the best forms of government to what might be deemed a good life.  “…on the whole Hellenistic science at Alexandria and elsewhere in the ancient world was not applied to technology, or…, pursued for utilitarian ends…It remained isolated, not in any direct way connected or applied to the predominantly practical problems of the age.”(86) 
“Aristotle marked a watershed in the history of science.  His work, which encompassed logic, physics, cosmology, psychology, natural history, anatomy, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, represents both the culmination of the Hellenic Enlightenment, and the fountainhead of science and higher learning for the following 2,000 years.  Aristotle dominated scientific traditions in late antiquity, in medieval Islam, in early modern Europe where his science and his world-view defined scientific methodology and the research agenda up to just a few centuries ago.”(71)
Not only did the ancients look to scientists for guidance on numerous issues, but the authors remind us that Ptolemy was not only the greatest astronomer of the ancient world, he was probably the best astrologer.(85)  There was overlap with alchemy, astrology, and other mystic areas with science at that time and much later.
“Historians of technology have asked why no industrial revolution developed in antiquity.  The simple answer seems to be that there was no need, that contemporary modes of production and the slave-based economy of the day satisfactorily maintained the status quo.  The capitalist idea of profit as a desirable end to pursue was completely foreign to the contemporary mentality.  So too, was the idea that technology on a large scale could or should be harnessed to those ends.  An industrial revolution was literally unthinkable in antiquity.”(94)  Here I disagree.  Heron developed a steam engine in first century Alexandria, and there were many other “modern” type inventions.  There are always some people who want more – I suspect that is a human trait.  Were ancients really oblivious to the profit motive?  Slavery may well have inhibited willingness to invest time and resources in new invention, as the cheap labor of slavery may have competed with more expensive industrial produce.  But the industrial revolution could co-exist with slavery as when Europe’s colonies had slaves during the official Industrial Revolution.  I think it a perfectly proper question to ask, - why did not the Industrial Revolution occur in the ancient world, in China, in India, etc.
McClellan and Dorn do pay credit to other civilizations.  “A unified sociocultural domain, Islam prospered as a great world civilization, and its scientific culture flourished for at least five centuries.”(103)  “The success of Islam depended as much on its faithful farmers as on its soldiers.  The former took over the established flood plains of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and in what amounted to an agricultural revolution, they adapted new and more diversified food crops to the Mediterrean ecosystem: rice, sugar cane, cotton, melons, citrus fruits, and other products.  With rebuilt and enlarged systems of irrigation, Islamic farming extended the growing season and increased productivity.  That Islamic scientists turned out an uninterrupted series of treatises on agriculture and irrigation,…specialized treatises on camels, horses, bees, and falcons,..”(103)
Yet, the authors are not oblivious to the weaknesses of that civilization.  Muslims of that era seemed to have much larger libraries than their European contemporaries.  This “was also dependent on paper-making, a new technology acquired from the Chinese in the 8th century which allowed the mass production of paper and much cheaper books.  Paper factories appeared in Samarkand after 751, in Baghdad in 793,…and in Spain in 1150…  Ironically, when the printing press appeared in the 15th century Islamic authorities banned it for fear of defiling the name of God and to prevent the proliferation of undesirable materials.”(109)
Concerning China, the authors write, “Learned culture in traditional China was largely separate from technology and the crafts…economic, military, and medical activities were, on the whole. carried out on the strength of traditional techniques that owed nothing to theoretical knowledge or research.  Craftsmen were generally illiterate and possessed low social status; they learned their practical skills through apprenticeship and experience, and…without…scientific theory.”(121-22)  “Rather, the starting point for any investigation of Chinese technology must be…the totality of its advanced technologies, regardless of their originality or priority, made China a world leader in technology through the Sung era (AD 960) and beyond.”(122)
The McClellan/Dorn evaluation of Aztec civilization is noteworthy.  They praise Aztec pharmaceutical medicines and conclude that life expectancy among them exceeded that of Europeans by a decade or more.(164)  The authors do mention that the Aztec religion might require the sacrifice of fellow Amerindians (others report up to 35,000 killed in one religious ceremony, blood running down the steep steps of the high temples, and the priests wearing cloaks made of human skins).  It may not have been all waste, for McClellan/Dorn suggest cannibalism among the Aztecs.(163)  I wonder, if those sacrificed are included when calculating life expectancy.
The authors provide a brief summary of the world of science and technology in the year 1000.  “…briefly consider the state of science and systems of natural knowledge on a world scale at roughly the year AD 1000.  Plainly, no cultural group was without some understanding of the natural world.  [From the most primitive]…to the centers of urban civilization in the Islamic world, classical India, Sung China, Mesoamerica, and Peru.  What distinguishes the science and scientific cultures of these latter civilizations is that they institutionalized knowledge and patronized the development of science and scientific expertise in order to administer the comparatively huge social, political, and economic entities that constituted their respective civilizations.”(172)
The traditional view is that with the fall of Rome, Western Europe entered “The Dark Ages.”  The mind of Europeans closed.  Cities were no longer sustainable, repairs to infrastructure ceased, fountains dried up.  The population of the city of Rome declined from about 1 million in the time of August to a mere 40,000 around AD 600.  But McClellan/Dorn assert that the population of Europe rose by 38% between 600 and the year 1000.(177)  “The impressive array of technological innovations that led to the transformation of European society and culture owed nothing to theoretical science, in large measure because science had little to offer…none of it had any application in the development of the machines and techniques for which medieval Europe became justly famous.:(181)  While McClellan/Dorn acknowledge that some innovation occurred during the Roman Empire, such as the heavy plow, but they maintain it was not until after the fall of Rome that that plow was used on a large scale.  With a modification of the horse collar, and development of the horse shoe, the horse could pull heavier loads and had greater traction, and began to replace oxen in European agriculture.  The Asian-invented stirrup was modified in Europe, providing far more stability for a rider so he might use weapons of thrust, like a lance, without falling from the animal.  With such applications, Europe would specialize in heavy cavalry, the knighthood was in flower.
Water mills had been used in the ancient world, but Europe had many rivers and mills were used increasingly for various chores.  Windmills were invented, too, - another labor-saving machine.  “European engineers developed a fascination for new machines and new sources of power…Indeed, medieval Europe became the first great civilization not to be run primarily by human muscle power.”(180, emp. Mine)
Yet, the authors’ write that during that era “Almost no original research took place.”(182)  Nevertheless, European craftsmen and engineers began to forge bigger and better cannon, even smaller, more powerful cannon that in time would be mounted on ships to create floating fortresses.  Slowly, in the Dark Ages and then after, Europeans were crafting better weapons than the rest of the world.  European dominance was proved in the early 1500s with the easy victories by a few hundred Spaniards over the huge empires of the Aztecs and the Incas and by the victory of the small Portuguese fleet over the combined Muslim and Indian fleets.  Though the following quotation comes from a century later, it illustrates what was happening in Europe: The book by Galileo was published in the Netherlands in 1638 and includes discussion  at the Arsenal in Venice, famous for technology, “the largest and most advanced industrial enterprise in Europe, where craftsmen and artisans built ships, cast cannon, twisted rope, poured tar, melted glass, and worked at a hundred other technical and industrial activities in the service of the Venetian Republic.”(235)  In the 1600s McClellan/Dorn see a new ideology evolving on  “the conviction that science and scientific activities can promote human welfare and should therefore be encouraged.  The Ideology was activist and contrasted with the Hellenic view of the practical irrelevance of natural philosophy and the medieval view of science as the subservient handmaiden to theology.”(245)
Yet, though some may have thought of a marriage of science and technology, “contemporary technology seems to have had a greater effect on science than the other way around.”(269)  “All the technological innovations that formed the basis of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries were made by men…craftsmen, artisans, or engineers.  Few were…university educated, and all without scientific theory.”(287)  Even that late, science was often useless.(292)  McClellan and Dorn state clearly, “The main thesis of this book has concerned thehistorically limited degree of applied science prior to the 19th century.”(308)  Indeed, when viewing the whole of human history, “In the beginning, there was only technology.”(355)  Now, things have changed.  The old divide between science and technology is reshaped – pure science on one side, applied science and technology on the other, or the difference between a scientific paper and a patent.(358-59)  The authors’ do discuss the impact of pure science upon the world with the development of the atomic bomb.
But the thrust of this book is important.  And again, I let the authors speak for themselves, “…a more accurate historical appreciation of technology will place proper emphasis on independent traditions of skilled artisans whose talents crafted everyday necessities and amenities throughout the millennia of human existence.  Such a historical reappraisal will also show that in many instances technology directed the development of science rather than the other way around.”
I think I learned a great deal from this book, and suspect that many of you may learn from it also.
What I had viewed as contradictions may not have been so.  For example, the closing of the European mind with the rise of monotheistic religion may have stifled science and theorizing, but not smiths who shod horses.  Totalitarian nations too can make great strides in science and technology.  I still have many questions, but now realize my notion that science and technology are wedded, is simply part of 20th century ideology.  For most of human history, they were unlinked, generally dwelling in different locales, one near the earth, the other in the clouds.  But after Einstein, we all know mushroom clouds from pure scientists can change the worlds of everyone.    


Wednesday, September 14, 2016


     By Hugh Murray
            There are times when we are not always aware of the importance of our own actions.  In the early 1980s I worked in New York City in the World Trade Center on the 38th floor.  Though my desk was drafty in winter and we had little control over the temperature, the winter view was spectacular – the sun setting while we could look down on the Statue of Liberty with the golden red horizon in the West.  Indeed, I recall beautiful scenes of New York.  For a time, I lived in Brooklyn and would walk to work across the Brooklyn Bridge in the morning.  Looking at the massive twin towers of the WTC, they appeared purple reflecting some of the morning sky.  If I had enough time and were more energetic that day, I might walk all the way to work, climbing the staircase to the 38th floor.  There were no beautiful sights in the stairwell, some empty soda bottles and paper plates, refuse left by those who took a quick lunch away from the malls in the Trade Center lobbies.  The stairwells were narrow; just room for two people.  Unlike the rest of the building, it was in the stairways that one could hear the creaking of the building as these 110 story-structures swayed in the wind.
            One day in 1983 our agency conducted a fire drill.  All of us walked down from the 38th floor, joining with the fellow workers from the 37th, 36th, 35th, 34th, and we all congregated by the elevators on the 33rd floor.  These were the floors rented by the New York State agency for which I worked.  We were then instructed to do this same action in case of fire.
            WTC were modern buildings, the tallest in the world when constructed in the 1970s.  Both towers included modern features like robots that crawled up and down the outside windows, cleaning them from the ground to the 110 story.  The elevators, like subways, had local and express cars.  They rose so fast your ears popped, so, as in airplanes, you had to chew to avoid pain.  Another modern innovation, there were no pushbuttons in the elevators.  There were circled numbers indicating floors, and they appeared to be buttons, but they were not.  You did not push them to indicate the floor you wanted to get to; you simply placed your finger on the appropriately numbered circle, and the heat of your finger would light up the number and take you to that floor.  But it was not a push button.  Even to call the elevator from the lobby, a similar circle, but not a push button was used.  The heat of your finger on the circle called the elevator to that floor.
            During the fire drill, we were warned not to take the elevators in case of fire.  The reason – the heat of the flames would call the elevator to the floor with the fire.  When we asked what we should do after arriving at the 33rd floor during a fire, we were told to wait there for further instructions.  That we were told was policy in 1983.
            One day that year I arrived at work from the subway, and the lobby was packed with people.  The elevators were not working, and everyone was waiting, with no idea when they might be fixed.  Should I wait or walk?  Either way, I would be late, for even if the elevators were fixed immediately, I would not be on the first or the tenth.  So I decided to walk.  I knew where an entrance to the stairs was and began my upward climb as usual.  But, on the 9th floor, there was no light.  And as I climbed higher, it was worse.  On the 11th floor, I held my hand before my face, and could not see it.  I continued my upward climb, but slowly. Gripping the handrail, with each step I had to move my foot so as to clear a path of bottles or trash.  If I tripped and fell, who knows how long before someone would find me?  When I finally reached the 38th floor and opened the door, I was shocked.  The lights in the office and electricity were working normally.  The early crew was doing its job.  They laughed when I appeared, because they knew the elevators still were not repaired and knew I must have walked up.  But I was stunned for another reason – how could there be a malfunction of the electricity of the elevators and the lights in the stairwell at the same time?  I soon complained to my union representative, and one of us may have written to OSEA, a federal agency that might take up such problems.  Shortly thereafter, I left that job and never knew the outcome of my complaint.
            With the bombing of World Trade Center in 1993, I was shocked to see TV reports that workers in the twin towers had difficulties getting down the unlit stairwells in the evacuation of the buildings.  The evacuation took 6 hours.  This time I decided to complain to the newspapers.  I wrote the same letter to the four largest newspapers in New York at that time, presenting my 1983 stairwell story in summary fashion.  My letter was published in the NY Post, 8 March 1993, “WTC: Dark Stairwells and Other Lapses.”  The same letter was published in the New York Daily News, 18 March 1993, p. 42.  It was also published in NY Newsday, which then had a large New York City circulation.  Generally, newspapers do not publish the same letter published by competitors.  Their editors must have judged my letter important.  Only the NY Times did not publish it.  Nevertheless, the combined circulation of the 3 papers that did publish my letter was over 2 million.
             Then September 11, 2001!  A few days later Investor’s Daily noted the changes in the stairwells.  “In 1993, it took six hours to evacuate most of the Trade Center after terrorists detonated a bomb in the underground garage…After the bombing, however, batteries were added to every other light fixture in stairwells…Handrails were painted with glow-in-the-dark paint, which was used to mark a continuous stripe down the middle of the staircases”  The newspaper concluded, “…despite missteps, evacuation was cut by several hours.”  In 1993, it took six hours.  On 9/11, they did not have 6 hours.  Nevertheless, most were able to get out.  I am quite proud.  I suspect that my letters helped spur these improvements, which on 9/11 saved lives.     
            I have published in many academic journals.  When I published the letter in the 3 New York newspapers, I originally deemed it so inconsequential, I did not bother to include it in my bibliography, my list of publications.  After 9/11, I now suspect that letter may be the most import deed of my entire life.