Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Making the Renaissance

I attended an excellent lecture by George Saliba on Arabic-Islamic Science at SOAS last night.

He sought to dispel three myths:

  1. Arabic Science simply "kept Ancient Greek Science alive"
  2. the Renaissance in Science was an attempt to return to Greco-Roman ideas
  3. the Arabic contribution to Western Science stopped around the 12th century

Saliba did a good job of evaporating all three of these commonly held ideas. From (for me) familiar evidence (such as arithmetic and therefore number order using 'Arabic' [actually Indic] numerals is from right to left), to more detailed revelations, such as the origin of the words 'algorithm' and 'algebra' (a Persian mathematician called al-Khwarizmi, and Arabic for 'the forcing', referring to variables 'forced' to take a value), to more obscure but ultimately compelling evidence, such as that gleaned from the Vatican library, and translations in the 18th century of 300-year old Arabic texts by a Leiden professor.

Far from just keeping the embers of Science warm, the various Arabic-seaking scholars (male and female) did a great deal to move Science forward, away from the erroneous presumtpions of the Greek tradition, and towards a more rational, observation-based discipline. Some of the core observations and theories ascribed to Copernicus in fact seem to have been published in Arabic up to three hundred years prior to Copernicus and his contemporaries. Likewise, the Pulmonary theory of blood circulation (that blood passes to the lungs to be oxygenated) was also first published in Arabic. In these, and other cases, there is substantial evidence that western scientists knew of these texts, valued them, and studied them.


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