Tuesday 10 June 2014

Needham's Grand Question

Dr Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a brilliant British bio-chemist who had obtained a doctorate from Cambridge University in 1925, specializing in embryology and morphogenesis. Later, Dr. Needham developed an interest in China, and after visiting China several times wrote his mammoth book 'Science and Civilization in China' in 24 volumes ( see Simon Winchester's 'The Man Who loved China').

In this book Needham posed the problem, known as 'Needham's Question' or 'Needham's Grand Question', in respect of China, but which applies equally to India.

The problem is this : Why did China (and India), which were far ahead of Western countries in science and technology at one time, later fell behind, did not have an Industrial Revolution, and therefore became backward, and consequently victims of imperialism and colonization, which caused enormous harm and misery to the peoples of these countries ?

There is no doubt that both India and China were at one time far ahead of the Western countries in science and technology. 

China invented gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and paper and printing, which, according to Sir Francis Bacon, were the three most important inventions facilitating Europe to pass from the dark Middle Ages to the Modern age. But why did China's progress in science and technology stop thereafter ? According to Dr. Needham it could have been the Confucian philosophy, which was incompatible with scientific development, which was responsible for this. But is this explanation not superficial ?

As for India, I have explained in my article 'Sanskrit as a language of Science', which is on my blog and facebook, that India was far ahead of the West in ancient times. For instance, Indians invented the decimal system in mathematics, which was one of the most revolutionary inventions in history.

The numerals in the decimal system were known as Arabic numerals by the Westerners, but the Arabs called them Indian numerals. Were they really Arabic or Indian ?
To answer this we may note that the languages Arabic, Persian, and Urdu are written from right to left. But if we ask an Arab, Persian, or Urdu writer, to write any number ( say 259 or 1379) he will write it from left to right. What does this indicate ? This indicates that these numbers were taken from a language which is written from left to right. And now it is accepted universally that the decimal system was invented in India. This decimal system had a number 0, which again is an India invention. 

The importance of 0 can be understood by considering the following :
The ancient Romans built a great civilization, the civilization of Caesar and Augustus. But if we were to ask an ancient Roman to write the number one million he would have gone almost crazy. The reason for this is that the ancient Romans wrote their numbers in alphabets, V standing for 5, X standing for 10, L for 50, C for 100, D for 500, and M for 1000 ( or millenium). There was no alphabet expressing a number greater than 1000. So if an ancient Roman had to write 2000 he would have to write MM, if he wanted to write 3000 he had to write MMM, and if he wanted to write one million he had to write M one thousand times.

On the other hand, according to the system invented by the ancient Indians, to write one million one had only to write 1 and then put 6 zeros after that. The ancient Greeks and Romans just did not have the imagination to conceive of a number called 0. By using 0 our ancient ancestors could conceive of astronomically large numbers. Thus,
a sahastra or one thousand had 3 zeros after 1. If we add two more zeros we get one lac, with two more zeros we get one crore, with two more zeros we get one arab, with two more zeros we get one kharab, two more zeros gives us one padma, two more zeros gives one neel, two more zeros gives one shankh, two more gives one mahashankh, etc.

Aryabhatta, who reputedly lived in the 5th Century A.D. worked on quadratic equations, binomial theorem, etc, and calculated the value of pie to a fairly accurate degree. He also made significant contributions to astronomy, being perhaps the first person in the world to prove that the earth rotates on its axis, thus causing day and night.Brahmagupta, Bhaskar, etc also made great contributions in mathematics, etc.

In medical science India was at least 1000, if not 1500, years ahead of any country. Thus, Sushrut, the father of surgery, invented plastic surgery in the 6th century B.C. while the Britishers discovered it only towards the end of the 18th century A. D. during the Anglo-Mysore wars, and that too, from an Indian vaidya who lived near Pune.

The harbour at Lothal in Gujrat, which is regarded as quite modern in its construction, was built around 5000 years ago, and is regarded as part of the Indus valley Civilization.

In my article 'Sanskrit as a language of Science' more details are given, and there is a great deal of literature showing our achievements in science and technology in ancient India. We were far ahead of the West at that time. in fact most Europeans (except in Greece and Rome) were living in forests at a time when we had built mighty civilizations with the help of science and technology.

Why, then, did we fall behind the West ? Why did we not have an industrial revolution ? Why was our advance in science and technology blocked, while Europe produced Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Descartes, Robert Boyle, Cavendish, Priestly, Lavoisier, Maxwell, Gauss, Max Planck, Rutherford, Heisenberg, Pauli, Niels Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Chadwick, Madam Curie, Otto Hahn etc in physics, chemistry and mathematics, Willim Harvey, Ross, etc in medicine, Edmund Halley, etc in astronomy, James Hutton in Geology, Hooke, Linnaeus, Buffon, and Darwin in biology, etc. No doubt we produced C. V. Raman, Srinivas Ramanujan, Chandrashekhar, S.N. Bose, etc but these are just a handful

What happened that made in the history of India the development of science and technology less important ( after the great burst of scientific creativity in ancient India), while in the West it became more important ?

This is Needham's Grand Question for India, yet to be solved. In 'Sanskrit as a language of Science' I have attempted an answer, but I am myself not convinced of my own theory. I have suggested the geographical factor, but is this convincing ? I am myself not sure about my own view. Were there other cultural, economic, or historical factors ? A lot of scientific investigation is called for.


  1. Sir, I think Needham's Question regarding China (& India) has been poised romantically. There are two instant but desultory answers that come - (1) That we lagged because of Colonization, and (2) That we lagged because of decay of our culture due to successive parochial interpretations.
    While both are true to some extent, we must know that Hindsight blinds. Path of history is so clearly lit with events of magnanimous importance that it becomes impossible to construct an alternative without occasionally straying on the actual path.
    Therefore, when we say that it was because of Britishers or Mughals or other rulers that we could not attain/ maintain the past glory of Indian culture from science to society, we are actually understating the prevailing conditions in the country(or more precisely 'Indian Landmass' ) which led the people to choose solutions which led to deterioration of the scientific thought.
    The answer lies in defining 'prevailing conditions'. It does not begin with usual agricultural, exploitative, poverty ridden society. These are the end products of the first cycle. Thereafter, they provide 'feedback' to the system and the tale goes on.

    By 'prevailing conditions', I mean lack of decentralization of knowledge. While caste system acted as closed door - exclusivist guardian of knowledge, over the centuries it even alienated the 'Upper-Castes' from its reservoir. Result - Only the dogmas and prejudices survived and no discussion and percolation of knowledge to the society could take place. Illiteracy and atrocities 'blossomed'.

    It is a well documented fact that Industrial revolution was greatly facilitated by press-revolution. The ideas disseminated freely from researchers, institutions(which had active support of state) and from across the borders. The chain reaction is what came to be known as Industrial revolution and manifested itself in massive energy of 'The bomb' (well, literally!)
    The decline of the 'Argumentative tradition' of our culture is therefore chief, if not sole answer for the Needham's Indian question. The sporadic efforts by mahrajas and badhshahs notwithstanding, it was the wholesome decay of the education system that kept us in dark ages. And as quote goes, "An age is called Dark, not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it." (James A. Michener)

    To conclude, I will state some current controversies - be it AFSPA or Art 377 of IPC or Reservation system, we find that there is no meaningful public discussion. Answers by both supporters and dissenters are almost dogmatic and tread a uniform line - Indepence/ Liberty/ Merit or Law&Order/ Unnaturalness of Act/ Past Exploitation. While one side is dismissed as elitist, others are denounced as trolls or paid 'Bots'. By engaging in healthy discussions, we can not only arrive at accepted solutions but more importantly open ourselves to variety of viewpoints and advance our knowledge.

  2. Scientists seem to come from select gene pools. It is possible that the society that originally produced scientists was wiped away by wave after wave of external agression and we hold on to the relics of a civilization long extinct.

  3. Indian culture is gerontocratic, emphasizing to young people that they must not question their elders. (To this day, most Indian youth do not have the liberty of choosing their own spouses!) In such an intellectually barren atmosphere, sadhus, babas, matajis, etc., flourish, but scientific enquiry cannot.

  4. The moment the caste system shifted from one decided by one's occupation to one decided by birth the downfall set in. Nepotism replaced merit leading to deterioration in values, systems and structures.

  5. Sir,I admire your qualification and wisdom and its very unfortunate that we have failed to maintain the scientific culture of our ancestors. But I have just a query few on argument given by you for decimal number system, it is not true that if u ask an arab to write (say 256) they will write it from left to right. They will in fact write it from right to left and read it as "six and fifty and two hundred" because Arabs read the numbers as "1s then 10s then 100s and so on", So if u ask a arab to read or write '21' he will read it as "one and twenty" and not "twenty and one". And it seems more logical to read it in ascending order than reading it in reverse order as we do. But when the number system is introduced to the western world because of there reading habit from left to right they changed the reading and writing order of the number system and later on we adopted the same order as western. But if u see the basic calculations like add and subtraction it still follows the right to left order.

    1. Aziz: These are simply arbitrary conventions. The Middle-Eastern people, both Jews and Arabs read and write in an opposite direction from Indo-European people. In Prague, there is a clock whose hands move "counter-clockwise", because it is located in the Jewish Quarter.

  6. Nice article sir, I love to read this types of articles. Thanks a lot to share with us...... Click here for Latest Govt Jobs, Tech news, Blogging Tiricks, Earning Tips and more....

  7. while I was teaching number system to children of class 6 or 7, a child asked me, "in identifying a number why do we count its digits as ekain, dahain, sekda, hazar.... (ones, tens, hundreds, thousands...) from right to left and not from left to right?" I could satisfy her by explaining that the number system that we use now is the Arabic numeral system, which later on popularised by the west. since Arabic is the language written from right to left, they developed it that way. again, that is the reason why we still follow the same rule of right to left in addition, subtraction and multiplication, the building block of algebra (from arabic, Al-zabar).

    second thing, nowadays, due to our English medium education and the prevalence of English language, we the Urdu speakers too write a number from left to write, but that is not the case with my parents for whenever they write a number in Urdu, they do it from right to left.

    1. The "number system" we used today is the Indian system (and not Arabic). It was popularized in Iraq and other Arab cultures by Indian traders, as attsted by scholars like Avicenna.