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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.