Lydia Pauly discusses the melting pot of British culture
Pride in your country is not inherently a bad thing. Here, in the UK, we have plenty to be proud of: the NHS, the Peak District, Shakespeare, Cambridge and Oxford University, the Axe Bridge IPA (along with the rest of our breweries around the country), and so on. We’re also home to some of the most well-known mathematicians and scientists in history (Lord Kelvin and Isaac Newton, for starters) who have presented some of the most fundamental parts to our scientific understanding of the world. To be part of the UK is to be part of all of this rich cultural history.
However, let’s not pretend that we did this all by ourselves. In relative terms, the British culture is the late-comer to the global stage. During the British Iron Age, whilst we were living in thatched huts, where we lived and died by our cows, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was in full swing with a Renaissance, transforming the land and preserving the great works of art in temples. Any scientific or cultural achievement we’ve made has an inherent nod to the older, more matured cultures, as ideas have slowly leaked from East to West through the Silk Road. If we’re going to announce ourselves as ‘proudly British’, we should know what that actually means.
Therefore, consider this a starting point: five examples of some of the most important contributions to science and mathematics that didn’t come from the UK or America.
“There’s no such thing as an isolated British achievement”
The Concept of Zero
The concept of zero is important because, while we have a whole language to explain what is in the world, zero is the only symbol we have to explain what isn’t. This asymmetry marks the jump from practical mathematics to abstract mathematics. By being able to talk about something that doesn’t exist, we are able to move mathematics from talking about pounds of gold to the very fabric in which we exist. It also allows numerals to exist in different orders, which gifts us the ability to talk about concepts beyond our human scale.
So, where was the first appearance of zero as a concept? Not on parchment, or in address to a room of Western thinkers. Rather, if you go deep into the Cambodian jungle, far away from the Angkor Wat temple, you’ll find a small, makeshift shed, with a single dot pounded into the stone. This is K-127. This symbol would go on to form the foundation of our modern number system, Isaac’s classical physics, and Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
Algebra is the symbolic core of mathematics, and a staple of the classroom. Every GCSE math student knows a2 + b2 = c2, and, like the concept of zero, it’s the underpinning of modern mathematics.
What may surprise you, however, is that algebra comes from the Arabic al-jabr, which means ‘reunion of broken parts’ (referring to the methods of reduction and balancing). The term came from Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who produced The Compendious Book on Calculation (although his status as the father of algebra is in contest with Greek mathematician Diophantus). Even further developments were coined by Al-Karaji, who is praised as being the first to introduce algebraic calculus, the gateway into higher level mathematics, despite the word ‘calculus’ being popularly chained to the image of red-brick Cambridge.
Solar Eclipses and Supernovae
The astrophysics scene is populated by Western juggernauts; Elon Musk (the CEO of Space X) and Charles Frank Bolden Jr (the current administrator of NASA) dominate the industry, whereas Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson are the most popular names in the media.
However, the first observations of solar eclipses and supernovae did not come from the West. The first observations came from China in 750 BC, which recorded over 1,600 solar and lunar eclipses. Jing Fang, mathematician and music theorist, was also the first to understand how moonlight and planet-light was produced: ‘The Moon and the planets are Yin; they have shape but no light. This they receive only when the Sun illuminates them.’
It should be noted, on the other hand, that the private Chinese space industry is already quite significant, despite Western companies taking up most of English discussion. Expace, founded last February, has already scheduled 10 launches with its Kuaizhou rockets, which can carry a 1.5 ton payload to low Earth orbit.
The Four Great Inventions
Imagine a world that developed without guns, newspapers, paper, or the compass. While it’s unlikely that these inventions would never have been developed somewhere, China currently holds ownership to all four of them. They are called the Four Great Inventions, and are commonly used to celebrate ancient China’s advanced science and technology. On the other hand, the top 50 greatest British inventions from the Radio Times includes the lawn mower and the chocolate bar. Debatable significance.
It cannot be stressed how important geometry is, which refers to knowing how to deal with spatial relationships. Anytime you’ve had to pack a car like a championship game of Tetris, you’ve used geometry. However, what might be more surprising is that the earliest uses of geometry came from the Indus Valley and Babylonia, who were able to deal in relatively sophisticated principles that a modern mathematician would struggle with unless they relied on calculus (which wouldn’t be developed until far later with Isaac Newton). The Egyptians and the Babylonians were also already aware of the Pythagoras theorem about 1500 years before Pythagoras himself, and could approximate the area of a circle without pi.
“Everything that we have had given to us is a result of older cultures doing the groundwork before us.”
I understand the need to buckle down and gather our tribe members around us. There’s safety in identity (and numbers), and we do have a rich history, as said before. But there’s no such thing as an isolated British achievement; everything that we have had given to us is a result of older cultures doing the groundwork before us. And this too, is something to celebrate.