From satellite-enabled GPS to hi-tech medical procedures – much of today’s modern science builds on the work of great thinkers from the past.
But while the names Newton, Galileo and Copernicus are well known, just who were the scientists who came before them – in the Golden Age of Islamic Science?
Iraqi-born theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili takes us on a journey of discovery, unravelling the links between the latest scientific developments and the unsung scientific heroes of the past.
Science in a Golden Age – Astronomy: The Science of the Stars
Science in a Golden Age – Astronomy: The Science of the Stars Imagine trying to make sense of the universe before telescopes were even invented. Jim al-Khalili reveals how scholars from the Islamic world played a crucial role in astronomy and navigation, influencing later astronomers in the renaissance. In this episode of Science in the Golden Age, we examine ancient maps dating back to the 9th century at Istanbul’s Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam. In the Qatari desert, Ali Sultan al-Hajri, a businessman and Bedouin, shows how the moon and stars have played a crucial role in navigation and timekeeping for centuries. Going through an extensive collection of astrolabes – versatile scientific instruments that could be considered as the ‘computers of their day,’ we get a rare chance to see the inner workings of this complex device as one of the most elaborate astrolabes at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is taken apart. Moving from ancient astronomy to the most cutting edge developments in space science, we examine the life of al-Tusi, a great astronomer whose work influenced later astronomers including Copernicus, the renaissance scientist who formulated the model of the universe that placed the sun at the centre and the planets rotating around it. In this episode we also discover how the Persian astronomer al-Biruni devised an ingenious method for calculating the circumference of the earth, which allowed him to come up with an incredibly accurate estimate, within one percent of the accurate value we know today.
Science in a Golden Age – Chemistry: The Search for the Philosopher’s Stone
The chemical industry has reshaped the modern world – giving us new fuels, drugs and materials. But the methodology and principles of chemistry go back over a thousand years. Between the 9th and 14th centuries, there was a Golden Age of Science when scholars from the Islamic world, like Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Al-Razi, introduced a rigorous experimental approach that laid the foundations for the modern scientific method. In this episode of Science in a Golden Age, theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili leads us on an exploration of just how these scientists began the process of transforming the superstition of alchemy into the science of chemistry. He begins by unpicking the medieval obsession with alchemy – the effort to turn common, less valuable metals into gold. He looks into the work of Jabir Ibn Hayyan, a polymath who grew up in modern-day Iran and who is credited with applying an experimental-based approach to early chemistry. Through his determined efforts to dissolve and transform metals, Ibn Hayyan learnt much about acids. Together with Professor Hal Sosabowski from the University of Brighton, Jim looks at the reaction of gold with aqua regia – a powerful combination of acids that Ibn Hayyan discovered. Following on from Ibn Hayyan’s work, chemists like Al-Kindi and Al-Razi furthered the development of scientific practice, basing their work on careful experiments and observations. Their obsession with accuracy was what qualified them as being amongst the first true scientists. Jim shows us the ‘Mizan Al-Hikma’, an intricate set of scales built by a scholar by the name of Al-Khazani in the 12th century. What set this piece of equipment apart was not just the beauty of the craftsmanship, but the exacting precision it delivered. The chemical processes developed by the Islamic scientists were motivated by numerous factors – one of which was the requirements of Islam itself – for example, the washing of the hands, face and feet before prayer. This requirement for cleanliness quickly led to the development of whole industries – like the production of soap. The first solid bars of soap were manufactured in the Islamic world and Jim looks at how alkalis helped develop the soap industries of the Golden Age. From Jabir Ibn Hayyan to Al-Kindi to Al-Razi, this episode covers the works of some of most prolific and influential chemists of the Golden Age and tells the story of how the evolution of modern chemistry began.
Science in a Golden Age – Al-Razi, Ibn Sina and the Canon of Medicine
We explore the links between medical research in the Golden Age of Science and the modern practice of medicine today. Standing in one of the largest neo-natal units in the world at Hamad Hospital in Qatar, you would not immediately be able to draw a link between the pioneering medical research being conducted and the work of physicists from the 9th century. In this episode of Science in the Golden Age, theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili guides us through a journey of discovery where he highlights the links between medical research in the Golden Age of Science during the 9th and 14th centuries and the modern practice of medicine today. At Hamad Hospital, a new treatment is being trialled for babies born with a neurological disorder called neo-natal encephalopathy. Senior consultant Dr Samawal Lutfi explains how the double blind placebo control method ensures the accuracy of the study. This notion of a control group goes all the way back over a thousand years to a Persian physician by the name of Al-Razi who built the first hospitals in Baghdad. He was an early proponent of applying a rigorous scientific approach to medicine and used a control group when testing methods to treat meningitis in the 9th century. At Harefield Hospital in the UK, we meet Professor Magdi Yacoub, a pioneering transplant surgeon and one of the world’s leading heart specialists. Professor Yacoub explains how the 13th century Syrian scholar Ibn al-Nafis redefined the understanding of pulmonary circulation. He challenged the commonly accepted wisdom of the Greek scholar Galen, who had said that blood passes directly between the heart’s right and left ventricle through the septum, the dividing wall that separates them. Ibn al-Nafis put forward the idea that blood could not pass directly between the right and left chambers of the heart – and that the lungs had a role to play in this process. Ibn al-Nafis’ description was not widely accepted at the time, and it wasn’t until his manuscript was re-discovered in the 20th century that his work was universally recognised. From Al-Razi, to Ibn al-Nafis, to the 10th-century philosopher and physician Ibn Sina, Jim examines the most influential medics of the Golden Age. He shows us his personal copy of Ibn Sina’s Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (‘The Canon of Medicine’), a comprehensive text which was the pinnacle of medical knowledge at that time. It was widely copied and translated, becoming a standard medical reference across the world for centuries. Jim ends his journey at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, learning how the institute is using the latest equipment to map the human genome. The genome is the complex genetic code contained in every one of our cells and sequencing it can reveal possible diseases that are inherited. Focusing on genetic and hereditary diseases specifically affecting the Qatari population, scientists from around the world have come together to work on this ambitious project that some-what parallels Baghdad’s Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), the renowned centre of learning that played an integral role in the Islamic world’s scientific advancement.
Science in a Golden Age – Optics: The True Nature of Light
laying a vital role in our everyday lives, technologies based on light are in use all around us. From art and science to modern technology, the study of light – and how behaves and interacts with matter has intrigued scientists for over a century. This year, 2015, marks the 1,000th anniversary of the Kitab al-Manazir (The Book of Optics), a seven-volume treatise written by the Iraqi scientist Ibn al-Haytham – a pioneering thinker who’s views have been crucial to our understanding of how the universe came into existence. Shaping our understanding of vision, optics and light, Ibn al-Haytham interrogated theories of light put forward by the Greeks – men like Plato and Euclid who argued that the way we see objects is by shining light out of our eyes onto them. Ibn al-Haytham argued instead, and correctly, that the way we see is by light entering our eyes from outside either reflecting off objects or directly from luminous bodies like candles or the sun. His methodology of investigation, in which he combined theory and experiments, were also remarkable for their emphasis on proof and evidence. In the first episode of Science in the Golden Age, theoretical physicist, Jim al-Khalili, looks at state-of-the-art applications of optics and traces the science of light back to the medieval Islamic world. Al-Khalili recreates Ibn al-Haytham’s famous ‘camera obscura’ experiment with stunning results and also uncovers the work of Ibn Sahl, a mathematician and physicist associated with the Abbasid court of Baghdad. According to a recently discovered manuscript, he correctly described “Snell’s law of refraction” centuries before Dutch astronomer Willebrord Snellius was even born. We also look at the work of Ibn Mu’adh, who brought together knowledge of optics and geometry in order to estimate the height of the atmosphere.
Science in a Golden Age – Pioneers of Engineering: Al-Jazari and the Banu Musa
From the Iraqi Banu Musa brothers of the 9th century, to the Andalusian engineer Abbas Ibn Firnas, to Al-Jazari who lived and worked in the 12th century – Jim Al-Khalili guides us through the work of the engineers and innovators of the Golden Age of science (9th – 14th centuries). He looks at state-of-the-art robotic engineering and studies the history of early automatic machines. He unpicks the engineering principles behind the incredible trick devices of the Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century, and is shown a modern reconstruction of their ingenious ‘flute that plays itself’. In Istanbul, Jim is shown the intricate clocks and sophisticated water pumps designed by 12th century engineer Al-Jazari. And he analyses the claims made of Abbas Ibn Firnas – who supposedly managed to get airborne all the way back in the 9th century.
Science in a Golden Age – Al-Khwarizmi: The Father of Algebra
From fast cars and aeroplanes to computer encryption – mathematics underpins so much of modern life. In this episode, Jim Al-Khalili uncovers how, between the 9th and 14th centuries, mathematicians from the Islamic world helped mathematicise science and lay the foundations of algebra. He looks at the modern mathematics behind flight, and behind the record-breaking fastest car in the world, tracing the route back from these achievements to the legacy of the Persian mathematician Al Khwarizmi. We also discover the role that the Islamic world played in giving us the modern numeral system that we take for granted in everyday life. And, in the Sulemaniye Library in Istanbul, Jim uncovers a rare text by Al Kindi – perhaps the world’s earliest mathematical code breaker.