The Global History of Physical Science

Our textbook view of the history of modern physical science (meaning: physical theory and all its applications to problems in astronomy, geodesy, experimental physics, etc.) focuses heavily on theoretical innovations and crucial experiments by European scientists. When explaining advances and discoveries outside of Europe, historians have long appealed to a mere "diffusion" (Kapil Raj) of pre-figured bodies of knowledge. My research on physical geodesy made me realize just how narrow this account is. Precision surveying, astronomy, and gravimetry in South Asia long constituted a relatively autonomous and stable field of science, contributing some of the most important data for studying the earth's figure and gravity field; an extremely prestigious problem in classical physics that was pursued by the likes of Laplace, Gauss, and Poincaré. In my research, I investigate the unique socio-epistemic circumstances enabling, constraining, and shaping geodetic investigations in South Asia, which I consider an essential element of the history of physics at large. Scientists had to balance a variety of conflicting institutional interests, ranging from the East India Company's imperial expansionism to the political interests of semi-independent regional rulers. Moreover, geodesy was not merely pursued by British scientists but involved major contributions by rarely recognized figures like the Bengali mathematician Radhanath Sikdar and the Bengali instrument maker Syed Mir Mohsin.

The geodetic network of the "Great Trigonometrical Survey of India" by 1920, showing ‘principal’ triangulations that were sufficiently precise to be used in determinations of the earth’s figure (blue), leveling operations relative to several tidal stations (red), astronomical control stations (red A, L), and gravimetric stations (red P).

Published research from this project:

Related thoughts on the general history of physical geodesy:

  • The Promises and Pitfalls of Precision: Measurement and Systematic Error in Physical Geodesy, 1800-1910. Annals of Science. S.I.: Promises of Precision (forthcoming).

Related thoughts on the global history of science (not physics):

2004 stamp with Radhanath Sikdar, who spent several decades working as the chief geodetic and astronomical computer of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. He contributed significantly to the discovery of isostatic compensation and several other geodetic problems.