Why Didn’t Northern Song China Produce a Kepler?
(Institute for the History of Natural Science, CAS, Beijing, China)
Abstract: In the beginning of the 17th century, Johannes Kepler (1571 -1630), using observations made by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), waged his war on Mars. He won his war with the discovery of the three laws of planetary motion, bringing about a revolutionary change in astronomy, harbingering celestial mechanics of Isaac Newton.
More than five centuries earlier, in the 11th century China, in the Northern Song dynasty, there was a polymath elite official Shen Kua (1031-1095) who, realizing the serious discrepancies in the prediction of planetary movements, proposed a project to tackle the problem and planed a series of observations of a kind not proposed in Europe until the time of Tycho Brahe. Shen Kua’s project, however, ended in abortion. He could not achieve anything remarkable on the computation of planetary motion. The eleven century Northern Song China, so to speak, did not produce a Kepler.
Shen Kua’s failure is even more telling when we note the fact that, in terms of accuracy of the calculation of planetary motion, China in the eleventh century had already reached the similar level of the West in the sixteenth century. In this study I will investigate many factors, technical and social, that conspired to inhibit the development of planetary astronomy in Northern Song China.
Sun Xiaochun 孙小淳 is Professor of the History of Science at the Institute for the History of Natural Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences. He studied astronomy in Nanjing University. He received his Ph.D. in History of Astronomy from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1993 and his second Ph.D. in History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007. He has published primarily on the history of Chinese astronomy and co-authored The Chinese Sky during the Han (Leiden: Brill, 1997). Currently he serves as Vice-President of Commission 41 on History of Astronomy of IAU, and a corresponding member of International Academy of the History of Science.