Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Full Circle

There have been a spate of articles - and even books - in recent times on the resurgence of India and China. Yet, not everyone realizes that we are only coming a full circle. Both China and India led the world in scientific endeavor before the 15th century.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article in The Economist (read the original article in full here).

TOWARDS the end of the 11th century, while tardy Europeans kept time with sundials, Su Sung of China completed his masterpiece: a water clock of great intricacy and accuracy.

Clock-making was only one scientific endeavour in which China and India comfortably led the world before the 15th century. China outstripped Europe in its understanding of hydraulics, iron smelting and shipbuilding. Clean your teeth with a toothbrush, rebuff the rain with a collapsible umbrella, turn a playing card, light a match, write, pay—or even wipe your behind—with paper, and you register a debt to China's powers of invention.

India's genius, then as now, was in software not hardware. Its ancient civilisations ushered in a “mathematical revolution” from the fifth century, when Aryabhata devised something like the decimal system. In the seventh century Brahmagupta explained that a number multiplied by zero was zero. By the 15th century, Madhava had calculated pi to more than ten decimal places.

After the 15th century, however, the technological clock stopped in both countries, even as it accelerated in Europe. This peculiar loss of momentum, noted Joseph Needham, a great historian of Chinese science, takes some explaining. Why, he asked, did the science of Galileo emerge “in Pisa but not in Patna or Peking”? Roddam Narasimha of India's National Institute of Advanced Studies reaches a conclusion: “Up to the 18th century, the East in general was strong and prosperous, the status quo was comfortable, and there was no great internal pressure to change the global order,” he writes.

Simon Cox, the author of this article, goes on to make a very insightful observation:

“But even as India's technological powers make a splash in the world, they stir only the surface of its own vast society. India produces more engineering graduates than America. But it has only 24 personal computers for every 1,000 people, and fewer than three broadband connections. India's billion-strong population cuts both ways. Whenever an Indian demographic appears as a numerator, the resulting number looks big. But whenever its population is in the denominator, the number looks small. It is like looking at the same phenomenon from opposite ends of a telescope. As of now, India matters more to technology than technology does to India.”


backpakker said...

yes..if only our population and chinas were under control..Im sure we would have been far developed ..

indicaspecies said...

Not just in the field of science and technology but also as far as economic growth is concerned, India and China are almost at par.
Though the world is becoming increasingly multipolar, I'd still like to call these two countries as the emerging superpowers of the world.

I am of the opinion that a better understanding between, and knowledge transfer across, these two great nations would be mutually beneficial in this increasingly globalized world.

Shantanu said...

@backpakkar: I think both countries are making rapid progress, but we have a way to go. Thanks for leaving a comment!

@indicaspecies: I completely agree.

Zhu said...

As you may or may not know, I studied Chinese for about 12 years and I know China's modern history and society pretty well... don't know much about India though.

Anyway, I'm totally with you on that post and I find it really cool. Even as a European now living in Canada, I'm glad to see other parts of the world taking power. The world has been Euro-centered, USA-centered, now it's time for a change.

These countries will teach us a lot and we need a new perspective. Plus I speak Chinese, so I can be a friend of China ;)

Shantanu said...

zhu: Thanks for your comments! You have an unique perspective given your background, having lived in different continents for long periods.