Reviewed by: Jerry Brotton
Author: Jim Al-Khalili
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £25
This is a book that many people have been waiting for. It sets out to explain both the scale of early Arabic science and its wider contribution to later scientific developments in the west.
Nobody is better qualified to write it than Jim Al-Khalili, a distinguished theoretical physicist who was born and educated in Baghdad until Saddam’s regime forced his family into exile in the UK, where he now lives and works. The question is, does the book deliver?
Over the last 20 years, various scholars have started to question the traditional history of science, regarded as predominantly European, emerging from the medieval Dark Ages. Not only is the chronology wrong according to Al-Khalili, but so is its exclusion of contributions made by Arab and Persian scientists between the ninth and eleventh centuries.
Instead, he argues that the birth of the modern scientific method originated in ninth and tenth-century Iraq. It is a big claim to make convincingly over 250 pages.
To support his argument, Al-Khalili enlists a colourful cast of characters, men with names and reputations transmitted to the west in a variety of garbled forms. Al-Khwarizmi’s development of algebra, Al-Razi’s clinical control trials in the field of medicine, Ibn Al-Haytham’s physics of refraction, Al-Biruni’s insights into planetary motion and the measurement of the earth, and Ibn Sina’s understanding of just about everything, are all convincingly shown to have made substantial contributions.
Having already covered much of the subject in his excellent BBC Four series Science and Islam, Al-Khalili takes a long time to get into his scientific stride, spending the first chapters rehashing secondary accounts of the rise of Islam and the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun’s patronage of the scientific academy known as the ‘House of Wisdom’ in ninth-century Baghdad.
The shape of the book feels more suited to television: broad historical scene-setting followed by brief biographies of his protagonists, culminating in detailed justification of their place in Islamic science and exclusion from the broader international story of science.
What disappointed me was that Al-Khalili spent so long on the historical setting and concluding polemics, that his undoubted strength as a scientific communicator is often boiled down to no more than a few pages.
When he writes on numbers and the use of zero in algebra, he is fantastic; when he uncritically stitches together secondary accounts to produce an idealised vision of Al-Ma’mun’s patronage, or claims that it produced “a humanist movement the like of which would not be seen again until 15th-century Italy”, he’s just wrong.
The former stretches the general reader and enlightens; the latter confuses and alienates, and shows such a simplistic understanding of humanism that I find it hard to rely
on Al-Khalili as a historical guide.
Much of the book leads up to the question Al-Khalili poses in his penultimate chapter. “So, what went wrong?” he asks, echoing Bernard Lewis’s infamous account of Islam’s supposed hostility towards secular modernity.
Al-Khalili goes on to rehearse some well-established responses – the impact of western colonialism, and the failure to adopt the technology of print – but he has little to suggest as a corrective to the problem other than “serious financial investment” and “the political will to reform”. These are a scientist’s answer, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But as someone who fully endorses Al-Khalili’s general argument about the historical occlusion of Arabic science, I was terribly disappointed with Pathfinders. I couldn’t help wishing he’d spent ten years writing the definitive account, rather than leaving us still needing the book that this one promised, but doesn’t ultimately deliver.
Jerry Brotton is professor of Renaissance studies, Queen Mary, University of London