The uncharted territories of scientific history

Anita Chandran reviews Horizons: a Global History of Science by James Poskett

Aztec botany The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan featured botanical gardens a century before European examples, but now only ruins remain in the centre of Mexico City. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/WitR)

“Modern science – we are told – is a product of Europe alone,” begins James Poskett in his new book Horizons: a Global History of Science. “This story is a myth.”

Across cultures and disciplines, how history has been recorded and taught is being reassessed. Bids to rename buildings, replace statues and repatriate artefacts looted by European Empires are gaining ever more traction. Yet science has lagged behind in the discussion of its own history, with many claiming that looking back is a distraction to the forward vision of discovery.

In Horizons, Poskett – a science and technology historian at the University of Warwick, UK – instead argues that the “future of science ultimately depends on a better understanding of its global past”. He outlines a framework for an international history of science that sheds light on the significant but overlooked contributions of individuals around the world. In doing so, he challenges the idea that international science is purely a thing of the 21st century.

Organized in four chronological parts, Horizons spans five centuries, from 1450 to the aftermath of the Cold War (1990s). Each part explains a different era of scientific history: scientific revolution (1450–1700), empire and enlightenment (1650–1800), capitalism and conflict (1790–1914), and ideology and aftermath (1914–2000).

Poskett begins in the vast botanical gardens of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan, built in 1467. These gardens not only “predated European examples by almost a century” but serve as proof of the detailed understanding the Aztec civilization had of the natural world. He goes on to guide us through to the development of natural history in the Spanish Empire, which conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521. But Poskett does not pull his punches when describing the exploitative nature of this cultural exchange: “Much of what we know about Tenochtitlan comes from accounts written by the people who destroyed it.”

It is in this same vein, straddling specific examples and broader political and historical context, that Poskett traverses the next five centuries. Through each section, he unravels a complex global and geopolitical landscape, highlighting stories of translation, collaboration and struggle against colonial aggression. Poskett’s account of history is in no way self-righteous – his understanding of history is balanced and honest, both challenging empires and understanding their role in cultural exchange.

In my opinion, Horizons’ scope is impressive and handled with deft precision. The book has no want of moments that taught me something new and surprising: from the remarkable fact that the first German-to-English translations of Einstein’s papers on relativity were written by physicists Meghnad Saha and Satyendra Nath Bose in India, under British colonial rule; to Polynesian navigator Tupaia’s beautifully rendered map of the Society Islands in 1769, which replaces traditional compass direction with timings such as sunrise and sunset. Indeed, any reader will come away with their perspective of history shifted.

In his commitment to interesting individuals and scientific detail, however, Poskett’s pace sometimes gets away from him. The volume of examples and fast pace of the narrative means that the facts sometimes feel detached from the greater message. At points I found myself unable to see the woods for the trees, taking away anecdotes more than trends. Yet Poskett does try to counter this, with clear introductions and summaries to each of his chapters. These at times feel slightly repetitive and over-explained, like reading an essay or a set of lecture notes, but they have the benefit of ensuring that the reader comes away with a total understanding of his message.

The moments where Poskett pauses to unfurl a single story in more detail were the ones that captured me the most. An example being the story of Graman Kwasi (born around 1690), a young man captured from what is now Ghana and sold as a slave to the Dutch. Kwasi’s knowledge of natural medicine led to an effective treatment of malarial fever from which other remedies have spawned. These are the moments that allow the reader to really sit with history and examine their own biases about the past. How much more, for example, would we value the knowledge of the natural world provided by Indigenous populations if we had correctly written it into our history of science?

Poskett must walk a very fine line between providing the reader with a rich series of examples, across a range of scientific disciplines and traditions, while also addressing a complicated and often contentious backdrop of geopolitical history

The rapid pace does not undermine the accomplishment and relevance of Horizons. Poskett must walk a very fine line, after all, between providing the reader with a rich series of examples, across a range of scientific disciplines and traditions, while also addressing a complicated and often contentious backdrop of geopolitical history spanning five centuries. That Horizons, which is in this sense hugely ambitious, achieves this in roughly 350 pages is remarkable.

At the end of the book, Poskett summarizes the contemporary crises that modern science faces: climate change, the resurgence of race science, and the “new cold war”. He draws from root to branch how we have arrived where we are today, at a standoff between nationalism and globalization.

“We need to begin by getting the history right,” Poskett concludes. And as he claims in his introduction, Horizons is simply an attempt to reframe our narrative of history in a way that really informs us of the structures of power, national identity and colonial history that have led us to where we are today. To this end, I think he has succeeded. Horizons is an excellent reference text and corrective, a solid kernel around which a new understanding of history can grow.

  • 2022 Penguin 464 pp £25hb £9.99e-book

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