Guide Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science

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The question is, does the book deliver?

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Over the last 20 years, various scholars have started to question the traditional history of science, regarded as predominantly European, emerging from the medieval Dark Ages. Not only is the chronology wrong according to Al-Khalili, but so is its exclusion of contributions made by Arab and Persian scientists between the ninth and eleventh centuries.

Instead, he argues that the birth of the modern scientific method originated in ninth and tenth-century Iraq. It is a big claim to make convincingly over pages.

Revelations of a golden age

To support his argument, Al-Khalili enlists a colourful cast of characters, men with names and reputations transmitted to the west in a variety of garbled forms. The shape of the book feels more suited to television: broad historical scene-setting followed by brief biographies of his protagonists, culminating in detailed justification of their place in Islamic science and exclusion from the broader international story of science.

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What disappointed me was that Al-Khalili spent so long on the historical setting and concluding polemics, that his undoubted strength as a scientific communicator is often boiled down to no more than a few pages. The former stretches the general reader and enlightens; the latter confuses and alienates, and shows such a simplistic understanding of humanism that I find it hard to rely on Al-Khalili as a historical guide.

Much of the book leads up to the question Al-Khalili poses in his penultimate chapter.


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Ignored for the most part in Eurocentric accounts is the parallel culture that rose in the Middle East with the swift spread of Islam after the death of the prophet Muhammad in Lands from Spain to Persia and beyond fell to the Muslim sword, and in time some ambitious rulers made their palaces sanctuaries of learning, the think tanks of their day, where astronomers, mathematicians, physicians and philosophers were allowed to venture beyond the received word and to practice science as an empirical inquiry.

Jim al-Khalili, an Iraqi-born physicist who has lived in Britain since , has taken on the task of elevating this neglected period to its rightful place in history. Al-Khalili positions himself with care, more or less above the clash of civilizations but with unconcealed pride in his roots.

Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science – WB Connect

He is the son of a British mother and a Shiite Muslim father of Persian descent, and was educated in England. Though Arabic science was productive for more than years, its golden age spanned the 9th and 11th centuries. Al-Biruni contributed significant advances in calculus and trigonometry and boldly criticized Aristotle for relying on pure thought and reasoning, which often led to mistakes, instead of careful observation and experimentation, an early appreciation of the modern scientific method. One of the few widely familiar names cited by al-Khalili makes a mere cameo appearance.

The city was only four decades old but had already become the largest in the world.

In this vibrant setting, al-Mamun established an institute, the House of Wisdom, the likes of which had not been seen since the great library at Alexandria. Over the next two centuries, more works of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Hippocrates, as well as Persian and Indian thinkers, were rendered into Arabic. It became a lucrative business, abetted by advances in papermaking learned from captive Chinese soldiers.

Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science

View all New York Times newsletters. Sometimes al-Khalili, like a lawyer who suspects a jury of unyielding skepticism, strains to give stature to the leading lights of Arabic science in the Middle Ages. But modern historians of science agree that more attention should be given to the Arab contribution to the preservation and expansion of knowledge at this critical period, and the author has done so in considerable detail and with rising passion. But that was then, and al-Khalili is obligated to end on an inescapable but deflating note: science today is in a chronic state of neglect in the Arab world and the broader Islamic culture of more than one billion people.

Al-Khalili spreads the blame widely, citing inadequate financing for research and education, sclerotic bureaucracies, religious conservatism, even an ingrained fear of science. The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, perhaps the greatest Muslim scientist of the last century, won a Nobel Prize in and did what he could to promote a scientific renaissance among his people, without success. Tell us what you think.


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