Sunday, June 24, 2007

History of Science

Wikipedia has a good entry on the history of science. A quick read through demonstrates why Lewis Wolpert's concentration on the Greeks as the progenitors of science is a bit too Eurocentric. Consider the scientists of the Muslim world, whom Wolpert cursorily dismisses as possibly having some contribution to science:

While emphasizing the contribution of Chistian society to science, the contributions of Islam must also be recognized. Islamic scholars also continued the Greek tradition, and it may not be irrelevant that Islam offers a unifying perspective of knowledge and considers the pursuit of knowledge to be a virtue. It could of course, not have been Christianity alone that was responsible for the flowering of science in the West in the sixteeth century. (Wolpert, The Unnatural Nature of Science, p. 51)


Muslim scientists placed far greater emphasis on experiment than had the Greeks. This led to the modern scientific method being developed in the Muslim world, where significant progress in methodology was made, beginning with the experiments of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) on optics from circa 1000, in his Book of Optics.[2] The most important development of the scientific method was the use of experiments to distinguish between competing scientific theories set within a generally empirical orientation, which began among Muslim scientists. Ibn al-Haytham is also regarded as the "father of optics", especially for his empirical proof of the intromission theory of light. Some have also described Ibn al-Haytham as the "first scientist" for his development of the modern scientific method.[22] (Wikipedia)


Wolpert focused solely on the Muslims' continuance of Greek tradition, but it is only the Muslims' break with Greek tradition (in introducing repeatable experiments and a concrete methodology)that made science as we know it possible. In adddition, we must ask, "Where would science be without the Arab inventions of algorithms, algebra, decimal point notation and chemistry?" Considering the role of Muslims in introducing 12th century Europe to modern science and the preserved works of the Greeks as well as their substantial lead in formulating heliocentric models of the universe, we can only assume that (Wolpert's theories aside) Islam's role in the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century was far greater than that of Christianity.

Remember, the heliocentric model of Copernicus gave birth to the Scientific Revolution. Can we assume that he was not influenced by earlier models proposed by Muslim astronomers, whose works were a vital part of Europe's scientific canon? I don't think so.

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