Posts Tagged ‘sextant’

A universal history of astronomy as an educational aid

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on August 31st, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Rajesh Kochhar

Invited  talk delivered at XXVII General Assembly of International Astronomical Union  Special Session 4: Astronomy Education between Past and Future, Rio de Janeiro 6 August 2009

A man is wise with the wisdom of his age only,

and ignorant with its ignorance.    -Henry David Thoreau

History is an exercise in constructing the past carried out in the present with an eye on the future. Thus, paradoxical as it may seem , history converts the past into a bridge between the present and the future. As our perception of today and expectations from tomorrow change, our interpretation of yesterday must also accordingly change.

Human beings are an astronomical species. Ever since they learnt to walk upright they have looked at the sky and wondered. The sky has remained the same, but not its meaning. Astronomy is thus simultaneously a state-of-art intellectual enquiry as well as a symbol of the collectivity and continuity of humankind’s endeavours to come to terms with their cosmic environment. This collectivity can be conveniently discussed in terms of a three-phase model comprising (i) propitiatory phase; (ii) negotiatory phase; and (iii) the modern, curiosity-driven, impersonal phase.

To begin with, sky was home to divinities who were to be feared and appeased. As time progressed, human beings felt more secure and became intellectually more alert. Earlier awe made way for curiosity. Sky was now seen as a phenomenon which could be described The knowledge thus gained was employed to renegotiate the equation with celestial bodies. (iii) The third phase nominally began with Copernicus but took off with Galileo. Sky was now the abode of laws of nature which could be discovered and tested. Earlier astronomy had measured angles; now it could ascertain distances. The sky had acquired depth literally as well as figuratively. It is the transition from phase 2 to phase 3 which concerns us here.

Cultural Copernicanism

Post- world war II decades have ushered in an age which we may call the age of Cultural Copernicanism . In analogy with the cosmological principle that the universe has no preferred location or direction, principle of Cultural Copernicanism would assert that no cultural or geographical area or ethnic or social group can be deemed to constitute a superior entity or a benchmark for judging or evaluating others. This principle argues for a Trans-Cultural Civilizational Perspective whereby modern astronomy (or science in general) is seen not as a western brand but as the current phase of human cultural cumulus to which contributions at different times have come from different parts of the world.

This framework however is a recent development. Historiography developed in the long 19th century consciously projected modern science ( including modern astronomy) as a characteristic produce of western civilization, decoupled from and superior to its antecedents, with the implication that all material and ideological benefits arising from it ( and modern technology) were reserved for its authors.

As a reaction to this, the orientalized east has often tended to view modern astronomy as western astronomy , and sought to defend, protect and reinvent its “own” heritage. This defensive mindset works against the propagation of modern astronomy in many non-western countries.

It also warps their own accounts of their history. Those who act can retract, but those who react continue doing so.

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return. – W.H. Auden

If we wish to create enthusiasm for (modern) astronomy and teach it effectively, especially in geographical areas which have memories of their astronomical past, we must create links to the past and situate modern astronomy in a more extended evolutionary sequence.

Even for researchers, educators and students in astronomically advanced countries, a universal history of astronomy would be professionally beneficial and culturally satisfying. It will bring home the important lesson that at all times, including today, scientific breakthroughs have taken place only when inputs are received from diverse sources.

19th century historiography:Suggested correctives

There are two aspects to be considered: (A) How Europe constructed its own history of astronomy and (B) how it described earlier developments especially in India and the Muslim cultural zone (MCZ). (I am unable to say any thing about developments , e.g., in China.)

Greek science

My own assessment is that science in Europe would have developed exactly the way it did even if Greek science did not exist. This is because of the dynamism created by maritime voyages and the exorbitant profits therefrom. Europe however took its science’s roots back to ancient Greece. And stopped there. It refused to go into the antecedents of Greek science itself . Hellenic and Hellenistic periods were presented as a monolith so that by association Homer and Aristarchus would reinforce each other.

Greek science could arise only after Alexander. His conquests brought Greeks to the older civilizations of Egypt and Iraq, which had large surplus economies, vast geographical extent, higher levels of practical knowledge and technological advancements. These, when combined classical Greece’s intellectual prowess, gave rise to “Greek science”. But it did not suit Europe of the time to give any credit to Africa or Asia.

Terms like Hindu astronomy and Arab astronomy are isolationist and were intended as such. Moreover they are misleading. The word Hindu was not in use in 500 CE. And .as Ibn – Khaldoon pointed out , “ most Muslim scholars both in the religious and in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs”. Unfortunately, these terms continue to be used by sheer force of habit. They should be discarded in favour of purely descriptive terms like Siddhantic astronomy and Zij astronomy.

More generally, serious thought needs to be applied to the vocabulary employed. Words do not have any intrinsic meaning; they carry the meaning given to them. Some terms may appear innocuous to astronomers, but they may carry their own baggage from other area studies.

With reference to earlier epochs, terms like pre-scientific or ascientific astronomy have been employed even in serious literature. In contrast , ethno-astronomy or cultural astronomy may appear more acceptable , but they have their own shortcomings. They appear to be patronizing and an exercise in exoticism. ( All human activity including the modern scientific is cultural)

I have seen the use of term rational astronomy to refer to the modem phase. This seems to suggest that in earlier phases people made a distinction between the rational and the irrational and deliberately chose the irrational!

May be terms like solsticial (equinoctial) astronomy or colure astronomy or cardinal point astronomy can be used, because they are purely descriptive and not tainted by any association.

Incidentally, we routinely use geographical terms like India, China, and Egypt while discussing their antiquity. But an exception is made in case of Iraq which is invariably described in such difficult-to-comprehend terms like Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Chaldea, etc. This tends to decouple modern Iraq from its rich heritage. Why is this so?


Greek science was one of the big bangs for 19th century Euro-centric historiography; Copernicus was another. Some of the earlier accounts give the impression that he was not a product of his time at all , but was merely  taking sides in the  old dispute between Aristarchus’ heliocentrism and Ptolemy’s geocentrism.


The common use of a term like Arabic numerals raises the hackles of Indians who consider it to be a case of mis-branding. (This is true. ( Arabic/Persian call them Hind-se’, from India.) But terms like Arabic numerals and Algorithm, after Al-Khwarizmi, draw attention to an important historical fact , namely, arrival of intellectual inputs from MCZ into Europe.

What did Europe do with these inputs? More specifically, did they go into the making of Copernicus? Whether Al-Tusi deserves to be elevated from a lowly , early 19th century, footnote to the 21st century main text needs to engage the attention of present-day scholars, in a non-parochial context.

A universal history of astronomy would transcend patriotisms of all kinds.

Buddhists and Arabs

Arabs were  dismissively told that there role had been no more than as librarians and archivists for preserving  Greek science till Europe was in a position to take its heritage back. And yet, when Indians in their own context pointed out that in earlier times the Buddhists had  worked extensively  on health-related  chemistry , they were told with a straight face that  when their ancient texts mention Buddhist , they probably meant Arabs! Surely Arabs would have liked to hear that. But it was not considered necessary to inform them.

From about 500 CE till Kepler’s time , Indian astronomers were probably the only ones in the world who could calculate an eclipse with any reasonable accuracy. Disdainfully they were told that there was nothing original in their astronomy; it was a tame imitation of the Greeks. Indians did not retort that the only way to build an intellectual tradition is to absorb extant knowledge and build on it. Instead they weakly argued that the Greek borrowing was in astrology and not in astronomy, as if the distinction would have made any sense 2000 years ago.

Indians take pride in the appreciation earned by Indian texts in Baghdad, but are themselves less than liberal in acknowledging the role of Greco-Babylonian inputs around 1st century CE in revitalizing their Vedic astronomical tradition.

Since racial purity is an absolute no-no now , great emphasis is being placed on cultural purity. It is like discovering therapeutic virtues in distilled water.

Unlike the MCZ, Indian astronomical developments did not impinge Europe directly. The main concern of Siddhantic astronomers was the computation of planetary orbits. In the process they solved many equations which as formal mathematics caught Europe’s interest much later. Should they be the concern of only Indian historians?

History of astronomy functions at two levels. At one level we are interested in tracing the historical trajectory which leads to recent developments. But examination of high points that do not lie on the trajectory is also a legitimate field of enquiry. To put it attractively, if history has its compulsions, it also has its romances.

Thomas Godfrey’s 1730 invention of sextant in Philadelphia a year before Hadley invented it “ independently” the next year in England is an example of romance of history . Similarly European pre-history of telescope before Hans Lippershey’s commercial invention in 1608 is a fascinating subject. This line of enquiry should be extended to include similar episodes from other culture areas as well.

To sum up

Astronomy as a modern scientific discipline stands apart from most others in the sense that iy is collaborative rather than competitive. No person howsoever important, no nation howsoever powerful, no observatory howsoever well equipped is permitted a view of the whole celestial sphere.

It is a significant arrangement by nature that to know where you are located on the earth you must take the help of the sky ( stars/satellites).There is a rather obscure theorem in applied mathematics, known as Lichtenstein’s theorem, which tells you that for a rotating body like the earth the distinction between north and south along with the existence of equator is a mathematical fact , but the distinction between east and west is completely arbitrary.

We are all committed to the world-wide propagation of astronomical sciences. I have argued that to facilitate the task we must construct a universal history of astronomy so that every one feels they have contributed to it in the past and must do in the present and future as well.

Even otherwise an inclusive history is good for the world’s general wellness.

Inventive individuals; innovative systems

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 8th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Inventive individuals; innovative systems

Rajesh Kochhar

If continuity is to sustain itself, it must be embedded in change; it must continually evolve.Feasible change must be anchored to continuity. Development is incremental, often fulfilling a felt need. Once in place, it generates its own momentum, triggering further developments whose speed or direction could not have been foreseen.

When individual computers were linked through the Internet, it was a significant, yet natural, extension of cold-war era strategic efforts. Similarly, when storage on one computer was made accessible to another through the World-Wide Web, it was a significant, yet natural, extension of interconnectivity among scientists. The scientific community has always been interactive. The web was a small step for it, but became a giant leap for others.

Sectors such as telecommunications, entertainment, supermarket chains, travel, etc. have benefited from the Web, but not as much as the pornographic industry, which now can unabashedly reach out to its customers. It has repaid its debt by introducing innovations such as e-commerce and video streaming. Porn’s necessity has become others’ facility. Chillingly, the greatest beneficiaries of the web have been child abusers, who can now violate the sanctity of the home and target their victims directly. In general, the bigger the beneficiary of the Internet (and the Web), the less its chances of having thought of it in the first place.

We must carefully distinguish between invention and innovation. Human beings are endowed with intellect and imagination. An invention is the manifestation of an individual’s creative mind and is capable of standing on its own, even in isolation. It becomes an innovation when it is incorporated into the mainstream, combined with existing knowledge in such a manner that future

developments are influenced by this incorporation. The distinction between creativity and breakthrough comes out well in Francis Darwin’s remark: “But in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.”

It would be instructive to distinguish between what we may call compulsions of history andthe romance of history. Henry David Thoreau observed thoughtfully that “A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only, and ignorant with its ignorance.” There are occasions when the wisdom of  the time demands an invention. If invention is the child of necessity, then it may be said to belong to the realm of compulsions of history. Such an invention is instantaneously incorporated into the mainstream, bringing its author immediate credit. History chooses the hour, and the hour produces the hero.

There are, however, times when the creative urges of an individual propel him or her beyond the wisdom of the time, producing a freak. This individual’s invention belongs to the romance of history. Incorporation into the mainstream, with the attendant personal recognition, may come later when the collective wisdom catches up with the individual’s creativity. Note that while the compulsions of history can be recognized by contemporaries, the romance of history can be seen only with hindsight.

A telling example of invention versus innovation is furnished by early 18th-century Europe and what is now the USA. In November 1730, Thomas Godfrey, a “poor glazier” from  Philadelphia, invented what evolved into a sextant, which was used in voyages to Jamaica and to Newfoundland. The next year, in May 1731, the invention was independently made in England

by John Hadley. America at the time did not need a sea-faring instrument; accordingly, Godfrey’s invention remained a dead end. In contrast, Hadley’s invention, independent or not, was immediately adopted by all European nations engaged in hugely profitable maritime activity. Efforts by Godfrey and his mentors to persuade London to concede his priority failed. Even if

Godfrey had been recognized as the inventor of the sextant, all fruits of his invention would still have gone to Europe. The moral of the story is that it is not sufficient for a social system to have in its midst creative people. It should also be in a position to encourage, recognize and, most importantly, benefit from their inventiveness.

Globalization is primarily concerned with generation of wealth and tends to focus on innovation geared towards this end. It must be kept in mind that human ingenuity spans a wide variety of areas. Historically, more effort has been expended in devising ways and means of appropriating wealth created by others than in creating it oneself. Among young educated Indians today, a major preoccupation seems to be devising stupid puns and clever word play in English, which in the last half century has moved from libraries and classroom to pubs and drawing rooms.

Paradoxical as it may seem, globalization taken globally is weighted against across–the–board innovation. Much of the world economy is still based on traditional technology (trad-tech). Also, high-tech production is not uniformly distributed across the world, but confined to pockets.

Of the various facets of globalization, the one that has appealed the most the world over is the globalization of consumption levels. These levels are so high now that they cannot be sustained by trad-tech economies. Consequently most young well-trained professionals are willingly doing menial work for international companies, positions much below their skills and expertise and at ridiculously low dollar wages, which still translate into pretty packets in local currency.

One would have thought that globalization would mean more or less similar types of work for similarly qualified people. But this has not happened. S&T is ceasing to mean science and technology and increasingly coming to denote services and trade. R&D inputs required for making trad-tech slim and trim through new tools are hard to come by. The Godfreys of today would be able to win personal recognition and make personal fortunes. To some extent the situation has changed over 250 years, but these inventors would still not be able to contribute to their countries’ economies.

The French Nobel Prize-winning surgeon Alexis Carrel remarked: “Intelligence is almost useless to someone who has no other quality.” In an analogous manner: invention would be almost useless in an economy possessing no other strength.


1. Dreyer, J.L.E. (1886). ‘On the Invention of the Sextant’. Astronomische Nachrichten, No.2739.

Reprinted in Nistads News, Vol.4 (1), Y13 – Y14, April 2002.

2. Kochhar, R. (1999). ‘The Rise of Techno-Baboo: IT is a Brain Sink’. Current Science, 76: 1531-1533.


Knowledge economy: Global or parochial?(2004)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 1st, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Prepared for ‘2004 STEPI International Symposium on Science and Technology Policy’, Seoul, 30 Nov. – 3 Dec. 2004

Knowledge economy: Global or parochial?

Rajesh Kochhar

NISTADS: National Institute of Science Technology and

Development Studies

K.S. Krishnan Marg, New Delhi 110 012

[email protected]


We introduce the concept of “rising” and “flat” technologies. Broadly speaking, knowledge-based economy comprises rising techs of the day, dynamic upper-end flat techs and the services sector. Since it is innovation-driven, it cannot be global. This is so because innovation seeks prepared ground; it does not spring up randomly anywhere in the world. Parochiality of new economy adversely affects the world at large at both the low-skill and the high-skill end. Genuinely global economy will be one that ensures improvements in all sectors across the board.


We can classify all technologies into two categories: “Rising” and “flat”. A rising tech is one which is currently in a rapid phase of development. A flat tech on the other hand is more-or less standardized, so that any innovation in it can only be incremental, Quite obviously, today’s rising tech is tomorrow’s flat tech. Conversely a flat tech can suddenly overcome its stagnation and became rising. We can further divide flat tech into two subsets: High-skill demanding upper end; and low-skill requiring lower end. An important rising tech of the day is the ensemble of information and communication technologies (ICT) which permits high speed, low-cost storage, processing and transmission of data. Since ICT makes it possible to replace vertical integration with horizontal netwoking, it is

also a powerful tool to foster innovation in upper-end flat techs, and in the service sector. USA tends to drive its economy through rising tech of the day, parceling out manufacturing based on flat tech to lesser countries down the line. These countries in turn tend to focus on upper-end flat tech and parcel out low-skill requiring flat-tech manufacturing to countries further down the line.

It is in the conceptual framework proposed above that we now seek to analyse knowledge-based (or new) economy. There is much oversimplication associated with the term. In their on-line Enclyopedia of the New Economy, John Browning and Spencer Reiss gushingly write: “When we talk of the new economy, we’re talking about a world in which people work with their brains instead of their hands….. A world in which innovation is more important than mass production”. Nokia would differ. To prop up its bottom line it is now aiming to mass produce below-the-top mobile sets for markets in India and China. In a similar vein it has been remarked that while steel is 90% material and 10% knowledge, Windows is 95% knowledge and 5% material. True, except that, to use Windows we must have computers and peripherals all of which are 100% material.

OECD in 1996 defined knowledge-based economies as “economies which are directly based on the production, distribution and use of knowledge and information”. APEC (whose 21 members include Republic of Korea) has sought to broaden the definition. “A Knowledge-Based Economy is an economy in which the production, distribution and use of knowledge is [sic] the main driverof growth, wealth creation and employment across all industries”. “In a truly knowledge-based economy, all sectors have become knowledge-intensive, not just those called “high technology”, “Knowledge itself is not merely information written in an organization’s files, but includes culture, the way in which people interact within the organization knowledge about the contacts they use to gain information from outside, and so on”.

It is not possible to define or describe knowledge economy in a precise and an entirely self-consistent manner. May be, a clearer picture will eventually emerge from the loose use of the term in different contexts. Broadly speaking, knowledge economy is an innovation-driven economy where growth is accomplished through capital and manpower as before but by assimilation and creation of new knowledge. Rising tech and services sector belong to the new economy which can also include dynamic sectors of upper-end flat tech. An innovation takes place when a new idea (or pre-existing floating knowledge) is incorporated into the mainstream, and combined with the existing knowledge in such a manner that future developments are influenced by this incorporation. Innovation pre-requires the existence of a mainstream which additionally must have in-built be invested with instruments and institutions for suitable incorporation of a new idea.

In November 1730, Thomas Godfrey, a “poor glazier” from Philadelphia, invented a navigational instrument, a reflecting quadrant, which was used in voyages to Jamaica and to Newfoundland. The next year, in May 1731, the invention was independently made in England by John Hadley. America at the time did not need a sea-faring instrument; accordingly, Godfrey’s invention remained a dead end. In contrast, Hadley’s invention, independent or not, which soon evolved into a sextant, was immediately adopted by all European nations engaged in the hugely profitable maritime activity. Even if Godfrey had been recognized as the inventor of the sextant, it would have been a personal honour; all fruits of his invention would still have gone to Europe. In the closing years of the 18th century, the Indian princely state of Mysore kept British-led forces at bay for some time, using rocketry. Although this caused temporary setback to the British (and permanent psychological damage to the future Duke of Wellington), they benefited from the experience in the long run. Several Indian rocket cases were sent to Britain for analysis. Empirical rocketry from India was incorporated into the mainstream of science, providing the British with military advantage in their pursuits elsewhere, as for example in their wars against the French and Americans.

Human beings are naturally endowed with intellect and imagination. In what channels individual creativity finds expression is determined by cultural factors. It is a defining attribute of industrial societies that they value ideas pertaining to production of ‘wealth. Otherwise, historically more effort has been expended in devising ways and means of appropriating wealth generated by others (through feudalism, stealth, cunning, crime) than in creating it oneself. I once received in Delhi what was meant to be a five-rupee coin. It was in fact made by illegally soldering two half-rupee coins together. The economics of the exercise is very attractive. Maternal cost a rupee; add a quarter for soldering. Product sells at 300% profit. Obviously, we do not have such innovations in mind when we talk of new economy! In the present-day complex and hurried world, new ideas relevant for economic growth can emerge at a fast pace only in a social system that has a vibrant culture of industrial and intellectual activity, which directs individual creatives into productive channels, displays ability to recognize new ideas when they appear; and has the courage to experiment with them. In other words, innovation seeks prepared ground; it cannot spring up randomly anywhere in the world.

Parochiality of new economy is adversely affecting rest of the world at both, low-skill and high-skill, ends. There was a time when a country’s economy tended to be complete in some respects. USA was not only making aeroplanes but also toys and jeans. Now, manual activity is being outsourced wholesale. Technological innovations are not possible in non-tech and very low-tech activities, which can be made competitive only by extraneous means, Chinese manufacturers are competing with one another in depressing wages to be able to offer best rates to WalMart. Adidas has been guilty of using child labour, forced overtime and sexual harassment in getting its sportswear made in Indonesia. India’s position on the world BPO and software map may be exaggerated, but there can be no doubt about India’s preeminence as a destination for such hazardous tasks as ship breaking and dismemberment of discarded computers and mobile phones.

Globalization is encouraging imitation behaviour. Of all its aspects the one that has appealed the most to Indian middle class is access to consumption at international levels. In no way can these levels be supported by India’s agricultural and flat tech economy. Consequently most young well-trained professionals are willingly taking up low-caliber work for international companies, at positions much below their skills and expertise would warrant and at ridiculously low dollar wages which still translate into pretty packets in local currency. Providing peripheral and even core support to rising techs elsewhere and in services sector is creating a brain sink in low-wage countries. A rising tech area quickly divides itself into more and more promising sub-areas leading to further division of labour and increased returns. Ideally, work in rising tech should trigger innovation in flat tech. In reality, high returns on rising tech coupled with its glamour tend to de-innovate and deglamourize flat tech areas to the detriment of a vast section of the world population. A knowledged-based economy is global only to the extent that the catchment area for its human resource requirement as well as the market for it has expanded. A truly global economy will be one that ensures improvement in all sectors across the board.

(I thank Pradosh Nath and Parthasarathi Banejree for helpful conversations.)//