Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 27, 2006

Cliff Conner’s A People’s History of Science

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:21 am

Book Review

Conner, Cliff: A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks’, Nation Books, New York, 2006, ISBN 1-56025-748-2, 554 pages, $17.95 (paperback)

(Swans – February 27, 2006) Cliff Conner’s A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks’ does for science what Howard Zinn did for American history. It is an altogether winning attempt to tell the story of the ordinary working person or peasant’s contribution to our knowledge of the natural world. Just as scholars like Zinn remind us that a slave, Crispus Attucks, was the first casualty of the American Revolution, so does Conner show that humble people were on the front lines of the scientific revolution.

Over the course of this 500 page encyclopedic but lively effort, we learn about unsung heroes and heroines, like Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, a seventeenth century Dutch linen draper who began using magnifying lenses to examine fabrics but went on to pioneer the use of microscopy in the scientific laboratory. He was looked down upon by the scientific establishment as “neither a philosopher, a medical man, nor a gentleman… He had been to no university, knew no Latin, French, or English, and little relevant natural history or philosophy.”

In addition to telling their stories, Conner challenges conventional thinking about how science is done. At an early age, we are indoctrinated into thinking that science starts with pure ideas and then descends into the practical world. In reality, many of the greatest breakthroughs in our knowledge of the world were a result of the practical need to solve a pressing problem, some of which were related to mundane matters of trade and bookkeeping.

Perhaps no other example in Conner’s book dramatizes this as perfectly as the rise of numeric symbols, which came out of the “routine economic activities of farmers, artisans and traders.” Specifically, Sumerians devised symbols to keep track of grain. Rather than repeating the symbol for each grain multiple times, they devised a shortcut where the grain symbol would be drawn once, and prefixed with a numeric symbol. This technique was developed in lowly counting rooms rather than in the court hierarchy.

The next big breakthrough, positional numeration, also had common traders as midwives. This technique makes a digit’s value dependent on its relative position in a number. For example, “9” in the number 2,945 means nine hundred but it indicates “90” in 2,495. Imagine how difficult it would be to do simple calculations without such a system. Try adding the Roman numerals MMCMXLV to MMCDXCV without cheating (converting to positional numbers) and you will see how difficult it is. This is not to speak of the daunting task of multiplying them!

The introduction of the place-value system (together with the symbol of zero to hold “empty” columns) is particularly relevant to Conner’s mission in creating a people’s history of science. To begin with, it democratized arithmetic by making it accessible to all levels of society. Secondly, it did not originate with elite mathematicians but with anonymous clerks — perhaps ordinary accounting clerks — in India between the third and fifth centuries AD. Finally, this revolutionary innovation relied not on mathematics journals or other scholarly venues, but was transmitted by merchants pursuing their trade on routes between India and the rest of the world.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy34.html

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