Pathfinders, Magnificent History of Golden Age of Arabic Science 

Pathfinders provides the neglected history of science between the Greek period and The Enlightenment in Europe and the era of Galileo, da Vinci and Newton.

In the west, and possibly in the Islamic world as well, the history of science has a big gap during the so-called Dark Ages in Western Europe after the decline of the classical empires of Greece and Rome. It often appears that no major scientific scholarship took place for a thousand years.

As the physicist and now historian, Jim Al-Khalili, points out, the reality was very different. From the Middle East to Andalusia in Spain and along the North African coast there was blossoming of scholarship. It initially grew with the translation of Greek texts into Arabic and the building of major libraries. The libraries became centres of scholarship that encouraged the best minds to collaborate, and compete, just as they do in modern research institutions. There are many similarities with modern practice.

Scholarship and Science across the Arabic Empires

Al-Khalili stresses that the scholarship was not just by ethnic Arabs but included all nationalities and faiths, Muslim, Jews, Christians and others. For most of the period, it appears that religious and ethnic tolerance was the norm and allowed science to flourish. The defining character was the use of Arabic, the administrative language of the empires. Much study was to support Islam because of the importance of time, dates and the direction to Mecca. Inevitably much research was astronomical and in mathematics. Indeed, under the Islamic influence astronomy soon separated from astrology when in Europe they remained linked.

In Pathfinders, the great contribution of Arabic scholarship in the period between eighth and the fifteenth century soon becomes clear. Although Jim Al-Khalili concentrates on science he cannot avoid touching on geography, philosophy and the other fields where major progress was being made at this time. As during The Enlightenment in Europe, the great scientists of the golden age of Arabic science were polymaths and made major contributions in many fields.

Algebra and trigonometry become generalised mathematical disciplines as result of work during this period. Previously they had simply been examples of how to solve particular practical problems. Al-Khwarizmi generalised the techniques of what we call algebra, a name derived from his book, Kitab al-Jebr. His Latinised name, Algorithmus, provides “algorithm”, a term familiar from computing. On a broader front, science based on empirical evidence from observation and the scientific method was becoming established well before being adopted by Galileo and others in Europe.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Jim Al-Khalili suggests that Copernicus was the last of the Maragha astronomers rather than the first modern astronomers. He suggests that status should go to Galileo and the use of telescopes that provided data to show that even the sun was not the centre of the universe. That data was not available to Copernicus and his Arabic predecessors. However, Copernicus’ new interpretation of Arabic science paved the way for modern astronomy.

In Pathfinders, Jim Al-Khalili cites Al-Haytham (Alhazen), al-Biruni and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) as the three “most outstanding thinkers in the history of Islam”. Like so many early scientists and thinkers they were polymaths and made contributions as great as Archimedes, Newton or Einstein.

This book is a comprehensive but rapid overview of an under-appreciated part of the history of science. It is a period that stands comparison with the classical Greek period or The Enlightenment in Europe. Scholarship flourished all through the European Dark Ages and many of the giants on the shoulders of whom Newton and others stood came from this golden age of Arabic science.

The Enlightenment would have been much slower but for the scientists, engineers, geographers, philosophers and other scholars of the Arabic world during the preceding thousand years. It is time for the world to acknowledge that contribution. It needs to happen, not just in the west but also across the Islamic world that seems to have neglected its proud history of scholarship and science. Jim Al-Khalili believes there is hope as recognition is growing and its value becoming appreciated.

Jim Al-Khalili, Physicist, Mathematician ,Historian and Broadcaster

The author, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, is a British scientist, author and broadcaster. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and has the chair of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. He spent his first sixteen years in Iraq with his Iraqi father and British mother and first heard much of this history in Arabic whilst at school. He is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and won the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday Prize for science communication in 2007. He is the author of several popular books on physics.

It is a detailed book and could have easily been several volumes. With what feels like a cast of thousands and names that are unfamiliar, it is not always easy to keep track. However, the writing and the author’s enthusiasm comes through. It makes the study worthwhile and the book a useful reference.

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