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A Brief History of Islamic Science


These are guys that should be spoken in the same breath as Einstein and Newton and Galileo and Darwin

Many of the ancient Greek philosophers are household names, so Plato, Aristotle, and these were great thinkers.  Very often we think once the period of the ancient Greeks, the golden age of the ancient Greeks, ended with the fall of Rome and so, you know, a few centuries after the birth of Christ, that the world went into the dark ages for a thousand years and it didn’t start again, science didn’t start again until you had, you know, Vesalius and Copernicus and Galileo and so on.  And what we forget is we had this period of a thousand years, it was only really Western Europe that was in the dark ages, not the rest of the world.  And what interests me is that there were some great thinkers and scholars in the Islamic Empire that also made huge contributions. 

A few of my favourites, I would say, there was a Persian mathematician called al-Khwarizmi who is the father of algebra; in fact, the word algebra comes from the title of his book written in Arabic, Al-kit?b al-?abr, which means the Book of Completion.  It was the first true book on algebra.  Nothing that the ancient Greeks did was anything really close to it.  They did number theory, they didn’t do algebra.  Solving different, simultaneous equations was done in a rather different way.  So  al-Khwarizmi invented algebra and in fact the Latinised version of his name, Algoritmi is what gives us the word algorithm, because in his book he explains the algorithms for solving equations.

Another favourite of mine is a physicist by the name of ibn al-Haytham who has the Latinised name Alhazen.  He, for me, was the greatest physicist during a span of two thousand years between Archimedes and Isaac Newton.  And you say, ‘Who was the greatest? Archimedes was the greatest physicist of the ancient Greeks, Newton was the greatest scientist of all time.  Who was the greatest physicist between them?’  It was ibn al-Haytham.  He wrote a book on optics that was every bit as important and as influential as Newton’s book on optics.  He wrote books on astronomy.  He was really regarded as the original father of the scientific method.  There are quotes from his book where he says, ‘This is how we do science. You come up with a hypothesis, you test it, you check your results, be prepared to ditch it if it’s wrong’.  He basically defined how we do science today.  So ibn al-Haytham for me is my favourite physicist. 

And another one I’ll mention is another Persian by the name of Al-B?r?n?.  Hardly anyone’s heard of him, but he was a polymath.  He was the Leonardo da Vinci of the medieval world.  And yet he’s unknown.  He measured the circumference of the Earth to less than 1%, you know, accuracy, within 1%.  And he did that by climbing up a mountain in Pakistan and measuring the angle to the horizon and doing some trigonometry to work out that the world had to be round with a particular radius.  He wrote the first history of the ancient world.  He wrote the first book on the geography of India, the Indian sub continent.   He developed trigonometry, he developed astronomy so, I mean, these are guys that should be spoken in the same breath as Einstein and Newton and Galileo and Darwin and yet we don’t know about them.