Episode 37: November 21st 2010 : Progress of Science through the Ages

Scroll to the bottom of this post to play the audio.

On November 3rd this year, Professor Jim Al-khalili was to give three lectures in Liverpool on the same day (Quantum Physics, Advances in Mathematics in Medieval Islam and On the Shoulders of Eastern Giants: the Forgotten Contribution of the Medieval Physicists). I did feel a bit of a stalker, I attended all three, but fortunately I was not alone.

It is not often that I get to personally witness the scientific method in real life. The most illuminating part of the day of the three lectures was the the Q and A following the second lecture. A questioner put her hand up and stated clearly that she had a correction rather than a question. She had heard the professor talk about the concept and symbol for the number zero. During his lecture, the professor had recalled the contribution from the Babylonians, Mayans and Indian mathematicians. The questioner had been researching the substantial contribution from the Egyptians in this area which the professor had not mentioned. What happened next was an affirmation of the scientific method.

The professor could have been defensive, confrontational or dismissive. Instead, he listened to her argument and asked her to stay behind to so he could learn details of her research. That is the power of the scientific idea. It stands only on the edifice of evidence and not the economic wealth, social position or academic reputation of those who hold it.

The progress of scientific knowledge is not continuous and linear but evolves through a series of stops and starts. Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” described the progress of science as periodic “paradigm shifts”. He was referring to the fundamental differences in thinking that have lead to leaps in scientific understanding.

Could that stop and start concept describe how science develops through the ages too? Scientific discoveries are frequently lost, forgotten or deliberately suppressed. So the story of scientific discovery is frequently a story of rediscovery. William Harvey ‘s discovery in 1628 of the human heart and circulation of blood though the human body had much in common with that of Ibn al-Nafis 400 years earlier. Nicolas Copernicus is credited in the 16th century with introducing the heliocentric system (placing the Sun not the Earth, in the centre of the solar system) but this idea had been propounded by Aristarchus in the third century BC.

The omissions are not just in science. One example of technological development lost for over a thousand years that sticks out like a sore thumb is the Antikythera mechanism, a device for calculating and displaying relative positions of the Sun, Moon and planets. The precision of the internal mechanism would not be repeated for over a thousand years.

Why these omissions occur is unclear. History, like science is always a work in progress. Reflecting on why the ancient Greek tradition of scientific method stalled, Carl Sagan in his celebrated work, Cosmos, concluded that their society was elitist and self serving. Key figures like Plato were hostile to experiment and perpetuated the idea that human thought alone was sufficient to explain the physical world. This intellectually corrupt approach sustained their slave owning unjust society. Search for truth was not their goal.

In his new book “Pathfinders” Professor Al-Khalili attempts to fill “a” gap in the history of science by revisiting the work done by the Arabic scholars during the period known in Europe as the dark ages. It is not a story of Islamic science but of science conducted in the Arabic language which has its roots in Islam. For around 600 years (from 9th to the 15th century), sandwiched between Greek and Latin, the international language of science was Arabic.

A professor of theoretical nuclear physics in the University of Surrey, he was born in Baghdad to a Christian mother and a Muslim father. As an atheist , Jim Al-Khalili, emphasizes the role of Islamic, Persian, Christian and Jewish scholars who not only translated the work of the ancient Greeks but enhanced and developed it. Just as the ancient Greeks took the concept of an alphabet from the earlier Phoenician civilization and developed the written language, the scientific (re)discoveries we traditionally associate with the European Renaissance were built in turn on the progress during this golden age of Arabic science.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili has his own podcast but here is a recording we made for this one just prior to the start of his three lecture session. To start off with, I asked about his personal interest in astronomy.


The quote for this episode is from the prophet Mohammed and in chapter 2 of Pathfinders.

“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr


  1. Gurbir, this is a great episode, and it is important to close the perceived gap between the Greek and Western Renaissance science. What you say in your introduction about Plato is however a little bit misleading: Plato was first and foremost a philosopher, not a scientist. As such, he WAS searching for the truth, just not interested in what you would narrowly define as scientific truth. Thus it is wrong to blame him for pursuing not the right kind of science, especially since he is still very much at the beginning, not the end, of Greek philosophy engaging with science. The Alexandrian scholars you talk about as well, Aristarchus, Ptolemy etc., were alive hundreds of years after Plato and his much more scientifically enclined pupil Aristotle, who undertook many experiments in several scientific disciplines. Carl Sagan is not a Classicist, and should not be quoted on anything he knows so little about (he is obviously pushing some agenda of his own there!). Keeping up the slave economy was really not at the forefront of these Greek scientists’ thinking.
    On the Arabic scholarship: a vast amount of Greek knowledge, like e.g. Ptolemy’s Almagest, got lost in the West during the Middle Ages as scholars lost the ability to read Greek texts, and many Greek books, literature, poetry – and science, gradually became lost to us. Some ancient knowledge was however preserved in the East, where Arabic scholars continued to read the Classics, translated scientific texts into Arabic (amongst other languages) and developed their own research on the basis of Greek science. That’s why Ptolemy’s originally Greek book Mathematike Syntaxis is now better known as the Almagest by its Arabic title, though it is still the same book. What is so great about Professor Al-Khalili’s book is that he works on the closing of the gap in scholarly transmission at the other end, from the Arabic world to the Western Renaissance. Scientific exploration is a continuum, from the Greeks to the Arabic scientists to people like Copernicus, and the Arabic scholars were sitting on the shoulders of giants. Greek giants. Just as then Western scientists could pick up from where the Arabic scholars had left off.

  2. Mark Jones says:

    Hi Gurbir,

    I just listened to your interview with Jim al-Khalili my first experience of your podcasts and I really enjoyed it and have proceeded to download more.
    At first I was wary as my assumption was that you were a Muslim man on a mission to pour religious influence over your listeners!
    As I stuck with the podcast I began to find it well balanced and the quote at the end from Mohamed literally brought a tear to my eye. True wisdom in anyone’s book! (in an ideal world!)
    I like your style, please keep up the good work! Now on to the next one.
    All the best, Mark

  3. Intelligence and simplicity – easy to unrdsetand how you think.

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