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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Challenging our perspectives

If you live in the West it is easy to dismiss other cultures contributions to the development of scientific knowledge.

Didn't it go the Greeks, Romans, dark ages, Renaissance, the englightment (17th, 18th century), industrial revolution......

Oh we may mention the Chinese and Gunpowder and such like but that's about it.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili has a series called Science and Islam on BBC Four at 9pm. It started last night and continues on January 12th and 19th. I missed last nights (was watching Three Men in many boats) but I did read his article about the 11th century Arab Physicist al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham. al-hassan used a scientific method long before it was established in the west. He was also working with prisms and light some 7 centuries before Newton.

As Professor Al-Khalili rightly states this shouldn't surprise us. The ninth to thirteenth centuries was a golden age in Arabic Science when Western Europe was stagnant.

Reading Professor Al-Khalili's article, which is well worth reading al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham sounds like a remarkable man, did surprise me but in thinking about it it shouldn't have. For instance the forerunner of modern chess was called Shatranj. The Arabs produced books and analysis the quality of which wasn't seen in Europe until the 18th century.

It does show that our Western centric view of world History needs challenging from time to time.


Liz said...

History always needs to be questioned to be honest.

Through my time at uni doing Art History it became very obvious how much is 'written out' of history. It's subjective to the author of the book and if they deem someone unimportant then they gradually disappear (many being women)

**Sorry, feminism was a key aspect of my time at Uni, and many of my essays were based on women in art.

It is interesting though, and I sadly missed the documentary, hopefully it'll be on bbc iplayer :)

Bradley said...

Yes Ibn al-Haytham was an amazing man. When I started my book about him, "Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist, I figured that he ranked among the greatest scientists of all time. By the time I finished the book, I was convinced he might be the top one or two. Unlike those who followed him, such as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, Ibn al-Haytham did not have an established methodology to follow. He had to create what we now call the scientific method himself. That is genius. Next, the discoveries he made about light, reflection, and refraction remain true to this day, because he backed up everything with "true demonstrations" or mathematical equations. Third, Ibn al-Haytham was the leading scientific authority for approximately six centuries. No one surpassed him until Newton. The Europeans couldn't fully appreciate his mathematics until the seventeenth century.

I am glad to see Ibn al-Haytham is finally getting his due. I haven't seen the BBC production, but I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about him to read my book, the first full biography written about him in English.