Science and Islam (2009– )

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Jim Al-Khalili ...
 Himself - Presenter (3 episodes, 2009)
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Diffusion and Independent Invention.
18 January 2013 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

It's going to be a hell of a job keeping this short because I feel as if I'm reviewing all the notes I've taken -- or should have taken -- during a course in Middle Eastern Civilization. Moreover, our presenter, Al-Khalili, who is half English and half Iraqi and is a physicist at Surrey University, rather zips through some trigonometry that baffled me even as a sophomore in high school. On top of that, he runs through history using unfamiliar names that are hard to pronounce and if we see them written at all, they're in Arabic. When he reached "the Tusi coupling" -- and astronomical theory -- I couldn't tell whether he was saying "Tusi" or "Tursi" and finally wound up in Wikipedia. I was also a little disappointed that Al-Khalili didn't mention ibn Khaldun, the only guy from this period that I know anything about. As it was, I felt like a total ignoramus.

I don't suppose that's anything to be ashamed of because most Americans don't know much about the history of science in the 12th-century Islamic Empire either. The general impression I'd always had, without attributing any particular importance to it, was that when the territory of Islam began to expand in the 900s, it absorbed and improved upon a lot of Greek and Latin works that had been forgotten in Europe. We may keep in mind that Europe of the time was a land of petty kingdoms and poverty, raided periodically by the Vikings or by one or another horde of barbarians who were more interested in pillaging than in measuring the circumference of the earth. In Europe at the time, the earth was flat.

At any rate, when Islam was expanding (Al-Khalili doesn't mention Southeast Asia), there was what he calls a "translation movement." In an attempt to bind the empire together, they gathered all the written works they could and translated them into a common language, Arabic.

For a number of reasons, Islam promoted science and the arts and influenced the result. If your house has Mexican or Spanish tiles in the bathroom or kitchen, you're dealing with some of the residue of that influence. Basically, science was to Islam what capitalism was to Protestantism. What's involved is compatibility rather than causality.

I can't begin to list all the discoveries of the Arabs and their far-flung territory. But I'll mention the concept of zero, which makes algebra (from an Arabic term, "al-jabr") possible. The zero was invented only three times in all of human history. Once by the Mayans of Central America, once by the people of India, and once by the Arabs, under whom it blossomed.

They invented what's called the operational definition in science, though Al-Khalili doesn't call it that. An operational definition spells out in detail exactly how you went about measuring something. A recipe for paella valenciana is an operational definition. It makes replication possible. Without operational definitions and replication, science is reduced to untestable opinions, kind of like what you find on internet blogs. They introduced a tough-minded empiricism into science, which was mostly lacking elsewhere. This was an improvement over the Greeks, whose rational philosophers would sit around in the squares and argue over how many teeth a horse had in its mouth, when horses were ten feet away.

Well, this review has been kind of rambling but I must add one more point of the utmost importance. They invented soap.


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