Was Shen Kuo Really a Scientist? (Shen Kuo part 2)

The way we think of science is culturally biased.

(Cover Image: Shen Kuo and his Dream Pool Essays, Public Domain)

In or around 1080, a Chinese government worker wrote how there was an “object as bright as a pearl” hovering over the city of Yangzhou. He interviewed a local man about the strange occurrence. The witness told him how the object…

“…opened its door, and a flood of intense light like sunbeams darted out of it, then the outer shell opened up, appearing as large as a bed with a big pearl the size of a fist illuminating the interior in silvery white. The intense silver-white light, shot from the interior, was too strong for human eyes to behold; it cast shadows of every tree within a radius of ten miles. The spectacle was like the rising Sun, lighting up the distant sky and woods in red. Then all of a sudden, the object took off at a tremendous speed and descended upon the lake like the Sun setting”

Shen Kuo, Dream Pool Essays

This is the oldest known written account of an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), and it was written by Shen Kuo1. Shen wrote about this UFO in the same work, the Dream Pool Essays, that contained his other amazing scientific writings (which I highlighted in my last post about Shen).

Does that imply he wasn’t a “real” scientist?

To some, the wonton interwoven stories of the supernatural and scientific in the Dream Pool Essays are direct evidence that Shen was not a scientist2

But, what is science?

The way we think of science is a cultural construct. It is based on a European philosophy developed largely in the 17th-18th century. We often ascribe people or acts that fit in this philosophy as scientific.

We exclude people and work that do not fit in this cultural mold, especially if done outside of Europe and North America, as “unscientific.”

Shen Kuo was a scientist, but not in the way we like to think.

Bust statue of Shen Kuo showing his characteristic mustache and beard and hat with long wings on the side of it
Bust of Shen Kuo, Beijing Ancient Observatory (Hans A. Rosbach – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, wikimedia)

Shen Kuo’s Scientific Civil Service

Shen’s civil service work informs us on why he was such an avid published scientist, but it also tells us more about the kind of science he was doing. 

Shen’s primary motivation was to solve problems across China in the name and service of the Emperor. He solved these problems with rigorous study of the natural, and sometimes metaphysical, world.

Shen did not investigate fossil bamboo to test a hypothesis. Instead, he was investigating a landslide when he noticed something interesting and wrote about it3.

In this way, Shen appears more like a modern Instagram or Reddit user who, while doing his day job, saw something cool and posted about it.

Does that mean he’s not a scientist?

Shen was not scientific in a modern sense because he didn’t see a need to be. He saw no reason to think about the implications of climate change unless it directly impacted his day job.

In many ways, I sympathize with Shen.

For seven years, I worked in the petroleum industry, and I mostly worked in applied science. I used the scientific method, and scientific philosophy, but my work was practical in that it sought to solve a direct problem rather than seek some unknown truth. 

Shen’s work was no different.

However, I never randomly added slides about alchemy and bigfoot in my PowerPoint presentations (even if I may have wanted to).

Shen Kuo was a scientist, even if we don’t think so.

A copy of a text containing handwritten Chinese characters from Shen's Dream Pool Essays
Some of Shen Kuo’s actual writing in the Dream Pool Essays written in the 11th Century. (Public Domain)

In his Dream Pool Essays, Shen stitched together his various accounts of the supernatural with a long list of amazing scientific achievements. His writings covered ground-breaking mathematics, astronomy, geology, medicine, and physics.

However, the Dream Pool Essays were not a scientific publication in the modern sense, and they were never meant to be2.

Shen may not have been driven by an innate curiosity of how the world worked, and he may not have used the “scientific method” exactly as we know it. the scientific method was not fully developed until what is now known as the “Scientific Revolution” which took place between the 1500-1800’s in Europe.

The Scientific Revolution refers to the shift in European thinking to a secular approach designed to answer questions in a well-constrained, evidence-based framework of inference and inductive reasoning. The Scientific Revolution culminated with a centralization of science in academies and formal publication of scientific literature.

The Scientific Revolution was actually driven by a renewed interest in Roman, Greek, and Arabic texts that Europeans encountered during the Crusades and in later more peaceful trips to the Middle East, and was therefore nothing that hadn’t already been done before4. Europeans did not “invent” science, they simply retooled it to fit their changing culture.

Some people criticize Chinese science from Shen Kuo’s time as not being “real” because it predates the European Scientific Revolution and does not have a central, philosophical mindset2. Chinese scientists of the 11th Century were not cloistered in universities, they did not publish in scientific literature, and they mixed the physical and metaphysical with little care for where one ended and the other began.

However, Shen, and his Chinese contemporaries, observed natural phenomena and interpreted the causes of what they saw without making a prior assumption of that cause. That sounds awfully like the scientific method to me, even if it isn’t exactly the modern European style we are used to.

Take the case of the fossil bamboo3:

  • Shen observed that bamboo was found under the ground where it did not grow in his time
  • He reasoned that there was no way the bamboo could be contemporary, it was too deep in the ground
  • He further concluded (hypothesized), that the climate was different in the past, and this bamboo reflected that past climate
  • (He then wrote about fashion and alchemy)

This is science!

A star chart showing position of stars in the night sky and how they change through time accompanied with handwritten Chinese characters
A star chart from Shen contemporary Su Song which features the location of the North Star as calculated by Shen Kuo. This is the oldest printed star map known and highlights the amazing scientific work being done in 11th century China. (Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Just because Shen was haphazard in his writings, and may not have relied on a European way of doing things, doesn’t make the science in Dream Pool Essays any less valid.

Science in 11th century China was just done differently than that of Europe in the 17th-18th century, and these differences should not be surprising. These were two different times and two widely-spaced places with distinct cultures. Add in the lack of a strong literary contact between China and Europe in the 11th century, and it is not surprising that science was done differently between the two cultures2

Our view of what science is, or what it should be, is a cultural construct. We assume our way is the best way because of our bias. This can be harmful as it belittles the work of Asian scientists and the culture of East Asia in general. Even today we still have the tendency to think of science coming from China as being impure, substandard, or even at times nefarious.

We are facing the very real consequences of this cultural denigration of East Asia with the recent (as of this post) violence against Asian-Americans in the United States. When we belittle the works of historical Chinese scientists, because they also happened to write about UFOs and didn’t work in a university, we feed into that hostile system of hate.

Shen Kuo was an amazing scientist.

References

  1. Edwards, Steven A. (2012). Shen Kuo, the first Renaissance man? https://www.aaas.org/shen-kuo-first-renaissance-man. Accessed online: March 21, 2021.
  2. Sivin, Nathan. (1984). “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China—Or Didn’t It?” in Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences: Essays in Honor of I. Bernard Cohen, 531–555, ed. Everett Mendelsohn. Cambridge: Cambridge.
  3. Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 3, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
  4. Grant, E. (1996). The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Part of my “Founding Five” diverse paleontologists

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