Science and Tragedy: A Reminder

Last Friday, I was flying home to Chicago to see my family and celebrate my dad’s 75th birthday.  I was excited, anxious, happy for the the chance to see my fam and the Windy City – maybe get some real pizza  (sorry LA, you have nothing that compares to deepdish).  As Southwest calls group A, a peculiar Twitter tag starts boiling my phone: #ParisAttacks.  I missed my boarding group, barely made it between the doors as they closed, and, for the first time in my life, bought internet service on the airplane – all to follow the news.

This entry won’t be about the attacksDAESH, or the wholly execrable manner some politicians are reacting to the event.  It’s important to talk about the humanitarian, religious, and personal repercussions this event.  In a nominally scientific blog, I could talk about the physics of the weaponry, medicine used for the victims, even the demographic sociology which allows for and creates the US reaction; but I want to talk instead about what binds us together.  The pursuit of Science.

As an American, my education was entrenched in an eurocentric vision of scientific development.  Logic from the Greeks, Physics from Newton, medical advances from the English Enlightenment.  You can’t swing a pendulum without hitting five textbooks gushing about European intellectuals boldly pushing back the borders of ignorance.  These discoveries and bold thinkers are not to be diminished; they are  important and the European Scientific Revolution is not insignificant.

But as a scholar, I must look past my own blinders and boundaries.  A honest scientist’s first meaningful revelation is her limitless ignorance, her need to reach beyond what is comfortable into the disorienting unknown.  So, for a few minutes today, I want to explore a few people living during the Golden Age of Islam.  These men were prophets, scholars, theologians, but above all, scientists.

al-Khwarizmi (780-850BCE), algebra’s progenitor

Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (محمد بن موسى الخوارزمی);  c. 780 – 850 CE.

Often cited as the founder of modern algebra, al-Khwarizmi lived in and around modern Baghdad.  He created many of the modern systems mathematicians use to solve linear and quadratic equations and even the word “algebra” comes from his text which spoke of al-jabr, “restoration”, in reference to adding terms equally to either side of an equation to cancel terms. His treatise “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing” (الكتاب المختصر في حساب الجبر والمقابلة‎ )  was largely responsible for introducing the Hindu-Arabic numeral system to the west which ultimately lead to the modern numeral.  When his text was translated into latin, Algoritmi de numero Indorum, the eponymous shorthand, Algoritmi, become the modern “algorithm”.

Geocentric Solar System – Portugal, 1568. Courtesy Wikimedia

Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Umar ibn al-Husayn at-Taymi al-Bakri at-Tabaristani Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi (أبو عبدالله محمد بن عمر بن الحسن بن الحسين بن علي التيمي البكري فخرالدین الرازی ); c. 1149-1280 CE.

Fascinated with ideas of astronomy and physics, he was a major player in the growth of thought surrounding celestial mechanics.  He was famous for forwarding a multiverse theory which suggested:

a thousand thousand worlds (alfa alfi ‘awalim) beyond this world such that each one of those worlds be bigger and more massive than this world as well as having the like of what this world has of the throne (al-arsh), the chair (al-kursiyy), the heavens (al-samawat) and the earth (al-ard), and the sun (al-shams) and the moon (al-qamar). The arguments of the philosophers (dala’il al-falasifah) for establishing that the world is one are weak, flimsy arguments founded upon feeble premises. (al-Razi, Matalib al-‘Aliya)

While his theories were couched in theologic terms, he roundly rejecting Aristotelian geocentric models, and refuted these theories through observable evidence and logic centuries before Kepler and Galileo were even born.

Human Heart – Courtesy Body Worlds

Ala-al-din abu Al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi (علاء الدين أبو الحسن عليّ بن أبي حزم القرشي الدمشقي ) known as Ibn al-Nafis (ابن النفيس ), c. 1213-1288 CE.

A singular mind and voracious scholar, al-Nafis was an expert in literature and jurisprudence as well as being a renowned physician.  An accomplished surgeon, al-Nafis is often cited as the first physician to describe the pulmonary circulation of blood; this position set him against most leading medical minds of the era.  Penning over 112 medical textbooks during his life, he is credited with leading a revolution in the field.

The Science That Binds

And on, and on.  My ignorance of this era of scientific and philosophical discovery is so profound, I can’t even conceive what I don’t know  (which is to say, apologies for anything I’m misrepresenting).  The era after the fall of Rome and before the Renaissance is often referenced as the “Dark Ages”, and nothing could be further from the truth.  It was an age of literacy, thought, and dramatic scientific advance.

As students, scholars, and scientists, we often feel our activities are somehow separate from the political world; that we’re above or beyond petty trifles of mankind.  In a way, this is true:  science has neither hometown nor accent.  But, really, the urge to explain, explore, and engage the universe is the greatest connection humans have.  The scientific method is just a process, a manner to sort and file data; the dynamo behind that process is universally shared human curiosity.   Science has no capital because it’s globally embracing; it has no tongue because we all speak its language.  It’s important to remember, especially at times like this, we are all scientists just looking to understand a little more every day.


One thought on “Science and Tragedy: A Reminder

  1. Susan

    Another interesting Islamic contribution is geometry. Medieval “architects” used Islamic based geometry to construct the flying buttresses that made medieval cathedrals so beautiful. How ironic that an Islamic scholar contributed to constructing buildings that strengthened Christianity!


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