Arabic Science Tidbits

February 10, 2011

Another episode in the “Andy’s favourite books” series. I just finished reading “Pathfinders : The Golden Age of Arabic Science” by Jim Al-Khalili. Jim is a physicist from Surrey, but also a TV presenter – you may remember “Atom” and “The Secret Life of Chaos”. This book grew out of a three part TV series called “Science and Islam”, but goes well beyond it. I love books that are popular in intent, but also serious works of scholarship. I won’t attempt to review the whole book. Here are just a few things that struck me as interesting.

  • I had thought that mediaeval Arabic science was important mainly for passing the flame from Greece to Europe, and that this happened through Andalusia. In fact they clearly made deeply original contributions and greatly improved on Greek science; and the Andalusian thing was a late stage. The golden age was ninth century Bagdhad.
  • As ever, patronage was crucial. The early Abbasid caliphs encouraged and funded open-ended work, which was incredibly successful. This coincided with growth and confidence of the Abbasid empire itself. As the good times ebbed, science continued, but the authorities were more insistent on it being useful – economically, militarily, or religiously. Sound familiar ? Thinking of the Medicis of course…
  • The broader intellectual outlook was important for encouraging science. Just as Renaissance science flourished in the context of the humanist movement, so too did Arabic science in the context of Mutazilism , which argued against over-literal reading of the Qu’ran,  and stressed the importance of human reason within Islam.
  • Why then ? Why there ? Al-Khalili suggests there is a technological answer –  papermaking (as opposed to papyrus or parchment) which came to Samarkand in 751 when a Chinese army was defeated, and prisoners taken who knew the technology. Flax and hemp were abundant around Samarkand. Around the same time, there were great advances in the making of dyes, glues, leather, and book-binding techniques, all of which resulted in cheap and robust books.
  • Hundreds of years later, Al-Khalili argues that part of the reason for the decline of Arabic science just while European science was starting up, was that Arabic script was much harder to print than Latin script, because letters take different shapes depending on their position in a word.
  • Here is a favourite wee snippet, which is the origin of the term “sine”, as in opposite-over-hypotenuse. Hindu mathematicians used the Sanskrit word jya-ardha, meaning “half the bowstring”. (Draw the chord of a circle and stare at it…) This was abbreviated to jiva, which Arabic scientists transliterated as jiba, and customarily abbreviated as jb. Robert of Chester first translated the Arabic work, and misread jb as jayb, which means “pocket”. So he used the Latin word for pocket – sinus.

Well you do learn stuff if ya read books.


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