For years, scientists and historians have wondered why the Chinese, who introduced technological innovations like gunpowder, paper, iron smelting, and the segmental arch bridge to the Western world, never developed abstract science. Robert K Logan, a physicist with a special interest in phonetics, postulates in his new book The Alphabet Effect (William Morrow & Company, 1986) that the rise of the phonetic alphabet in the West was a necessary precondition for the development of modern science. The pictographic writing system of the East, Logan says, supported a practical technology but not the kind of abstract reasoning that is the underpinning of modern science. Moreover, the Eastern writing system prevented the most effective use of another Chinese invention, movable type, which was essential to the growth of modern science in the West. The following is adapted from the Logan book.

The earliest form of science as it was practiced in ancient...

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