the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

Starbucks in the Forbidden City

published July 2001 | Comments Off on Starbucks in the Forbidden City
Eastern and Western science are put to political uses in both cultures
magazine cover

In the sixth century B.C., Siddhartha Gautama — better known as the Buddha — extolled the virtues of enlightenment through a “middle path”:

Avoiding the two extremes the Buddha has gained the enlightenment of the Middle Path, which produces insight and knowledge, and tends to calm, to higher knowledge, enlightenment, Nirvana. This is the noble Eightfold Way: namely, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

Twenty-six centuries later American physicist Murray Gell-Mann constructed a subatomic model he playfully called the Eightfold Way, because it consisted of eight particles with eight possible rotations. The name was a joke, he told a Caltech audience in a lecture on “Quantum Mechanics and Flapdoodle,” referring to the New Age fiddle-faddle about his theory presented in books whose authors didn’t get the humor and thus constructed elaborate and imaginary links between Eastern mysticism and Western science. Such comparisons do tug at one’s inner sense that the continuities between Eastern and Western worldviews should reflect some deeper structure, but is it really possible (in an analogy to the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics) that the orbit of Mars, like the orbit of an electron, is scattered randomly around the sun until someone observes it, at which point the wave function collapses and it appears in one spot? No. Quantum effects wash out at large scales. Microcosms do not correspond to macrocosms. And the vague similarities between Eastern and Western models result from the fact that there are only so many variations on explanations of the world; by chance, some are bound to resemble one another.

I was struck by such East-West contrasts and continuities on several levels during a recent trip to Beijing for the International Conference on Science Communication (which for much of China means such scientific basics as birth control). The conference was held in a sleek downtown high rise, but the projectors routinely broke down during presentations. Throughout the city, bicycles far outnumber cars, buses and taxis. Businessmen and women, before cycling to their jobs, flock to city parks to perform tai chi, the ancient art of adjusting one’s spiritual energy. Buildings and homes incorporate the latest Western amenities but do not neglect feng shui in their architectural design, out of fear for energy blockages at inappropriately located doors and walls.

A tour of the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square (communism at its worst) forces visitors to exit through a basement filled with kitschy crafts of the tackiest sort (capitalism at its worst). The Museum of Science and Technology featured an old, faded IMAX film (The Dream Is Alive) projected onto a waterstained, chipped-tile ceiling; a fabulously clever pneumatic bed of nails would have demonstrated the harmless distribution of mass over many points — if only it had worked. Even in the Forbidden City — where emperors and empresses, concubines and eunuchs, palanquins and peons roamed for five centuries — there could not have been a more striking contraposition in the only store I found in the palace interior:a Starbucks! Of course, I had to imbibe.

For my yuan (80 to a dollar), however, the finest example of contrast and continuity was the Ancient Beijing Observatory, built in 1442 for the sixth Ming dynasty emperor, Zhengtong. Located on the main east-west corridor of the city (itself laid out according to celestial coordinates) on the roof of what was once a tall building, this observatory contains a sextant, a theodolite, a quadrant, an altazimuth, several armilla and a celestial globe, allowing Chinese astronomers to track the motion of planetary bodies, to record eclipses and comets and to mark the location of the Milky Way galaxy and the constellations. It was the Keck Observatory of its age, measuring, for instance, the length of the solar year at 365.2425 days, off by only 26 seconds. Its beautifully crafted bronze instruments starkly oppose the steel girders and scaffolding that abound in nearby high-rises.

A closer examination of these astronomical instruments, however, reveals connections to Western science but with instructive differences. The rings of the armillary sphere are divided into 360 degrees — a European tradition adopted from Mesopotamian geometry — instead of 365.25 daily segments, as found in purely Chinese instruments. The celestial globe presents the Milky Way galaxy in dimpled metal; rough-cut metallic stars mark the familiar constellation Orion, including the unmistakable belt stars, brilliant Sirius, giant Betelgeuse and Rigel. Even the Orion nebula is visible below the belt.

But something is amiss: Orion is backwards. Betelgeuse should be in the upper left corner of the constellation, not the right, and Sirius should be to the left of the belt stars. The sky is inside out. According to archaeoastronomer Ed Krupp, all celestial globes are constructed from the “transcendental eye’s view” of an outsider looking in. It turns out that this celestial globe (along with the rest of the instruments) was built in 1673 during the Qing dynasty by a Belgian Jesuit named Ferdinand Verbiest and, in Krupp’s words, “blends a clearly Western pedigree with representations of traditional Chinese constellations.”

Such celestial precision was not needed for any scientific reasons in these early centuries. Rather, as Krupp explains in his insightful book on the politics of astronomy, Skywatchers, Shamans, and Kings, “as a truthful mirror of nature, astronomy was official business, a tool in the service of the social and political agenda of the state.” Astronomical accuracy was “celestial certification of imperial power.” The emperor was supposed to be the son of the celestial god Shang Di, and thus state-sponsored astronomy validated his link to the highest order and solidified the connection he represented between heaven and earth, sacred and profane, macrocosm and microcosm. China was the “middle land,” the center of the world, with the Tiananmen “Gate of Heavenly Peace” leading into the Forbidden City (itself aligned by the cardinal directions), followed by the “Hall of Supreme Harmony” (due north on the cosmic axis), where the emperor held audiences to announce the calendar, new year and winter solstice.

In parallel fashion, during the conference on science communication, a delegation of representatives from Chinese and American scientific organizations had an audience with one of the top ministers of the Chinese government, which amounted to little more than a bureaucratic formality of tea and polite dialogue. As we patiently listened to the translation, I was struck by the symbolism: because science is now the connection between the sacred and the profane in a secular scientific society, it must be part of official state business — a certification of political power, be it monarchical Europe and imperial China, or capitalist America and communist China. Whereas some East-West comparisons, such as the Eightfold Way of physics, are chimerical, others are not, particularly those of a political nature, for, as another ancient philosopher, this one from the West, observed: “Man is by nature a political animal.”

topics in this column: , ,

Comments are closed.