On the surface, Dick Teresi’s Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya is an eye-opening and thought-provoking book on the history of non-Western science. It is a book I would recommend to anyone who believes in the “Greek miracle,” who takes Carl Sagan’s words about the Ionian birth of science at face value, and generally anyone who wants to take a less white, less Western perspective on both science and history as wholes. However, anyone who reads this must also be able to question what they are reading, ask for the author’s sources and motivation, and be ready to think for themselves despite the author’s biases.
My last four weeks of reading Lost Discoveries have been a roller coaster. I started off not sure what to expect after seeing a few reviews on Goodreads that ranged from finding it boring or too difficult to poorly researched and inaccurate. I surprisingly enjoyed it at first, even with this in mind. The introduction contained a crash course on various scientific accomplishments made by Chinese, Indian, and Muslim scholars you’ve never heard of often centuries before the Greeks and Europeans whom you have. My interest was piqued.
Seemingly unlike some of my fellow reviewers, I actually enjoyed the first chapter on mathematics. I don’t know much math myself, but I was still able to appreciate how ancient civilizations approached arithmetic. I even scribbled down some equations using their methods! And it was fascinating to think about ancient people doing math without—and eventually discovering or at least getting close to—the number zero. Trying to conceptualize the invention of a number really stretched my imagination in a way that I truly found to be fun. I was so excited to read more of this chapter each day and find out more of this astounding history.
Naturally, I had high hopes for the rest of the chapters. They are as follows:
- A History of Science: Rediscovered
- Mathematics: The Language of Science
- Astronomy: Sky Watchers and More
- Cosmology: That Old-Time Religion
- Physics: Particles, Voids, and Fields
- Geology: Stories of Earth Itself
- Chemistry: Alchemy and Beyond
- Technology: Machines as a Measure of Man
Strangely, there was no conclusion. In what felt like the middle of the chapter about technology, the book just stopped.
Before I go on, I want to tell you a little more about Dick Teresi himself. Unfortunately, it seems there is not that much information on his educational background or personal beliefs. All we really know about him is that he is a science writer. He is notably not a scientist and not a historian. He’s the author of several books and a writer for several science websites.
In an interview about his 2012 book The Undead, Teresi explained that he decided to write the book after pondering what it means to actually die. He doesn’t seem to have any credentials other than a lot of curiosity and a desire to write about what he finds. Unfortunately, he also promotes very controversial opinions. As I read reviews for The Undead, it looks like his main goal in the book is to persuade people not to become organ donors. This seems like a very harmful and very fringe belief indeed. Teresi’s stance on organ donation has rightly pissed some people off.
This is definitely a red flag as to Teresi’s biases and character, but I also didn’t know this until I was finishing up Lost Discoveries yesterday. What I did know while reading the book were that his sources left something to be desired. In the beginning of the book, Teresi lists a “board of advisers.” The advisers are:
- Anthony Aveni for astronomy
- Alfred W. Crosby for technology
- Harold Goldwhite for chemistry
- George Gheverghese Joseph for mathematics
- Robert Kaplan for mathematics
- David Park for physics
- George Saliba for astronomy
- Sheila J. Seaman for geology
- Barbara C. Sproul for cosmology
I don’t know anything about these people or their work, but I list them in case you are familiar with them. I really hope that they are reliable sources, because for the most part they are the only sources that Teresi uses. Each chapter is based mostly upon email correspondences with each expert, and most of the citations simply lead to their personal interactions. This definitely caused me to take everything I read with a grain of salt.
I want to give credit where it is due, though. While it shows just how pervasive Western bias is in the story of science, it was nice to see Teresi begin the book with an admission of guilt and his quest to correct himself:
“I began to write with the purpose of showing that the pursuit of evidence of nonwhite science is a fruitless endeavor. I felt that it was only responsible, however, to attempt to find what meager legitimate non-European science might exist. Six years later, I was still finding examples of ancient and medieval non-Western science that has equaled and often surpassed ancient Greek learning.”
Dick Teresi, Lost Discoveries, p. 15
This paragraph had me starting off the book knowing that Teresi is capable of being unbiased. However, this made what came after even more shocking.
After a so-so chapter on astronomy came the chapter on cosmology. I don’t know what I was expecting here. I would have loved to see a history of how ancient civilizations believed the Universe to have begun or how old they thought it was. Even a history of the ideas surrounding the Kalam cosmological argument would have been fascinating. What I got was a chapter that had absolutely no place in this book. It honestly would have fit better on a creationist website. I could not believe my eyes.
Basically, Teresi’s chapter on cosmology was his way of sneaking his fringe beliefs into a book that is otherwise pretty good. He argues that every culture has their creation myth, and in our current time (as of 2002, at least) the big bang (which he intentionally lowercases) is ours. From my positive impression of him and his even-handedness at the beginning of the chapter, I was increasingly surprised to see him aggressively dismiss everything from inflation to the multiverse hypothesis. He did not explicitly say that the Universe must have been created by God, but it was heavily implied. He also showed great disdain later on for theoretical physics as a whole.
Teresi frames it, honestly, much like how creationists frame their own narrative. There is an agenda that science is pushing, and if you don’t accept it, then you won’t be taken seriously in the scientific community. Well, like many creationists, Teresi does not have the credentials one would need to try to overturn the scientific consensus anyways. But I have read a little on the Big Bang, and the first thing I noticed about this chapter is that Teresi never mentioned the 1964 discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation by Wilson and Penzias or any of the explanations for the physics of the Big Bang provided by scientists like Stephen Hawking. This was another massive red flag.
The chapter got weirder, though. How weird it was was almost as disturbing as how wrong it was. Teresi makes outlandish attempts at connecting his disdain for the Big Bang with the theme of the book, non-Western science history. He takes us on a tour of several civilizations’ creation myths, each time classifying it as either an ancient representation of the Big Bang, steady state cosmology, plasma cosmology, or other “types” of universes.
He also at one point said this, which I can’t even really explain. I’ll just show you.
“In any case, nowhere is the assertion of a steady state universe as explicitly stated as in Jainist texts. The objections to Hindu cosmology written by Jinasena, a ninth-century A.D. teacher, echo the objections heard today about the big bang (substitute ‘big bang’ for ‘Creator’ or ‘God’):
‘Some foolish men declare that Creator made the world. . . .
If God created the world, where was he before creation?
If you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he now?
No single being had the skill to make this world—
For how can an immaterial god create that which is material?
How could God have made the world without any raw material?
If you say he made this first, and then the world, you are faced with an endless regression.
If you declare that this raw material arose naturally you fall into another fallacy.
For the whole universe might thus have been its own creator, and have arisen equally naturally.’
Jinasena goes along in this vein for some length and finishes by saying, ‘Know that the world is uncreated, as time itself is, without beginning and end. . . . / Uncreated and indestructible, it endures under the compulsion of its own nature.'”
Dick Teresi, Lost Discoveries, page 197
Teresi’s use of this poem to share his own beliefs is odd, to say the least. First of all, I see no reason to believe that Jinasena is doing anything but refuting the creation myth of his day and arguing instead for an eternally existing universe. Advising us to replace his mentions of God with the Big Bang is absurd.
Second, Teresi is clearly using this as a way to show that he personally believes in this steady state hypothesis, even though he never comes out and says what he believes. Notably, that second line that he’s replaced with ellipses reads, “The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected.” Why not include it? If you are going to push a cosmological hypothesis that is outdated and unpopular, why not commit to it? Why twist Jinasena’s words to refute a theory that he had never heard of and not just come out and say it?
One more thing before I move on. Other than dismissing inflation because it was hypothesized as an explanation of something that had none, and then implying that God must have created the Universe (and then saying it had no beginning), these next two paragraphs were the most infuriating in the entire book.
“Cosmology remains an interesting discipline, grounded in astronomy and physics. We need to imagine our world, even if that vision is inaccurate or incomplete. The ancient Indians, Babylonians, and Maya combined science with religion and social constructs to complete the picture. That we have done any differently is a delusion. If our cosmology appears free of religion, it’s because we’ve made it into its own secular religion. Unlike physicists or chemists, who welcome threats to their paradigms, modern cosmologists are Lagashians, defending their chosen model against all evidence. As the Russian physicist Lev Landau said, ‘Cosmologists are often in error, but never in doubt.'”
Dick Teresi, Lost Discoveries, p. 191
“The so-called wrinkles in the universe have been cited by many cosmologists as ‘proof’ of Guth’s inflation. Kolb prefers the phrase ‘supportive of inflation.’ What if I believed in unicorns, I asked Kolb, and I found manure in the woods. Is that supportive of unicorns, since they probably defecate? He replied, ‘Well, if you found a honking big pile of manure, you could at least say that it’s not a rabbit.’ Which is not to say that inflation theory is a honking pile of anything.”
Dick Teresi, Lost Discoveries, p. 192
At this point I’m borderline speechless. He calls the Big Bang theory a secular religion with no evidence, and then he implies that the inflation hypothesis is unicorn manure. The immature point doesn’t hold up anyways, because he himself is essentially saying that it is stupid to believe in something because you predicted that if it existed, there would be a certain type of evidence, and then you found that very evidence. Is that not how science works? Is there something I’m missing here?
As a side note, my disappointment with the un-scientific tone of this chapter is compounded further. In the introduction, Teresi said that he would only be including the “hard sciences” in this book, which is why he excluded fields like biology and medicine. I would have loved to see, for example, ancient inklings of the theory of evolution, but biology didn’t make the cut into Lost Discoveries, while creationist bunk did.
It took a minute for me to adjust back to a neutral stance as I finished off the book. After the cosmology chapter, Teresi returned to science history as if nothing had happened. The remaining chapters ranged from boring to moderately interesting—especially when the chapter on chemistry touched on medicine. I was still able to appreciate the tours of ancient cultures, their technology, and the ways that alchemy created the basis for modern chemistry.
To this point, it’s worth noting that pseudoscience as a stepping off point for “real” science is a theme throughout history. Not only did alchemy lead to advancements in chemistry, but astrology forced people to gain great knowledge of astronomy, and religion and spirituality were intrinsically tied to scientific discoveries. Our current narrative, which I still hold onto somewhat, is that science and religion are at odds, but this is a relatively new belief. For millennia, scientists were priests who used religious or mystical terminology to describe legitimate scientific processes. It was quite beautiful to read about, actually.
All in all, it was hard for me to assign Lost Discoveries a star rating on Goodreads. I now see why its most popular rating was three stars. Most of the book was so good, but then the chapter on cosmology brought the whole thing down. If you enjoy learning about science history as I do, I would still recommend it as a whole. For your own sanity, though, you might do well to skip Chapter 4.