If asked to trace the roots of modern Western science, most educated Westerners will point to the scientific revolution that flowered in Europe following the Renaissance, with Copernicus’s 1543 “On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres” the main marker. There and then, it is thought, science began asserting an account of nature separate from that of religion. Study up a bit more, though, and as Arabick Roots, a fine new exhibit at the Royal Society, describes, you’ll find those empirical roots snaking back into the Middle East, where Arabic, Persian, and other pre-Renaissance cultures planted seeds that Western scientists have been harvesting ever since. Copernicus, for instance, relied partly on observations made by Muhammed al-Battani (858-929), who had figured out the year is 365 days (and a bit more) long. Chemist Robert Boyle cribbed heavily from work done by 13th-century Muslim chemist Al-Iraqi. Royal Society physicians learned about inoculation from doctors in Constantinople and Aleppo.
How does this entwined history play out today? I’ll be moderating a panel next week at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar, that gathers journalists and scientists to look at this question. “Unveiling Arab Science,” the opening plenary, ably co-produced by my friend and fellow writer Mo Costandi, will include Rim Turkmani, the Syrian-born astrophysicist who curated the Royal Society exhibit, journalists Ehsan Masood and Waleed Al-Shobakky, and neuroscientist and writer Homayoun Kheyri. We’ll look at how Middle Eastern has given rise to modern science, how the entwined but different histories of the regions and their cultures shows itself today, and how ongoing changes in the Middle East may change science and scientific culture there.
I feel lucky to be moderating this panel. The program description is below. If you’ve a question you think we should consider in the panel, please or put it in the comments below. I’ll file a report here afterwards.
Program for “Unveiling Arab Science,”* opening plenary at WCSJ 2011
Science in much of the Mideast region operates under unique cultural, economic, and religious constraints. If we are to intelligently report and write about it, we must understand these constraints – and sometimes work around them. Historical tensions between belief and reason sometimes complicate scientific inquiry here, as elsewhere. Meanwhile, both science and science reporting also face constraints imposed by autocratic cultures; a highly stratified economy; economic, educational, and infrastructure problems; a traditional lack of transparency; and relative weakness in both a scientific publishing tradition and the sorts of public-information-office pipelines that Western reporters take for granted. Even as researchers and institutions in both traditional science centers like Cairo and emerging new centers such as Saudi Arabia’s KAUST seek to loosen some of these constraints, journalists writing about science here face a uniquely complicated task. We’ll explore these difficulties and try to leave journalists with both useful perspective and sound practical advice.
Our title is imperfect, as we’ll be considering scientific history and tradition in other Middle East areas and cultures as well, such as Iran (once Persia).
Bonus! Right after I posted this, 1001Inventions alerted me to a wonderful story on the exhibit in Al Arabiya. An excerpt:
Britain’s Royal Society, whose founders played a leading role in these developments, has set out to rectify that oversight with an exhibition called Arabick Roots. Opened at its London headquarters in early June, it will run until November, then transfer to Doha. It may go on global tour after that.
The organizers chose the 17th century spelling Arabick because the term at that time was understood to embrace not only Arabic but other Oriental languages such as Persian, Syriac and Ottoman. And the exhibition includes documents in these and other languages.
It owes its existence primarily to research work of Dr. Rim Turkmani, a Syrian-born astrophysicist at Imperial College London. Four years ago, she attended a roundtable discussion at the Royal Society, the oldest academy of science in the world, at which there was mention of Arabic books in the archive of the Society.
“I was intrigued,” she said. “What were those books doing here?”
The Royal Society, she found, had a collection of long-forgotten, uncatalogued books stored in an old cupboard in its archives. It turned out that some were in Arabic but others in Persian and Ottoman, even one in Chinese. They had remained locked in the cupboard and virtually forgotten for many years. The Society also had a large collection of books translated from Arabic into Latin. Among them are the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi’s Geography.
Two large collections that once belonged to the Royal Society are now at the British Library, including manuscripts on astronomy, mathematics, medicine, grammar, history and literature. And the Bodleian Library in Oxford has thousands of Oriental manuscripts, many of them acquired by William Laud, the 17th century archbishop of Canterbury.
All of this material posed a bigger challenge for Dr. Turkmani than she had anticipated.
“I began research in my spare time,” she said. “The story was getting bigger and bigger.”
Get the whole thing here.
June 20, 2011: Corrected caption, which incorrectly identified Hevelius.