Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Pathfinders – Jim Al-Khalili ****

It would be unfair to suggest that there is total ignorance of the debt we owe to what Jim Al-Khalili refers to as ‘Arabic science’ these days. Certainly when I wrote Light Years, it would have been impossible to ignore the contribution of the likes of Ibn al-Haytham, and we have seen a number of books covering science from the Arabic sphere of influence like Science and Islam. However, the general reader has probably not been exposed to enough detail on the subject, and in Pathfinders, Jim Al-Khalili sets out to put that right.
Three key areas were fascinating. One is that this is much more complex than ‘Arab science’ or ‘Muslim science’. We discover that many of the major contributors to science in the period weren’t Arab, but Persian. Similarly, a fair number were Jewish or Christian rather than Muslim. The point is, rather, this was science that developed within the rule of the Islamic states. This leads us into the second area of importance. We are given a very useful background to the political and religious context of these developments, as few in the West have much knowledge of the history of this area in this period (I certainly didn’t).
Most significant of those three areas, though, was the sheer breadth of the scientific effort that was under way. There were without doubt some superstar scientists, working in physics and astronomy, in maths and medicine. Al-Khalili takes us through their hugely significant work with a firm hand, providing an excellent guide to their thinking. In some cases the breakthroughs may seem minor, but in others – al-Khwarizmi’s development of algebra for instance – they must be seen as absolutely crucial to the development of modern science and maths. Sometimes they got things wrong. This is inevitable. You must expect the first people doing something to be necessarily not very good at it. So, for instance, the medical man al-Razi came up with the crucial concept of a trial against a control group. The fact that he actually got the result totally wrong (he found that those who suffered bloodletting did much better than those who didn’t) reflects that early use of the technique, but doesn’t undermine its huge value.
In fact, arguably the biggest gift we have from this period, apart from the preservation and translation of Ancient Greek writings (something that shouldn’t be underplayed), is that a number of these individuals started to develop the scientific method, emphasizing the need to use experiment and observational data to shape theories, rather than the usually faulty abstracted reasoning that typified Greek science. (I find it odd that Al-Khalili praises Aristotle’s science when he seems to have got practically everything wrong.)
In its description of the people, their work and the political/religious context, this book is hard to fault. Where I think it lacks a little something is in the analysis. Although Al-Khalili tries to emphasize his independence by telling us he is an atheist, it’s hard not to feel that he isn’t a little defensive in the way he over-stresses some aspects. Born in Baghdad, it does feel like Al-Khalili is rooting for his old team.
A couple of examples. He says that Ibn al-Haytham ‘should be regarded as the world’s greatest physicist in the time span between Archimedes and Newton.’ This is really rather short-sighted. He seems to have decided to dismiss, for example, some minor thinker by the name of Galileo. It’s true that Galileo’s work that gets the most press is the business of the Earth going around the Sun, where he was only supporting someone else’s idea. But this is a very minor part of Galileo’s science. His undoubted masterpiece was his book on physics Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences. In here you will find everything from classical relativity to an experimental derivation of what is, in effect, Newton’s first law of motion. It goes from the acceleration due to gravity to the first serious mathematical thinking about infinity. I find it mindboggling that Al-Khalili can forget Galileo.
It’s also the case that in his analysis of why after the ‘golden age’ Muslim science lagged so far behind the West he seems to have a continuous attempt to put a particular spin on things. We are told of how there was a crack-down on rational thinking, but somehow this wasn’t the cause of the decline in Arabic science. Yes, there was an influence from a religious dislike of science, but look, Christians do this too with creationism (no mention of Muslim creationism). It’s all a little one-sided. And, oh, I really wish he could have got away from calling one person after another a polymath (even he seems to realize this is a bit repetitious by the end). Compared with a modern scientist’s tiny focus, every early scientist was a polymath. It was only really in Victorian times that the concept of specialization came in. A small feature, but an irritating one.
In then end, though, the author’s analysis is not the main part of the book, and can’t subtract from the his excellent presentation of the scientific ideas of these key figures in the history of scientific thought. This is a very useful contribution to the general understanding of where modern science came from, and should be widely read.
Review by Brian Clegg

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