qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

The Companions of the Verified Tables

Book Review: Pathfinders - The Golden Age of Arabic Science, By Jim Al-Khalili
Without any context, I would have said that "the companions of the Verified Tables" sounded like an obscure sect to be found in an Umberto Eco novel, or a Doctor Who story. In fact they are one of the groups of scholars described in Al-Khalili's summarising work on scientific achievement during the period known in Europe as the Dark Ages.

I've enjoyed many of Al-Khalili's TV programmes (generally on BBC Four) and thought I'd give one of his books a go: reassuringly it is likewise informative without being especially deep, though there are a couple of more mathematical sections, which could easily be skipped. Al-Khalili carefully sets the context for the inheritance of classical science and the establishment of centres of knowledge in Baghdad and elsewhere, in central Asia, north Africa and Andalusia. He describes research and progress in many areas: most familiar to me were those of mathematics, physics and astronomy, though the sections on chemistry and medicine are also interesting. Al-Khalili states up-front that his beliefs are atheist, and although he carefully describes the Islamic viewpoints he considers intrinsic to the "golden age", he also takes care to point out that the scientists of this era were Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and possibly of other faiths or agnostic. It's always enjoyable to find unexpectedly a familiar name appearing out of nowhere, and a discussion of reflection off a curved surface leads to the following: "Amazingly, an exact algebraic solution had to wait until 1997, when Oxford mathematician Peter Neumann showed that the problem could be solved using a theory developed by the French mathematical prodigy Évariste Galois." Congratulations to the erstwhile Senior Tutor of my alma mater.

In the final chapters Al-Khalili considers the decline of Arabic science. In fact two points emerge here: one, that scientific knowledge was re-introduced into Europe through Muslim Spain and ultimately bore fruit in the European Renaissance, and secondly, that anti-science viewpoints are widespread across the globe today. Some of his arguments occasionally feel a little on the earnest side, but overall it's an informative and useful book.
Tags: books, history, science
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