Comment »Posted on Tuesday 6 January 2009 at 6:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Just A Review, Mathematics

Ah, iPlayer. What would I do without you? I didn’t manage to catch the BBC4 broadcast of the first episode of Science and Islam last night, but thanks to the wonderful catch-up service I am able to provide you with a full review. Of course, services like the iPlayer would be impossible without the internet, which in turn could never arisen without first inventing the computer. And what makes computer software tick? Algorithms.

An algorithm is basically a set of instructions, broken down in to simple steps. A computer can follow an algorithm to do pretty much anything, which is why we find them so versatile. As presenter Jim Al-Khalili (a physicist born in Bagdad) tells us, algorithms were invented by a Persian man known as Mohammad ebne Mūsā Khwārazmī, or al-Khwārizmī. Even the word algorithm is derived from his name.

It’s not just algorithms that have been given to us by medieval Arab scholars. The words algebra and alkalis both betray their Arabic origin, but so much of science is attributed to the West. The three part series seeks to unearth the unsung heroes of Islamic science.

The rulers of the Islamic empire realised that with knowledge comes power, and as they spread their influence across the globe the sought out scientific texts from many different regions and cultures. These texts were translated into Arabic, the official language of the empire, which just so happened to be a very scientific language. Originally intended to communicate the teachings of the Koran without misinterpretation, its detailed scripts allowed a precise and unambiguous description of many scientific phenomena.

Much of our modern knowledge can be traced back to this extensive library. In one part of the programme, Al-Khalili visits a modern surgeon to get him to perform a cataract operation by following an Arabic text and using replica instruments from the time. Thankfully for the squeamish the operation is carried out on an eye that has long since been separated from its owner, and the surgeon admits that the instructions are based on sound principles. Indeed, Islamic science provides us with one of the very first anatomical diagrams, showing how the eye is controlled by surrounding muscles.

It’s easy to draw parallels between this programme and an earlier BBC4 one, namely Marcus du Sautoy’s The Story of Maths. Both adopt a sort of travelogue approach, but whilst the earlier programme consisted of nothing but all du Sautoy, all the time, Science and Islam is nicely broken up with contributions from many others. They do cover similar ground however, especially when Al-Khalili meets mathematician Ian Stewart to examine one of the early texts on al-jabr; that is, algebra.

The conclusion of this episode is that by gathering texts from many different places, Islamic scientists proved that science is a universal concept that belongs to no one religion or culture; rather, it can be appreciated by everyone. No arguments here. I will say that at an hour, the programme was perhaps overly long. I can lay the same criticism against it as I did to The Story of Maths – less of our narrator wandering through generic marketplaces please! At least there was no dodgy CGI, however.

As I said at the start, I watched the programme on iPlayer, so of course so can you. If you liked The Story Of Maths, or perhaps if you missed it but want to learn about the history of science, I suggest you give it a look.


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