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Scientific Arabian: Revolutions Then and Now

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al-Jazari's Clock/Wikimedia Commons/Al-Jazari

al-Jazari's Clock/Wikimedia Commons/Al-Jazari

Walking through streets of Cairo, I've rarely heard talk of the unchecked pollution coughed from vehicles exhaust pipes, or of speculation of how many homes could be powered if only the vast deserts surrounding the city planted with solar farms, or of aspirations of sending the first Egyptian to space. No, the primary topics of conversation in the ubiquitous taxi cabs, hookah shops, and the neo-classically styled salons of private homes hasn't changed in the thirty years I've been visiting my birth country - politics, religion and the next meal. To hear talk of science, one needs to press ear to stone.

Not any stone will do. The rock must be old, hewn from millennia-old quarries to lay the foundation of institutes like Baghdad's House of Wisdom and Cairo's House of Knowledge, cornerstones of a golden age of Arab civilization spanning four centuries and reaching from Spain to Persia. If these stones could talk, they'd speak of revolution - not the one sweeping through the Middle East today - but of an intellectual revolution seeded by Greek knowledge and watered by a thirst for an empirical understanding of the world God (in the creationist view of the time) created.

Perhaps the stones would speak of engineers like al-Jazari, who pioneered the camshaft and practical application of automata, or of ibn Sina (Avicenna to the West), whose masterpiece laid the foundation of modern medicine. If we use our eyes and not our ears, perhaps we'd catch a glimpse of ibn al-Haytham, the father of optics and pioneer of the modern scientific method.

The spirit of the pursuit of knowledge would flee the Arab world, escaping the destruction of Baghdad's House of Wisdom at the hands of Mongol invaders, but it would survive in the West. Just as Greek knowledge provided the foundation of an Arab scientific revolution, so too would Arab knowledge transferred to Europe lay the groundwork for the Renaissance in which the language of Arab science - al-jebr, kimiya, al-khwarizmi - would become Latinized to algebra, chemistry, and algorithm.

ibn Sina/Wikimedia Commons

ibn Sina/Wikimedia Commons

Today, many critics of Arab society rightfully ask, "what have you done for me lately?" Where are the polymaths, the inventors, the free thinkers of the Arab world? Decades of occupation followed by stifling dictatorships drove many scientists and engineers (including my own father) to Western institutions where they would have the resources to pursue their research. Now it is the Arabic that borrows from English to describe technological advances such as the radio, television, and computers.

There are signs that scientific revolution is following on the heels of political change, the millennia-long dark age is lifting, and the 'baton of enlightenment' is being shared, if not passed, to the Arab world. In Egypt, Dr. Ahmed Zewail's vision of a science city in Egypt is being realized after over a decade of stagnation, and in Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich monarch is once again investing in science in the tradition of Caliphates of the Arab Golden Age. In the series, "Scientific Arabian," we'll take a closer look at the reemergence of science in the Arab world, and the influence the West and the Arab Spring are having upon it.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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