Book Review: Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science by Jim Al-Khalili

It’s taken me a fair old while to get round to reading this. If you check back on this blog, you’ll see that I mentioned it back at the start of last year as one of the books I planned to read in 2014. However, my science reading has been fairly varied and this just got pushed back a bit.

Having now read it, I do rather regret the delay. The title should give you an impression of the era and geographical area which is the focus of Al-Khalili’s study. It is a time and place about which I must confess my ignorance. And not without good reason, the author supposes that such ignorance is not uncommon. His task here, then, is to give us a glimpse into a world that has largely been forgotten by the West, but where a debt of gratitude is owed.

Our story really begins with The House of Wisdom, a kind of institute or academy that was established by the Caliph al-Ma’Mun in the 8th century where the great minds of the day were gathered to study the world, which Al-Khalili notes comes not from a general curiosity, but as a command from Muhammad. As such, we also get a bit of background on the rise of Islam which serves as a useful background.

While I admit that I didn’t know much about the period and that many of the people we come across were previously unknown to me, one that was familiar was Al-Kwarizmi. Part of his story was told in Joseph Mazur’s Enlightening Symbols, but here we get a bit more flesh to the man, as well as understanding why he was so important in mathematics. For the latter, Al-Khalili relies on one of this age’s great mathematical communicators, Ian Stewart. To summarise here, what Al-Kwarizmi built upon Diophantus’ shoulders was a general way of solving problems. To Diophantus and to many who came after him, the methodology used to solve problems were specific to the problem in hand. Al-Kwarizmi’s contribution was to find a solution to sets of problems that could be widely applicable, not having to go through afresh each time. This is why his important work can rightly be seen as the origins of what we would understand to be algebra. He didn’t use symbolic means, as modern students may be familiar with, nor did he construct problems with the originality of Diophantus, but his work is the key bridge between the two.

There are plenty more besides A-Kwarizmi who are featured (and Al-Khalili does include a helpful little summary of each at the end of the book), so I will leave you to discover them for yourself. I only focus on Al-Kwarizmi because of my mathematical bent. Those of a more astronomical of chemical persuasion may find themselves drawn to other characters in the book.

Without recounting the entirety of the book, I wanted to look at one more aspect in particular, which caught my eye. It concerns the question of the decline of the golden age. What caused it? While there are myriad factors that interact in complicated ways, one that Al-Khalili highlights is the rise of the printing press. Arabic science was largely dependent on written copying and this form of communication was not readily abandoned. So it was not so much that the science in the Near and Middle East declined, but rather just got overtaken in terms of the speed of the dissemination of ideas. As a bibliophile, I will often hail the printing press as one of the greatest inventions of all time, but this puts a different, and welcome, slant on the matter. What has proved good for many may have had a detrimental effect on others.

In reviewing books of various kinds, one must always try to find some good in the worst of books and one must try to find fault in the best. Here, I find myself in the latter of the two scenarios, so this review cannot be complete without noting that Al-Khalili is very unspecific and often uncritical of his sources. Over and over again, I found myself thinking “[that’s really interesting. Where does that information come from?]” only when one searches in the text and the endnotes, there is no clear answer. Instead, the reader is invited to take Al-Khalili’s word for it, to be uncritical.

To give a specific example, there is a short discussion on the destruction of the library at Alexander. Al-Khalili cites a few hypotheses (a fire in 48 BCE, a war between the Romans and the Syrians in the late 3rd century, sacked by the Arabs in 641) but dismisses these, instead favouring the idea that it was destroyed by christians in the late 4th century. At no point, though does he say where these hypotheses came from, he doesn’t critically evaluate them and he doesn’t give his reasoning for why he thinks one is more likely than the others.

This is just one example. There are others, but I include it here to illustrate that the scepticism Al-Khalili exercises professionally as a scientist does not seem to have been well transferred as here dabbles in history. Perhaps this work is an example of why scientists aren’t always the best at writing histories of science, a point I know is echoed by Rebekah Higgitt.

As a point of curiosity, while I disagreed with one of his interpretations on this history of chemistry, I was going to cite Lawrence Principe’s The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, though Al-Khalili cites a different work from the same author in support of his view. Overall, Al-Khalili comes across as quite critical of western science in the middle ages, buying in as he does to the metanarrative whereby christianity is the suppressor of science. For an alternative to this view, I would recommend James Hannam’s work, God’s Philosophers.

One of the added dimensions that marks this out from books on the history of science, is that Al-Khalili interweaves the story he tells with his own personal history. Having grown up in Iraq, he tells us of his connection to the places, showing us a “then and now” narrative that has a tinge of sadness to it, not least due to the history of the country in the last 40 years.

He also manages to hint at what the future of Arabic science might look like. In this respect, though the book is only 5 years old, seems sadly out of date. Only recently, the news broke that the Islamic State had burned a library to the ground.

From the pages of this work, we get a glimpse into a golden age, but it seems that another such age may be a longer way off than Al-Khalili hoped for.

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