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on 13 December 2017
Good read and was sent ASAP. Thank you.
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on 29 August 2017
Very useful and interesting historical information about Arabic science that I never had in my school education.
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on 20 December 2010
A stupendous piece of work by the author and a fascinating read once you get into it. And by putting the work of the scientists of this period into perspective the book also brings out and explains many of the basic scientific issues that have intrigued our species. It also illuminates historical aspects of the relationship between the Islamic world and "the west". I just wish the author had got stuck into the subject matter more quickly and saved us his personal history and photos of himself in Baghdad!

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on 20 June 2016
Great book by a great author. No prior knowledge needed and he doesn't mansplain things at you like some authors.
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on 26 August 2012
This is an interesting book, plugging the gap between the Greeks and the Renaissance in the commonly-told history of science. The ground Al-Khalili covers isn't particularly original, I suspect, but quite a lot of what he had to say was new to me. He writes well, clearly and with expertise, particularly about the Maths and the Physical sciences. In fact I would have liked a bit more detail in these areas. In spite of a useful chapter at the beginning explaining how Arabic names work, I found the impressive list of Arabic scholars the book covers, each with the latinised version of his name as well as the original, was a bit confusing, but that's my problem really. Slightly oddly, Al-Khalili frames the history with his own experiences growing up in Bhagdad, and that of previous generations of his family. This could have been a bit sentimental, but wasnt, and helped to show how Arabic science is faring in the current day. Interesting parallels can be drawn between the burning of the Arabic libraries when the Arabic-speaking world was turning to a more fundamental version of Islam at the start of the Renaissance, and attitudes to science in the US now
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 7 April 2011
Pathfinders: The golden age of Arabic science, by Jim al-Khalili, Allen Lane, 2010, 336 ff.

The origins of western science
By Howard Jones

In 2002, in her book Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal gave us an insight into the debt we owe the Islamic civilization of al-Andalus, which from 750 to 1492 did so much to shape the western culture of the post-Renaissance. We tend to think of western science as essentially beginning with Copernicus, with a nod in the direction of some of the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristarchus for the heliocentric theory; or Leucippus and Democritus for the atomic theory. Bertrand Russell portrayed the Islamic scholars as doing little other than transcribe the scientific philosophy of ancient Greece. Menocal showed us how Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars worked together in harmony not only to render ancient Greek ideas into Arabic, Hebrew and Latin, but also to create much that was new. Al-Khalili adds to this source of original knowledge.

Jim al-Khalili presents another side of this story, but his book focuses on the 9th century Abbasid caliphate of Abu Ja'far Abdullah al-Ma'mum that was centred on Baghdad. It was called Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom. Jim al-Khalili is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surry and has already written one of the more accessible books on quantum physics. There were scholars in Baghdad in many of the scientific disciplines. The names of some of these have emerged in the west over recent decades, like al-Khwarizmi whose book, the title of which is abbreviated to al-Jebr, gave us our algebra; al-Biruni, who was a contemporary of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and debated the philosophy of science with him. Our word `alchemy' is from the Arabic `al-kimiya', `the art of transmutation'; and there are many other words in everyday use, such as alkali and algorithm, that have an Arabic origin.

Most of the other scholars whose work al-Khalili describes were quite new to me. There is something of the general history of the period in this book; but for the most part it focuses on cosmology, arithmetic, algebra, physics, philosophy and medicine in separate chapters, and the contribution of the Arabian scholars. We must remember that this is only two centuries after the life of The Prophet and the social system that his vision inaugurated. So the progress made in learning was considerable and rapid. Of course, the Islamic scholars were also busy translating Greek and Roman texts, but this book puts into perspective the derivative work with the original.

This is a fascinating book, full of scholarship and original historical material, and absolutely no symbolic mathematics to deter the reader. It puts the ancient scholars of Baghdad and their contribution to our heritage into a very human context, though perhaps we could have done with less personal material. There are several pages of Notes, a Glossary of scientists, and an Index at the end. This would make an excellent complement to the books by Menocal and that on the history of western ideas by Richard Tarnas.

Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, U.K.; and The World as Spirit published by Fairhill Publishing, Whitland, West Wales, 2011.

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
The Passion Of The Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View
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on 24 August 2015
An unusual book from Mr. Al-Khalili, but a very interesting one nonetheless. Part scientific study, part Islamic history, The Golden Age of Arabic Science describes how past Islamic Empires contributed to humanity's understanding of science and paved the way for the Renaissance in Europe a few centuries later. Building on Ancient Greek and Indian thinking, the Arabs of the Middle Ages expanded scientific thought beyond what had been known at the time. I was very impressed and Mr. Al-Khalili has sparked my interest in further study of the history of the Islamic Caliphates.

The author describes how Islamic scientific thinking grew after the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth century. The scholarly minded Caliph, al-Ma'mun, was a huge enthusiast of study and encouraged scholars of all creeds and beliefs to come to the empire to further their knowledge. By the middle of the ninth century the imperial capital of Baghdad was to become a centre of excellence for scientific progress. Mr. Al-Khalili identifies the areas where progress was made; mathematics, medicine, astronomy and chemistry were all to see advances and the author identifies particular scientists of the era and how they made history. Arab scientists were to make headway in the use of experimentation in their pursuit of knowledge.

The phenomena known as the 'Translation Movement' had a major impact on Abbasidian science and witnessed the translation of many Ancient Greek texts by philosophers and scientists of the day. Abbasid science was also to be heavily influenced by pre-Muslim Persian culture and (believe it or not) the invention of paper as a cheaper way to record results and data. The Abbasid Caliphate was also to be a very tolerant society with Christian and other religious scholars allowed to reside within the empire. Mr. Al-Khalili goes even further to document how the Arab kingdom of Andalusia also contributed to the development and knowledge of science, stating that subsequent scholars and scientists of Christian conquerors were to benefit from the vast libraries of Arab and Moorish knowledge.

An interesting aspect of the authors work describes the construction of both astronomic observatories and the House of Wisdom in the imperial capital of Baghdad. These buildings highlight and emphasize just how science was to truly progress in Arabic society. The observatories were to become important to the worship of Allah with astronomy providing accurate data for Islamic prayer patterns. The House of Wisdom was to contain vast texts on every conceivable scientific subject. Something the Caliph Al-Ma'mun prized very greatly. Alas, subsequent Caliphs did not see the advantage of scientific study and research. The Golden Age of Arabic science was to decline and fade in the later centuries. The House of Wisdom itself was to be destroyed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century.

Finally, there are two subjects covered in the book which pave the way toward a bright future for Islam. Firstly, Al-Khalili describes the theological 'Mu'tazila' movement which sprang up during the time of Al-Ma'mun. Based on the concept of championing rational thought above all religious theory, Mu'tazilites became the think-tank of the Abbasid Caliphate under Al-Ma'mun. The movement was also to fade under subsequent rulers, however, these ideals confirm that science found a home in Islamic thinking over a thousand years ago, and can still find a home today. This compliments the author's final statements that Islam and science are in no way incompatible as many commentators seem to suspect. Indeed Islam is a belief system which encourages the search for knowledge according to Mr, Al-Khalili. He isn't wrong either.

Mr. Al-Khalili's work has interested me far more than I thought it initially would. This is a very enjoyable and informative book and certainly one for those with a passion for both scientific and Islamic history.
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on 6 January 2011
It makes a refreshing change to read a history book written by a scientist. It is quite clear the difference between fact, speculation and personal opinion, something not always the case when a traditional historian writes.

I half expected a book full of excessive gushing praise for the Arab scientists in this period in history but that does not do the writer justice. The book is very clear when the scientists miss the mark but provides sound reasoning for why we should be considering some of these people on a par with the well known greats from Greek and later European history.

Quite hard going at times with rereads needed occasionally but well worth it and necessary to give a sound understanding of not just the work of the scientists but their place in history as of that of their benefactors. Yet another example in history showing the benefits of investment in science and technology to the progress of a civilisation, current leaders in the West should take note!
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on 22 July 2015
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 Al-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.

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. Earlier this year, 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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on 28 June 2013
A good review of the contributions of Arabic scientists, well-written and detailed. Al-Khalili's project is to show that, far from simply being unimaginative transmitters of Greco-Roman knowledge during the Western "dark ages", the Arabic-speaking world developed and contributed significantly to that knowledge, and he largely succeeds in this.
I only have two criticisms: firstly, al-Khalili steers clear of philosophical and theological discussions, yet the nature of science at the time ("natural philosophy", in the terminology of the Western inheritors of the Arabic knowledge) was such that it was seen as a part of the same investigation; consequentially I would have liked more information about the general worldview of the sciento-philosophers he covers.
Secondly, in his eagerness to show how the Arabic-speaking world made genuine contributions (coupled with, I'd speculate, a slightly Kuhnian view of how science progresses), he sometimes seems a little over-keen to find each person's Great Contribution. Especially in the section on the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, he seems to be casting around rather desperately to locate the Single Great Thing that al-Khwarizmi did, yet unnecessarily so: it's clear that the guy massively progressed maths in general, and if that was by a little bit here and a little bit there, then that's fine by me. No need to locate his Nobel Prize-equivalent discovery.
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