Wednesday, August 15, 2007

'Infinite series' in math wrongly attributted to Newton?

ScienceDaily has the story about some new claims that infinite series in math, one of the building stone of the foudnation of modern math, has been wrongly attributted to Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz.
The real discoveres were members of the Kerala School of math in India, back around 1350, several hundred years before the discovery was attributed to Newton and Leibnitz.

Indians Predated Newton 'Discovery' By 250 Years, Scholars Say

A little known school of scholars in southwest India discovered one of the founding principles of modern mathematics hundreds of years before Newton -- according to new research.


The claims are the findings of Dr George Gheverghese Joseph, who discovered it "while trawling through obscure Indian papers for a yet to be published third edition of his best selling book 'The Crest of the Peacock: the Non-European Roots of Mathematics'".

While I find this interesting, I am skeptical, and would like to see the findings verified by others. And even if it's true, it seems somewhat unlikely that the knowledge travelled from India to Newton through Jesuits monks, as Dr Joseph think might have happened. If that had happened, there would likely be some kind of records of this knowledge - Jesuits were known to write a lot of stuff down.

Anyway, quite interesting.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous SLC said...

I would find it somewhat unlikely that Newton, who was strongly anti-catholic, would have been influenced by Jesuit scholars.

August 16, 2007 1:59 PM  
Blogger Greg Laden said...

There are two things at stake here: Attribution and Originality, and they are different. Both are commonly claimed (for many, many things) by Europeans, so it is good that Asianists are trolling around for non-European roots of important ideas.

There is evidence that a lot of important information actually did circulate around from the 15th century onwards in a way that does not show up on our radar screen from a modern historical perspective. But even if this idea did not actually travel from India to Europe (a distance of approximately the distance between Bangor Maine and San Francisco), European Originality is at stake.

In archeology the usual reaction is to then say "well, infinite series are not that important ... its not what really counts ... what really mattered was this other thing they also said, or this thing they actually did with the knowledge, ... etc. etc. " ... but I have no idea if that would happen in Mathematics in this case.

August 18, 2007 1:41 PM  
Blogger Greg Laden said...

slc: Would a catholic-hating Newton avoid taking an idea unattributed from Jesuits because of a perceived religious barrier?

August 18, 2007 1:42 PM  
Anonymous SLC said...

Re Greg Laden

1. If he did, he certainly wouldn't have admitted it. Newton considered the Catholic Church the agent of the devil and it is unlikely that he would even apprise himself of anything issuing from its representatives.

2. "India to Europe (a distance of approximately the distance between Bangor Maine and San Francisco)"

Dr. Laden is forgetting that this was the 17th century. Communications were far slower then and it would not be surprising if much that happened elsewhere in the world was unknown to inhabitants of England.

August 19, 2007 1:39 AM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Greg, I agree that it's a good development, but like all other such things, one has to be careful. There has in the past been examples of over-compesating for past misdeeds.

In other words, even if the Indian school found out these things first, it doesn't mean that Newton got it from them. I'm aware that it's easier to prove the occurance of the idea than the distribution of it, but it would seem to me that there would be some kind of evidence of the idea traveling.

August 19, 2007 5:58 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

I concur with SLC that the distance between England and India was relatively larger back then. Travel was slow, and filled with perrils. Many people never travelled outside their own county, yet alone their country.

Even today, the distance between India and England is much more complex than the distance between any two destinations in the US. Especially if we are talking about a distance that an idea has to travel. There are cultural as well as national barriers.

August 19, 2007 6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 25 Aug 2007, p 2 carried the following correction:

"The claim made by two British researchers that they were the ones who unearthed the fact that Kerala mathematicians invented the calculus long before Sir Isaac Newton (Hindustan Times, August 14, 2007) was incorrect. The Kerala infinite series have been known to British scholars since 1832. Recent work on transmission of the calculus was first done by C.K. Raju, Editorial Fellow of the Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture and is published in his book, Cultural Foundations of Mathematics: the Nature of Mathematical Proof and the Transmission of the Calculus from India to Europe in the 16th century. One of the British researchers, Dennis Almeida, was even warned in 2004 by Exeter University against plagiarising Raju's work. The error is regretted"

August 25, 2007 5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reg. the distance between Europe and India in the 17th century and the lack of evidence in Europe, see the article below.

(Reasonable circumstantial) documentary evidence from the 16th century has been unearthed in Gregorian University in Rome.

(with D. F. Almeida) “Eurocentrism in the History of Mathematics: The Case of the Kerala School”, Race and Class , Vol. 45, No. 4, April-June 2004, pp. 45-59.

September 11, 2007 3:58 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Anon.(s?), thanks for your posts. I'll certainly look into the subject some more - it's quite interesting.

Oh, and regarding the false attribution of the finding of the Kerala school of Math - it seems like irony is not dead.

September 13, 2007 11:48 AM  

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