Arabic Science Tidbits

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.

18 Responses to Arabic Science Tidbits

  1. telescoper says:

    I’ve auditioned for two science presenting jobs. After the first, the BBC turned me down because I “lacked gravitas”. The second was for the job of presenting “Atom”, which Jim Al Khalili got. After the screen test for that I was told I was “too old”.

    But I’m not bitter.

  2. andyxl says:

    Sorry to have mentioned it. He is rather good. But you would have been even better lovey.

    • telescoper says:

      Patronising bastard.

      Actually, it was interesting trying to do a piece to camera. Normally on a telly thing (such as Horizon) you get to talk to a person so your sight line is away from the camera. Talking to the black unresponsive void that is a camera lens is quite unnerving. Respect to Jim – he did it very well indeed.

  3. Steve Warren says:

    Talking of technological advances, was your book one of those old fashioned ones with glue and that floppy Chinese stuff?

  4. Rob Ivison says:

    my last nightmare in front of a tv camera was just long enough ago that i agreed to spend a day with beeb this week. i can tell you that the “black unresponsive void that is the camera lens” is far preferable to doing your Nth take whilst looking deep into the eyes of an attractive director that you’d prefer to be impressing than exasperating…

  5. andyxl says:

    Rob ole chum, does yer wife read this blog ?

  6. Rob Ivison says:

    she met the lass when they were filming at my house, and she knows me better than to think i wouldn’t notice (and that i’m holding out for chalize theron…)

  7. andyxl says:

    My erudite post on mediaeval Arabic science seems to have turned into some kind of soft porn discussion. Have you seen Charlize Theron in Monster ? That would change your mind.

  8. Good day all! Since you are interested in history, I would like to share with you the fact that scientists found that Chinese classic text Tao Te Ching (by Laocius) and also I Ching (Zhouyi) are commentaries to Shan Hai Ching (Collection (Classic) of Mountains and Seas). Every single human being is actually a bio-robot with an individual program (sofware). All human programs are documented inside a very old Chinese manuscript named Shan Hai Jing. At first, all programs have been documented on the monument dating back to the twentieth century B.C.. Tao Te Ching

  9. ian smail says:

    excellent – its well worth sharing.

    …i’m going to start demanding software upgrades for all my bio-robot colleagues here at durham.

  10. Rob Ivison says:

    i appear to be running v0.1, known amongst mac users as snow fungi
    (though i did use a 4d array in IDL yesterday and am inordinately proud of myself today).

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