Posted 11 August 2009 - 10:55 PM
Historically significant scientific discoveries and inventions are usually not isolated events/accomplishments like planting flags on mountain tops or on newly discovered islands as colonies. "Necessity is the mother of all inventions." There has to be a market place for the outcome of discoveries and inventions in order for the process and human endeavors in discovery and invention to continue. Absent such a positive market feedback, even if there were occasional random sparks, they tended to peter out. For example, ancient Greeks probably thought of the steam engine before anyone else, but there simply wasn't the developed coal market and coal mines to allow the first primitive steam engine to go through stages of efficiency improvement (the earlierst steam engines were burning so much coal for the little work they did that they could not be used profitably in any place other than inside the coal mines) . . . Vikings (Eric the Red and his band) were probably the first people, aside from native Americans, to land in North America, as they settled in Greenland and journeyed as far south as Cape Cod if not further south, yet due to lack of market driven follow-up's, that discovery meant very little before Columbus' trip.
Ancient mathematics were pursued to a very high degree in ancient China, mesopetamia, Greece and Egypt (not in that time order, obviously) due to religious needs. Those whose astronomers could predict the movement of objects in the "heavens" gained the political legitimacy to rule the peons on the earth.
Howard very accurately pointed out the importance of men like Galilei, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, etc.. in the annals of European scientific advancement. And they were not isolated tinkerers either. There was a whole market for their discoveries and inventions. In generations before them, and during much of their own life times, most European university were still focusd on not science but on scripture-studying scholarsticism, dialectical reasoning applied to Christian scriptures! That was fundamentally rather similar to the Confucianist studies in China up through the end of 19th century. By the 1500's in Europe however, there was enough market demand for scientists and technologists for more and more students in the universities to divert from scripture-studies to the study of physical science and technology. Galillei was working on explosives chemistry and optics, Newtonian physics was preceded by impact physics (cannon balls) and architectual demands on physics. Descartes' dimentional analysis rapidly found use not only in physics but also financial/economic use. People nowadays often credit Galillei with the idea of "mathematical universe" . . . the idea that the world was described by math was propounded upon at least as early as Pythagorus, some 2000 years before Galillei. The economic implosion during the "dark ages" following the Roman unification meant PYthagorus' insight was forgotton until Galillei's rediscovery.
The problem with Confucian ruled China was that, the top-down society tried to make do with bureacrats replacing merchants as agents of exchange/collaboration. That inhibitted the growth of genuine competitive market place. Aside from when the country was broken down into pieces (such as during Southern Song), the market place was suppressed. Therefore, there wasn't much of a competitive market demand for brains to divert from their medieval scripture studies. Knowledge and study in physical science and technology did not help one climb the scholarstic ladders in either the Christian Church hirarchy or the Confucian scholar-gentry hirarchy. In other words, in terms of memic competitions, Confucianism suffered from its own success in controlling the entire society thoroughly.
Early Qing court did not ban cannons at all. In fact, Qing court retained Jesuits to help design and cast cannons in their campaings against both the Three Feudatories in the Southwest and the Russians at Nurchisk. After Qing eliminated those competitions, the entire dynasty simply atrophied.
I'm not sure what you meant by Chinese sailing to Venice in the middle ages. The Suez Canal wasn't dug yet until much later. I have my doubts about Gavin Menzie's claims about Chinese discovering North America in 1421. (It would have be about 500 years later than Eric the Red anyway, even if a landfall without historical consequence were made). His theory that Chinese explorers went all the way north past the North Pole to reach North America would have run into serious problems with anyone using a magnetic compass for guidance, as the Chinese had been since at circa at least 200AD (probably much earlier); the logistics of surviving a trip across thousands of miles of polar ice (not tundra but ice) is never explained. Sure, Chinese (and Arab) knowledge transmission probably had a lot to do with Renaissance (more importantly, IMHO, the market capital structure of the merchant Republic putting those knowledge to good use), but having enormous Chinese sailing ships pulling up in Venice harbor in 1431? How and why? How did they get the ships across the Suez land block / Ismuth? And why bother doing that since there was already well established Turkish, Venetian and Geonoese fleets on the other side of the Ismuth in the Mediterrenean. Columbus did not need a map to sail west: starting from Spain, sailing west, it would be nearly impossible not to set landfall somewhere in the Americas. The fact that he landed in the Bahamas first and called it India (not China, btw) goes to show that he probably didn't have the help of any map. Now, if we are to speculate that Vasco da Gama's trip rouding Africa Continent to reach India had some kind of help from Chinese, Arabic, or for that matter ancient Carthagian map/knowledge, that would be much more believable. Europeans knew that the earth was spherical since at least ancient Greek time (the idea was older than even Pythagoras). Even the diameter was caculated quite accurately (to within 10% or less error) by several different people based on surface curvature observation/caculation. Columbus thought the earth was much smaller than it actually is. If not for the Americas landmass stopping him, his merry band of explorers would have died at sea as they sailed into oblivion.