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The Golden Age of Scientific Discoveries

by | Apr 11, 2021

As we have mentioned last week, Islam and science do not contradict each other. False interpretation of a phenomenon is to blame, just as it is the case with the theory of evolution.

Now, as it goes for the greatest period of discoveries, this era wasn’t in the 20th century with the atomic theories, the general relativity theory, and the quantum mechanics theory. It wasn’t in the 18th century during the chemical revolution, inspired by Lavoisier, or the evolution revolution brought by Darwin. It wasn’t even during the Renaissance when Europe finally pulled its head out of the Dark Ages. The golden age of scientific discoveries was between 800-1300, during the Islamic Empire.

There was this hub called the House of Wisdom; but it was more than a hub, it was like Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale, but with way more beards. Scholars from across the Muslim world (and non-Muslim) would meet, research, and discuss. It was the largest gathering of minds and books in the world.

Amazing discoveries and revolutionary scientific contributions were made in this short period of time. The development of essential basics in math and science led to incredible progress in all scientific areas. Without algebra there is no physics, without algorithms there are no computers, without alchemy there is no chemistry, and the list goes on…

By the year 830, Alkhawarizmi combined Greek geometry with Indian arithmetic to obtain algebra. It is not like no one ever used it before intuitively, but he generalized it; it was no more empirical data, but problem-solving based on equations. The word algorithm is actually a Latin deformation of his name. The employment of the decimal point at his time made any number representable, even within whole numbers. As for Al-Battani (858-929), known as Albatenius, it is thanks to him that I almost flunked my high school math tests. He brought forth trigonometrical relations that link sine, cosine, and tangent together.

Alchemy lost its mystique with Jabir Ibn Hayyan (721-815), the father of chemistry. He is also known as Geber (the west has a lot of trouble with Arabic names). Contrary to his predecessors, he did not look for the life elixir (since life and death are in the hands of Allah) nor did he try to transform cheap metals into gold (if it would work and become available, all would stop working and nothing would get done). He practically single-handedly revolutionized the way that chemistry was seen and taught. Around 865, the chemist El-Razi (Rhazes) was the first to classify compounds based on their properties; not because of their philosophical attributes. Even though it was not the best classification, it was nonetheless the first classification done by experimentation. Muslim chemists were also responsible for progress done in metallurgy, especially regarding alloys, which greatly enhanced the crafts that came with it: minting, armament, transportation, toolmaking, tableware…

In the area of mechanics, Muslims of the time excelled in the field. In the 12th century, Al-Jazari devised a water pump that functioned with a crankshaft; this was the first known use of a crankshaft to draw water. He also built multiple automated devices, such as clocks, flush/refill tanks, celestial models, etc. Plus, he was the first to use a camshaft to allow automated repetition. What is the significance of this invention… imagine driving a car with no pistons? But his main work was The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices; this book contains over 100 mechanical applications. Writing a book is no big deal (hey, I was able to do it), but explaining how to reproduce those mechanisms with plans, stencils, and purposes; that is impressive! Let’s not forget Taqi Al-Din (16th century) who invented a 6 cylinder water pump, that later on became the basic model of the cylinder engine in cars. We almost forgot about Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), not only his name rimes but he was the first person to glide “successfully”. When I say successfully, I mean glide from a good height, for a good distance, and not die.

Al-Zahrawy, known in the west by Albucasis, the father of surgery, performed cataract surgery, operated on migraines, developed specific surgical tools, described the hereditary nature of hemophilia, and wrote a 30 volume encyclopedia of medicine called Al-Tasrif. All this was done by the year 1000. Many of these techniques, although rudimentary, were still used until the 18th century in Europe. Innovations like quarantining before treating, hospitals with different orgs for different types of patients (even patients with mental problems), understanding that sickness and disease are passed by tiny particles through the air, a hospital pharmacy, The Hospital… Point… These are but a few medical breakthroughs of that time and the list goes on… There is also El-Razi, yes him once again, because when you are scientific, your inquiries do not limit themselves to one specific domain (and it was easier back then to specialize in multiple disciplines). Rhazes (as he was known in Europe) was a pioneer in experimental medicine; he helped differentiate between measles and smallpox. We cannot talk about medicine without mentioning Ibn Sina (Avicenna), his work The Cannon of Medicine was so complete that it was used and taught for a millennium. He is the father of modern medicine. If you want to discuss scientific breakthroughs in medicine, Ibn Al-Nafis is your man. He discovered and explained pulmonary circulation; meaning how air (oxygen) gets into your blood. Something so basic that no one even thinks about today, but needed elucidation 800 years ago. As for medication, one man repertoired more novel medicines than any company; Ibn Baitar. He recorded almost 400 types of medicine added by Muslim physicians at the time. That was more than a third of all known medicines at his time since antiquity.

Measurements were very important too. Whether it be time or space, they were meticulously measured. Around 830, the Caliph El-Ma’mun commissioned his scientists to estimate the circumference of the Earth. And they did so, they came to the equivalent of 24 000 miles, which was 4% off the exact value. Not bad for that time you say. Well a century and a half later, Al-Biruni pretty much nailed it. By combining algebra and trigonometry, three simple measurements, an astrolabe, a flat shoreline, and a mountain overlooking the sea; he was able to determine the radius of the Earth, and was only about 10 miles off. As for time, El-Battani was able to calculate the almost exact duration of a year. He stated that it was 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes, and 24 seconds, which is a whopping 2 minutes off the “real” value. How did he come so close; he made an average on 40 years. Forty years for one measurement, not bad for reproducibility.

Astronomy was one of the strengths of Muslim scientists of that era. If the Greeks mastered the constellations, the Romans owned the planets, the Muslims named the stars; practically all of them. To this day over two-thirds of the stars have Arabic names (or originally named in Arabic). Even though it was Copernicus that proved that the Earth revolved around the sun in 1543 (he used data from Al-Batani and Al-Tusi), it was a scientist named Ibn Al-Haytham (Alhazen) that brought forth the incongruities of having the Earth at the center of the Solar system (i.e. having the Sun go around the Earth) based on collected data. He did not propose an alternative solution but brought forth fundamental reasoning problems to Ptolemy’s celestial theory. What was novel about this, his negation of Ptolemy’s theory was not a philosophical point of view but based on mathematical calculations and results. This might have been one of the first times in history that a scientific crosscheck was done to confirm or infirm a theory.

Ibn Al-Haytham’s innovations do not stop there. He reinforced the scientific method as the only way to explore natural phenomena. For Ibn Al-Haytham, scientific ideas are only valid if they are mathematically consistent to reflect reality. Research must be based on theory and experiment:

“We do not go beyond experience, and we cannot be content to use pure concepts in investigating natural phenomena”.

Contrary to the ancient empires who viewed mathematics or science as perfect, unworldly, or divine; Muslim scientists saw it fitting in using it to explain the creation of Allah. Physical proposition plus mathematical representation lead to experimentation and interpretation.

These assertions were obvious in Ibn Al-Haytham’s Book of Optics. Using observation, geometry, and experimentation; he was able to explain reflection, refraction, sight, estimate the thickness of the atmosphere… he laid the foundation of optics for generations to come. No wonder, it is with good reason, he is known in physics as the father of optics. It is also Ibn Al-Haytham who instilled the scientific method or process. It is this approach that came to be the founding block of modern science. Through 7 steps: Observation of the natural world; Stating a definite problem; Formulating a robust hypothesis; Test the hypothesis through experimentation; Assess and analyze the results; Interpret the data and draw conclusions; Publish the findings, he was able to resume the logical sequence in problem-solving. The notion of replicability in experiments and peer reviews were also introduced at that time.

Speaking about Muslim scholars without mentioning the Second Master would be incoherent. This surname was given to him by other scholars of his time to compare this person to Aristotle (the First Master): this scholar is Al-Farabi (Alpharabius). He was well versed in a multitude of disciplines, and not just in science; politics, philosophy, economics, ethics, jurist… the list goes on. He is probably the foremost scholar who saved ancient Greek writings from extinction.

On a less scientific note, in 1377, Ibn Khaldun, the father of sociology, wrote an amazing work that we know as the Prolegomena (in Arabic Muquaddima). Funnily enough, this was just an introduction to his book Kitab al-Ibar (Book of Lessons). The Prolegomena might as well be the first book that treats about; social sciences, philosophy of history, cultural history, and economics in ways that have never been discussed before. Not only does it touch base with social sciences, but with natural sciences, theology, philosophy, and politics. It is a reference on how to conduct research; Ibn Khaldun managed to apply the scientific method to social sciences. There is also (as if it is something out of the ordinary) Al-Biruni who is credited to be the father of anthropology. As for exploration, and accounts of trips; Ibn Battuta is unmatched (1304-1369), he traveled most of the known world of the time and recounted his experiences in The Travels. The great cartographer Piri Reiss (1465-1553) was unmatched in his renderings of world maps. Not only are they practically exact to satellite images, but he is the first to correctly map the coast of the Americas (hydrography that is found inland also) and Antarctica… No one knew about Antarctica at the time. Just as a sidenote, Al-Khawarismi led a group of geographers and cartographers to draw a replica of the world map (known at the time). Its detail was remarkable, and yes… it was round.

What was amazing about that era is that there was no contradiction between faith and the laws governing the natural world. And if a theory or proposition was infirmed or replaced, there was no uproar, people being burned, persecuted, or jailed because they were of a different opinion. As long as it did not go against the Quran or Sunnah (in the assumptions and interpretations), anything and everything else is acceptable in the domain of science; especially the facts.

What is also important to point out is that practically all of the names aforementioned studied the Quran, teachings of the prophet Muhammad, Islamic jurisprudence… i.e. religious aspects of Islam before embracing the endeavor of science. It gave them a framework to work with and within, it gave the limitations of what man can accomplish and discover, it did not allow them to waste their time on wild goose hunts or inconceivable explorations. It allowed them to better mankind and the world as a whole.

During the Islamic Empire (the golden age for scientific discoveries), science and technology were encouraged, not just for economic, entertainment, or military reasons; but because it is a cornerstone of their faith. So the argument of science and religion not being able to coexist, doesn’t make sense.

Fortunately, I had the privilege to visit the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam in Istanbul, Turkey. This was a whole other experience; it is one thing to hear, read or learn about these inventions, innovations, scientists, and pioneers… but it is something else to literally see what and how it was done.

To get an overview of these discoveries and inventions that changed history, check out the following website. It will blow your mind away!

https://www.1001inventions.com/

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