Monday, January 12, 2009

jim al-khalili's BBC 4 series 'science and islam'

picture of Jim al-Khalili (credit this and picture below: Southern Star Entertainment)

At a time when TV channels around the world were saturated with horrific images of war, death and destruction from Gaza, BBC Four last week offered viewers a very different view of the Middle East when it screened the first part of the series “Science and Islam”. The three-part series explores the contribution of early Islam to the development of scientific knowledge.

The legacy of Arab science is still apparent in the English language in words such as algebra, algorithm and alkali, which are “at the very heart of what science does,” says the presenter of the series, Professor Jim Al-Khalili. “There would be no modern mathematics or physics without algebra, no computers without algorithm and no chemistry without alkalis.” But surprisingly few people in the West today – even scientists – are aware of this medieval Islamic legacy.

Professor Al-Khalili, a nuclear physicist, was born in Baghdad in 1962 to an Iraqi father and English mother. By the time his family left Iraq in the late 1970s, “science was already my great passion in life. As I studied it further I saw myself fully part of the Western tradition, inspired by names like Newton and Einstein”.

But he had a nagging feeling he was ignoring part of his own scientific heritage. “I still remembered my schooldays in Iraq and being taught of a golden age of Islamic scholarship – that between the ninth and twelfth centuries a great leap in scientific knowledge took place in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba.”

In “Science and Islam” Al-Khalili unearths this buried history, and assesses the contribution of its great figures to science. He wanted to answer the question: “Are there medieval Muslim scientists who should be spoken of in the same breath as Galileo or Newton or Einstein?” His series suggests that the answer is a resounding yes.

As an example, Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is regarded as the father of modern optics, but according to Al-Khalili “Newton himself stood on the shoulders of a giant who had lived 700 years earlier.” That giant was Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham born in 965 in what is now Iraq. He was the first scientist to give a correct account of how the eye sees objects, and his use of mathematics to describe and prove the process makes him makes him, in Al-Khalili’s opinion, the first theoretical physicist. Al-Khalili says Ibn al-Haytham was also the first to arrive at the modern scientific method, despite this being generally attributed to Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes early in the 17th century.

In the series Al-Khalili travels to Syria, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Spain and Italy to uncover the achievements of some of the outstanding figures of medieval Islamic science. He introduces us to a fascinating array of personalities including mathematician Al-Khwarizmi ; physician Abu Sina (Avicenna); astronomer and mathematician Al-Biruni; chemist and physician Al-Razi (Razes) and astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi.

Al-Khalili is Professor of Physics and Professor of Public Engagement in Science at Surrey University. Alongside his scientific activities he has developed a career communicating science to the public through books, articles and broadcasting. He is currently writing a book on the history of Arab science, entitled “The House of Wisdom”, to be published by Penguin Books next year.

He is an engaging and energetic presenter, and has a gift for to explaining scientific topics to a lay audience in a lucid manner. He places Muslim scientists within the wider developments of their time, and examines the relationship between Islam and science. By the early eighth century Islamic caliphs ruled a vast territory and they understood that political power and scientific knowledge go hand in hand. There were compelling practical reasons for this, and Islam as a religion also played a central role.

Caliph Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan needed to find a way of administering the vast empire with its mish-mash of languages, and he decided that it should have a uniform language – Arabic . The adoption of Arabic throughout the empire boosted intellectual life, as it meant scholars and scientists from different lands could exchange ideas and debate with one another in a common language.

In addition, a huge “translation movement” was launched, in which scholars made strenuous efforts to find and translate ancient texts. They scoured far-flung libraries for scientific and philosophical manuscripts in languages including Greek, Syriac, Persian and Sanskrit and brought them back for translation into Arabic.

(Picture right: a 1983 Soviet postage stamp marking mathematician Al-Khwarizmi's 1200th anniversary)
Medicine was of enormous importance to scholars and rulers. The third-century Greek physician Galen was translated into Arabic, but Muslim doctors were keen also to draw on the Islamic tradition of medicine and on other traditions such as the Indian and Chinese. Folk healers were of influence, and in the backstreets of Hammamet, Tunisia, Al-Khalili visits the shop of a woman selling a large range of herbs, spices and other ancient cures which are still used today.
“Islam’s most tangible contribution to medicine is less in its specific remedies and more in its overarching philosophy,” Al Khalili said. “It is after all a religion whose central idea is that we should feel compassion for our fellow humans.”

The towering figure in Islamic medicine was the Persian physician Ibn Sina. His multivolume “Canon of Medicine” was the standard medical text worldwide for more than six centuries. Al-Khalili sees Ibn Sina as embodying the synthesis of religion, faith and reason more than any other Islamic scholar.

In Damascus Al-Khalili visits the Al Bimaristan al-Nouri Hospital, built in 1154 during the reign of Noureddin Zanki and now a medical museum. Islamic medical history expert Dr Peter Pormann of Warwick University, England, notes that within the hospital Islam encouraged a high degree of religious tolerance. “The hospital was open to all communities and so you would have Christians, Jews, Muslims and maybe other denominations both as patients and as practitioners,” he observes.
Al-Khalili identifies eye surgery as one of the main successes of early Islamic medicine. Physicians developed a range of ophthalmological surgical instruments, and a technique known as couching used to treat cataracts had a success rate of over 60 per cent.

The series is full of interesting insights. It finds that medieval Muslims scholars rather than 19th century Europeans were the first Egyptologists. Al-Khalili interviews an Egyptologist, Dr Okasha al-Daly, who has discovered that the ninth century Iraqi scholar Ibn Wahshiyah decoded ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs eight centuries before Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone. Al-Khalili also highlights the role of Islamic astronomers such as al-Tusi in paving the way for the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton.

Al-Khalili says the story of what happened to science in the Islamic world in the eighth and ninth centuries “tells us about the universal truth of science itself”. Before Islam, science was scattered across the world. “The scholars of medieval Islam pieced together this giant scientific jigsaw by absorbing knowledge that had originated far beyond their own empire’s borders.” This great synthesis did not just produce great science. “It showed for the first time that science as an enterprise transcends political borders and religious affiliations. It is a body of knowledge that benefits all humans.”
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 12 January 2009


Bradley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bradley said...

Excellent article on Ibn al-Haytham. If your readers would like to know more about this great man, I invite them to read my recent book, "Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist." They can read a sample chapter on my website.

starbush said...

Thanks for that!

Anonymous said...

Excellent series , keep it up the wonderfull work. Hope to see more contribution of Islamic scholars for science and tehnology for the advancement of human knowledge. This is one of our reason of existance in this world. By looking and studying the phenomenas around us and by understanding , eventually could bring us to our creator Allah s.w.t.



Dr hamadani said...

Al khalili betrays his jewish background and labels "arabic" sciences what should be "ISLAMIC" seeing that the civilization was sparked by ISLAM and muslims from all over the world helped make this great scientific human civilization, all lived hapily under its rulership.
Al khalil, the babylonian first temple jew should stop lying.
Dr Haydar Hamadai.

Zeital said...

Indeed, the role of science and mathematics in non-European cultures and those contributions of earlier scientists, mathematicians, and engineers across other civilisations has obtained renewed interest.

With books and documentaries presented such as; The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics by George Gheverghese Joseph, and programs such as Science and Islam presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili, there is more awareness in trying to build a more complete worldview of how mathematics and science originally developed.

In fact, George Gheverghese even delves into pre-Hellenistic civilisation, and discusses influences of preceding Egyptian and Mesopotamian (Babylonian), on Greek mathematicians before its own seminal developments. I have included below my previous comments discussing the role of science in the Muslim World, and I am aware that there is still plenty more to discuss. It even seems the role of Sinic Civilisation (centred on China and Korea) was overlooked until certain academics took interest such as Joseph Needham, for example please refer to The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention by Robert Temple and Joseph Needham.

Regarding the Golden Age which saw a flourishing of intellectual endeavours in physical sciences, engineering, economics, and mathematics in Persia, Mesopotamia, Andalusia, Sicily, and the Maghrib (North Africa) are prominently featured during this period. However, less is known about the Turkistan (situated mainly over Western China) which had seen the spread of Islam after the Battle of Talas. Technologies such as development of printing occurred, which had early beginnings in Korea. The Koreans had also developed the ingenious Turtle Ships and built observatories.

Also, although the Muslims never managed to replicate the drive as they had during the 8th and 14th centuries, the advances did not grind to a halt. The Turks developed submersibles, (which the American inventor/thinker Benjamin Franklin and Dutch inventors would work on independently). The Çelebi brothers worked on the first human rocket flight. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would take the concept further with first designs of Multi stage rockets, and rocketry continued to be developed in Ukraine and Russia. Chief Astronomer Taqi al-Din worked on building the great Istanbul Observatory, (which was unfortunately destroyed), and also worked on steam engines, mechanical devices for clocks, and did experiments on light. The scholar Ibrahim Efendi argued for the Heliocentric Model developed by Copernicus (Heliocentric models were initially developed by ancient Indian and Hellenistic scholars). Piri Reis worked on one of the earliest attempts of creating a world map, and the Turks even developed hospitals and did work on surgery.

In India, the Hindu, Muslim, Jain, and Buddhist astronomers and mathematics used Vedic and Islamic sources to build observational observatories. After the Mughal Empire sundered, this work was carried out by successor princely states. The most famous is Jai Singh's observatory Jantar Mantar in Delhi. In the south of India the Hindus continued their development of mathematics in Kerala, including discovering Trigonometric identities and work on Calculus. Personally I found Calculus quite a tricky subject but that is another thing …

The Sultan of Mysore in the 1700’s saw development of rocket technology, and expert ship builders. The Maratha Confederacy, who succeeded the Mughals also developed a navy capable of contending with the Portuguese, Dutch, and late comers the lesser known English at the time.

Arguably Ming China in the 1400’s had the most powerful fleet, but after the threat of land invasions from northern dynasties such as the Manchu, the Ming dynasty turned their efforts away from maritime activities and let the initiative pass. However, there was technology transfer to and from China and various European explorers, via Catholic missions. The Japanese developed their own brand of mathematics called ‘Wasan’ and mathematicians such as Seki Kowa developed theorems in Calculus. The Muslims did not replicate the Golden Age of the Umayyad or Abbasid period, but Muslims (and their non-Muslim counterparts in Asia and Africa) did not stop material and scientific progress. During the 1800’s we see a profound dominance from Europe, especially as the shift left the Mediterranean to Northern Europe. After the 1750’s we see the great Mathematicians like Leonard Euler and Carl Frederic Gauss, and eventually giving way to the scientific revolution of the 1800’s and paving the way for modern mathematics/physics. The rest is all A-Levels!

Sadly it seems the negative attitude to science or even the earlier heritage in art, culture, and civilisation is lacking amongst many Muslim societies, as an awareness and interest has not been developed for a log time. India since independence continued to develop its education system and also created its own space program. Indian scientist made their important contributions and Indians were taught about their scientific and intellectual heritage as well as being encouraged into learning and academic development. This aspect is sadly lacking amongst Muslims generally, or indeed an interest to reignite a passion for learning and technology, and furthermore developing a strong base within Muslim countries.

Clearly Latin American countries like Brazil, Cuba, Argentina, and Chile attempted self development, as did other countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. South Korea has even produced Nobel prize scientists, so along with their heritage, they are also building a new heritage in the current era independently as Japan has done.

Clearly more research needs to be done for each of these periods. I have just pieced some ideas together. This was rushed so I hope it reads okay.

Here is a nice site:-

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that Jim al-Khalili is a scientist before he is an historian.

Not sure that the respondent calling himself Hamadani realises the very positive intentions behind the series.


Anonymous said...

I have loved watching both series by Jim (the atom & chaos) but when trying to find some information regarding these series happened to stumble on a larger the life mention of islam. During such instability as there is a the moment can someone as intelligent as Jim have to bring religion again into it, it is not necessary and so incredibly disappointing. This has totally changed my opinion of Jim.