This essay is based on the book 'On Giants' Shoulders' by Melvyn Bragg.


from Lewis Wolpert,
Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London.

Babylonian Mathematics

The Babylonians had multiplication tables of great complexity; they had tables of square and cube roots, and reciprocals, and by about 1800 BC their ability to solve algebraic and geometrical problems became very great. They could solve fairly complex equations, but they did so always in numerical terms, and always by concrete example, for they did not possess the notion of generality.

Strangely, they had no theoretical interest whatsoever. The most important ingredient to spark science is a general curiosity about the nature of the world - a curiosity which was entirely lacking in Mesopotamia.

Counter Argument

Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, Master of Darwin College, Cambridge,
Professor of Ancient Philosophy and Science objects to the argument that the Chinese did not have proper science:

'.. if we have Chinese mathematicians who are able to develop eclipse cycles that enable them to predict lunar and solar eclipses, what are we going to call that if we do not call it science.'
He also mentions Chinese mathematics with the example of the third century AD mathematician Liu Hui : ' he engages in problems such as the approximation of pi, the relationship between circumference and the area of the circle, and in the determination of the volume of a pyramid, for which he had to use methods that are other then ordinary plane methods'.

Egyptian Technology

The Egyptians had no wheels or pulleys in the Pyramid Age, and the secret of their success was unlimited manpower, patience, and a strong artistic sense. They used both a lunar and solar calendar to predict harvesting seasons but they never ventured into mathematical astronomy. Egyptian building methods were very sophisticated and the men who devised these methods were as skillful as one could find in any culture.

But they lacked any spark of curiosity about why these techniques worked. The Egyptians, like the Babylonians, were deficient, not in technical skill and knowledge, but in curiosity. Desiring so little to understand the phenomena of the natural world, they influenced their successors technically but not conceptually.