Roots of knowledge

The history of science has been West-centric for too long – it’s time to think global

Simon Schaffer and Sujit Sivasundaram at Cambridge University are re-evaluating how the seeds of scientific knowledge have spread.

The year was 1789; the place Bengal. Isaac Newton’s masterpiece Principia Mathematica was being translated for only the third time in its already 100-year-old history; this time, into Arabic.

The author of this remarkable feat of scholarship was Tafazzul Husain Khan. According to a member of the ruling East India Company: “Khan… by translating the works of the immortal Newton, has conducted those imbued with Arabick literature to the fountain of all physical and astronomical knowledge.”

For Professor Simon Schaffer, who has researched the story of Tafazzul’s achievements, the complex work of translation is deeply significant. Tafazzul worked with scholars in English, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit language communities in his efforts to connect Newtonian theories with the Indo-Persian intellectual tradition. For Tafazzul was, as Schaffer describes, “a go-between”.

“The ‘go-betweens’ are the individuals who, across the centuries, have been the cogs that have kept science moving,” he explained. “They are the knowledge brokers and translators, networkers and messengers – the original ‘knowledge transfer facilitators’. Their role may have disappeared from mainstream histories of science, but their tradecraft has been indispensable to the globalisation of science.”

Schaffer and Sujit Sivasundaram are historians of science with an interest in understanding how the seeds of scientific knowledge have spread and grown. They believe that the global history of science is really the history of shifts and reinventions of a variety of ways of doing science across the world.

They, and others, have called for a retelling of science’s past, not only to be more “culturally symmetric” but also because the issue has enormous contemporary relevance.

Disrupting the narrative

“A standard tale is that modern science spread around the world from Western Europe, starting about 500 years ago based on the work of those such as Newton, Copernicus and Galileo, and then Darwin, Einstein, and so on,” explained Schaffer. “But this narrative about the globalisation of science just doesn’t work at all. It ignores a remarkable process of knowledge exchange that happened between the East and West for centuries.”

“Successful science is seen to be universal in its applicability,” added Sivasundaram. “Yet, accounts of scientific discovery, heroism and priority have been part and parcel of a political narrative of competitive ownership by empires, nations and civilisations. To tease this story apart, we focus on the exchanges and ‘silencings’ across political configurations that are central to the rise of science on the global stage.”

Over the past two years, with funding from UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, he and Schaffer have undertaken a programme of debates to ask whether a transregional rather than a Eurocentric history of science could now be told.

To do so, they teamed up with researchers in India and Africa, including Professor Irfan Habib from Delhi’s National University of Educational Planning and Administration and Professor Dhruv Raina of Jawarhalal Nehru University, and in December 2014 held an international workshop at the Nehru Memorial Library in New Delhi. “And now our debate is also being carried forward by a new generation of early-career researchers who came to the workshop,” added Sivasundaram.

One conundrum the researchers debated was how global narratives of science could have been missed by scholars for so long. It largely stems from the use of source materials, says Schaffer: “It’s an archival problem: as far as the production and preservation of sources is concerned, those connected with Europe far outweigh those from other parts of the world.”

“If we are to de-centre from Europe, we need to use radically new kinds of sources – monuments, sailing charts, courtly narratives, and so on,” explained Sivasundaram. He gives an example of Sri Lankan palm-leaf manuscripts: “The Mahavamsa
is a Buddhist chronicle of the history of Sri Lanka spanning 25 centuries. Among the deeds of the last kings of Kandy, I noticed seemingly inconsequential references to temple gardens. This led me back to the colonial archive documenting the creation of a botanic garden in 1821, and I realised that the British had ‘recycled’ a Kandyan tradition of gardening, by building their colonial garden on the site of a temple garden.”

A battlefield, not a springboard

Moreover, says Sivasundaram, the mechanisms of knowledge assimilation are often overlooked. Europeans often accumulated knowledge in India by engaging with pandits, or learned men. “The Europeans did not have a monopoly over the combination of science and empire – the pioneering work of [historian] Chris Bayly shows how they fought to take over information networks and scientific patronage systems that were already in place. For Europeans to practice astronomy in India, for instance, it meant translating Sanskrit texts and engaging with pandits.”

“Very often, scientific achievement is used as a standard to measure a country’s progress because science and technology can intervene in problems of hunger, disease and development,” added Sivasundaram. “If a biased history of science is told, then the past can become what Irfan Habib has called a ‘battlefield’, instead of a ‘springboard’ for future research or indeed for conversation across cultures.”

This is why, says Schaffer, it becomes so important to provide a better account of the worldly interaction between the kinds of knowledge communicated, the agents of communication – like Tafazzul Husain Khan – and the paths they travelled.

This article first appeared on the University of Cambridge website.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.


SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.