The comet we know as Halley’s Comet had been spotted many times before the great English astronomer Edmond Halley (1656—1742), but it was not recognized as a periodic comet until eighteenth century Europe, which is significant. The Chinese had apparently never calculated the orbits of either Halley’s Comet or other comets which they had observed. They had a large mass of observational data, yet never used it to deduct mathematical theories about the movement of planets and comets similar to what Kepler, Newton and others did in Europe. Newton’s Principia was written a few generations after the introduction of the telescope, which makes it seductively simple to believe that the theory of universal gravity was somehow the logical conclusion of telescopic astronomy. Yet this is not at all the case.What would have happened if the telescope had been invented in China? Would we then have had a Chinese Newton? This is impossible to say for certain, of course, but I doubt it. Chinese culture never placed much emphasis on law, either in human form, as in secular Roman law, natural law or divine law. If the Chinese had invented the telescope, I suspect they would have used it to study comets, craters on the Moon etc., which would clearly have been valuable, no doubt. Any culture that used telescopes would have generated new knowledge with the device, but not necessarily a law of universal gravity.- - - - - - - - -
From the fourteenth until the twentieth century, almost all important global advances in mathematics were European. I would be tempted to say that European leadership was stronger in mathematics than in almost any other scholarly discipline. Perhaps the simplest explanation for why the Scientific Revolution happened in Europe is because the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, as Galileo once famously stated, and Europeans did more than any other civilization to develop or discover the vocabulary of this language.
The introduction of the telescope was a major watershed in the history of astronomy, but we should remember that it alone did not create modern astronomy. The birth of astrophysics in the late nineteenth century came through the combination of the telescope with photography and spectroscopy, all inventions that were exclusively made in Europe. Spectroscopy could not be developed until chemistry as a scientific discipline had been formed, which only happened in Europe. New fuels, engines and materials later made space travel possible. Asian rockets were powered by gunpowder and weighed a couple of kilograms at most. They could not have challenged the Earth’s gravity and explored the Solar System. The Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11 on its journey to the Moon in 1969 used liquid hydrogen and oxygen, elements which had been discovered in Europe. The very concept of gravity, too, was developed only in Europe. The exploration of the Solar System and the universe at large was to an overwhelming degree made possible by a single civilization alone, the Western one.
Read the rest at the Brussels Journal.