The forgotten contribution of the medieval physicists

23 February 2011

The IOP Rutherford lecture theatre was required for Prof J. S. Al-Khalili’s lecture ‘On the Shoulders of Eastern Giants: the forgotten contribution of the medieval physicists’ on 16 February 2011, for a most entertaining event and covered people and events from the golden age of Arabic scholarship.

“He who finds a new path is a pathfinder, even if the trail has to be found again by others; and he who walks far ahead of his contemporaries is a leader, even though centuries pass before he is recognized as such.”

This quotation is often attributed to Ibn Khaldun, one of the great medieval scholars of the Arabic World.

The talk began in Baghdad showing the Round city of 762 against a map of the modern city. 

The round city flourished during the 8-10th centuries and was the first city with the population of 1,000,000.

The son of Caliph Harum al-Rashid, al-Mamum built a new academy ‘Bayt al-Hikmah’ The House of Wisdom where many texts of the ancient world were translated into Arabic and it is likely that this synthesis of translated texts began the flourishing of sciences as Arabic scholars spotted inconsistencies between texts and began to investigate these problems.

The Arabic system of numerals, was inherited in the west, was based on an Indian system of numerals, including a zero. 

Mathematicians added a decimal point to this system, numbers being written right to left with the first decimal point more like an apostrophe. 

Al-Khwarizimi is regarded as the father of Algebra and the greatest mathematician of the medieval world. Whilst his ‘Book of Algebra’ contained no symbolic logic he was the first person to set out a set of ground rules for solving quadratic equations

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a Persian polymath who can be regarded as a genius to rival Leonardo da Vinci. He measured the circumference of the Earth to within 1% of the modern value by measuring the height of a mountain and the use of some geometry.

A modern scientific method was used by Ibn al-Haytham in the eleventh century, 600 years before Bacon and Descartes and founded the field of modern optics long before Newton. 2011 sees the millennial celebrations of al-Haytham’s book of optics.

The above only gives a flavour of a very enjoyable evening.