Monday, January 05, 2009

BBC documentary on Science and Islam

BBC has a new 3-part documentary on Science and Islam. It is hosted by physicist Jim Al-Khalili. I haven't seen it but it looks good (hope its not over-sentimental). The first part is being aired today (next episodes will be shown on Jan 12 and Jan 19). Here is the description of the first part, The Language of Science: (I will post these here once I have a link)
Physicist Jim Al-Khalili travels through Syria, Iran, Tunisia and Spain to tell the story of the great leap in scientific knowledge that took place in the Islamic world between the 8th and 14th centuries.

Its legacy is tangible, with terms like algebra, algorithm and alkali all being Arabic in origin and at the very heart of modern science - there would be no modern mathematics or physics without algebra, no computers without algorithms and no chemistry without alkalis.

For Baghdad-born Al-Khalili this is also a personal journey and on his travels he uncovers a diverse and outward-looking culture, fascinated by learning and obsessed with science. From the great mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, who did much to establish the mathematical tradition we now know as algebra, to Ibn Sina, a pioneer of early medicine whose Canon of Medicine was still in use as recently as the 19th century, he pieces together a remarkable story of the often-overlooked achievements of the early medieval Islamic scientists.

And here is a BBC article by Jim Al-Khalili on Ibn al-Haytham:

For, without doubt, another great physicist, who is worthy of ranking up alongside Newton, is a scientist born in AD 965 in what is now Iraq who went by the name of al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham.

Most people in the West will never have even heard of him.

As a physicist myself, I am quite in awe of this man's contribution to my field, but I was fortunate enough to have recently been given the opportunity to dig a little into his life and work through my recent filming of a three-part BBC Four series on medieval Islamic scientists.

Popular accounts of the history of science typically suggest that no major scientific advances took place in between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance.

But just because Western Europe languished in the Dark Ages, does not mean there was stagnation elsewhere. Indeed, the period between the 9th and 13th Centuries marked the Golden Age of Arabic science.

Great advances were made in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry and philosophy. Among the many geniuses of that period Ibn al-Haytham stands taller than all the others.

Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the father of the modern scientific method.

And on his work on light:

He was the first scientist to give a correct account of how we see objects.

He proved experimentally, for instance, that the so-called emission theory (which stated that light from our eyes shines upon the objects we see), which was believed by great thinkers such as Plato, Euclid and Ptolemy, was wrong and established the modern idea that we see because light enters our eyes.

What he also did that no other scientist had tried before was to use mathematics to describe and prove this process.

So he can be regarded as the very first theoretical physicist, too.

He is perhaps best known for his invention of the pinhole camera and should be credited with the discovery of the laws of refraction.

He also carried out the first experiments on the dispersion of light into its constituent colours and studied shadows, rainbows and eclipses; and by observing the way sunlight diffracted through the atmosphere, he was able to work out a rather good estimate for the height of the atmosphere, which he found to be around 100km.

Of course, he was also a colorful character. We often have this urge to runaway and hide right before an exam (ok - so may be it is only me who has this urge...) or a major talk, but Ibn al-Haytham actually faked madness in order to escape admitting failure in front of a temperamental Caliph:

While still in Basra, Ibn al-Haytham had claimed that the Nile's autumn flood waters could be held by a system of dykes and canals, thereby preserved as reservoirs until the summer's droughts.

But on arrival in Cairo, he soon realised that his scheme was utterly impractical from an engineering perspective.

Yet rather than admit his mistake to the dangerous and murderous caliph, Ibn-al Haytham instead decided to feign madness as a way to escape punishment.

This promptly led to him being placed under house arrest, thereby granting him 10 years of seclusion in which to work.

A-ha - an enforced sabbatical. Read the full article here.

Update: The first episode here. The second episode here. The third episode here.


Anonymous said...

Incredible. We need to know all those brilliant muslim scientists. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that islam has never progressed beyond mediaeval times as implied by this program (no advances in any field in 800 years).

Anonymous said...

Somehow I have the feeling that the only ones who are telling the story about the feeling of nothing happening between the ancient greeks and the renaissance is the ones who want to tell about the debts we have to the arab-persian science (and perhaps people who would like to potray a negative image of the arab world).

On the other hand in most of the textbooks (math, physics, biology, philosophy among others) I had in my schooltime their were rich praise of most of the different sources of the knowledge we have today, ie. the arabs, the greeks and the europeans. But somehow I think that there is two groups who are mainly ignored; the indians and the chinese :)

Anonymous said...

You can also watch an interview with Jim al-Khalili (here) where he talks about the subject and a little of the documentary.

One funny thing is that al-Khalili is even though he is trying to talk against the socalled recurring story about the lack of acknowledgement of the islamic golden age, he is however reproducing the myth of the 'dark ages'.

He by the way makes some acknowledgement of the chinese and indians :)

Salman Hameed said...

One funny thing is that al-Khalili is even though he is trying to talk against the socalled recurring story about the lack of acknowledgement of the islamic golden age, he is however reproducing the myth of the 'dark ages'.

Yup - its a bit tricky to deal with misunderstandings. On the one hand one wants to grab the attention - on the other that same strategy may reinforce the stereotype even further. Another example is the common misconception that science and religion have always been in conflict (the "conflict thesis").

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Stephen said...

It's a shame that islam has never progressed beyond mediaeval times as implied by this program (no advances in any field in 800 years).

The "shame" was caused by Genghis Khan & the Mongols who shattered the core of the Islamic renaisance "plowed over so that a lame horse could ride across without stumbling". When [b][i]everyone[/b][/i] is dead a renaisance stops.

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