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Restoring India’s Calculus Crown (Excerpts)

Courtesy: The Telegraph

George Gheverghese Joseph is on a mission to reclaim India’s pride of place in the world of mathematics. An emeritus professor at Manchester University in the UK, his book, The Crest of the Peacock; Non-European roots of Mathematics, has challenged the status quo and persuaded the West to acknowledge that a 15th century Kerala mathematician-astronomer named Madhava (Madhavan, in local dialect) had worked on the fundamentals of calculus — a vital tool for measuring time, making almanacs and finding directions at sea — almost two centuries before Sir Isaac Newton and his German counterpart Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz were credited as its founders.

Kerala-born Joseph has some reasons to conclude that the southern Indian state may have served as a conduit for the transmission of Indian mathematics to Europe through Jesuit priests, though the evidence available is more circumstantial.

Joseph played an important role in purging the South African mathematics curriculum of its racial overtones post-apartheid but rues that the “colonial mindset” that “denigrated native contributions” and “politics” had clouded India’s efforts to honour its heritage.

The Telegraph caught up with Joseph at his holiday home near the Kovalam beach resort here. Excerpts from the interview:


Question: How did the West react to the conclusions in your first book, The Crest of the Peacock; Non-European roots of Mathematics?

Joseph: The perception of the West was a very pleasant surprise. I did not expect so many people to be so receptive to ideas. I think the reason they had not touched upon it earlier is because they did not have the information. The book received over hundred reviews by all sorts of groups. Not just maths educators, even activists reviewed it. What particularly moved me was the extent to which African Americans and Blacks took up some of the things in it after they realised they had a very rich history. For instance, the earliest mathematical artefact is available right in the middle of Africa, but nobody knows. It’s called the Ishango bone which is a type of lunar calendar and dates back to 22,000 BC, much earlier than anything of that sort found anywhere in the world.

There were a few critics, but nobody took me on on the maths in it. It was mostly the interpretation. There was criticism that I was devaluing Newton, Leibniz and the Greeks. But all I was saying was that there is that part of history which has been ignored and we need to reflect on. And also, how some of the ideas travelled to the West to, in fact, create the scientific revolution.

People who disappointed me were the Indians. Part of colonisation involves a form of brainwashing where you end up defending something because you think you have invested time and emotion in it. I was awarded a Royal Society Visiting Fellowship to deliver a series of lectures in Indian universities. But a number of those I met didn’t either want to know or were very critical. Subsequently, I also noticed that academics has been highly politicised in the country. So I suddenly find my views and conclusions either being approved by the Right who say, look here is a book that shows India is great, or being criticised by the Left, who claim that the book panders to the other side and contains not much of material analysis.

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