Michael Faraday Prize Lecture
By Professor Jim Al-Khalili
For many in the West, there were two major periods in the history of science: that of the Greeks over two thousand years ago and, much later, the European Renaissance. For most of the intervening two thousand years, Europe languished in the Dark Ages. But, in a way that never took place with early Christianity, the spread of Islam heralded a remarkable period of scientific advances, particularly during the golden age of the Abbasids of Baghdad between the 8th and 11th centuries AD. Stories of this period tend to be confined to the pages of the Arabian Nights and many Europeans may not know too much of the lives and work of giants such as Avicenna, Alhazen and al-Biruni who most certainly rival Aristotle and Newton for their influence on the development of science. Indeed, for 700 years, the international language of science was Arabic.
This lecture will not only give a snapshot of life in Baghdad's House of Wisdom where so much of the work was carried out but will review some of the incredible advances in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and physics that not only made the European Renaissance possible but in fact brought about the birth of the modern scientific method itself. The lecture will also touch upon what went wrong, what caused the decline and ask why so many Muslims today are themselves ignorant of this wonderful heritage. Al-Khalili, who was himself born in Baghdad, is currently writing a book on the subject as well as making a three-part BBC television series for later in 2008.