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The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science…

The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave… (2010)

by Jim Al-Khalili

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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322853,454 (3.56)1 / 38
"A myth-shattering view of the medieval Islamic world's myriad scientific innovations, which preceded-and enabled-the European Renaissance. The Arabic legacy of science and philosophy has long been hidden from the West. British-Iraqi physicist Jim Al-Khalili unveils that legacy to fascinating effect by returning to its roots in the hubs of Arab innovation that would advance science and jump-start the European Renaissance. Inspired by the Koranic injunction to study closely all of God's works, rulers throughout the Islamic world funded armies of scholars who gathered and translated Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek texts. From the ninth through the fourteenth centuries, these scholars built upon those foundations a scientific revolution that bridged the one-thousand-year gap between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance. Many of the innovations that we think of as hallmarks of Western science were actually the result of Arab ingenuity: Astronomers laid the foundations for the heliocentric model of the solar system long before Copernicus; physicians accurately described blood circulation and the inner workings of the eye ages before Europeans solved those mysteries; physicists made discoveries that laid the foundation for Newton's theories of optics. But the most significant legacy of Middle Eastern science was its evidence-based approach-the lack of which kept Europeans in the dark throughout the Dark Ages. The father of this experimental approach to science-what we call the scientific method-was an Iraqi physicist who applied it centuries before Europeans first dabbled in it. Al-Khalili details not only how discoveries like these were made, but also how they changed European minds and how they were ultimately obscured by later Western versions of the same principles. With transporting detail, Al-Khalili places the reader in the intellectual and cultural hothouses of the Arab Enlightenment: the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, one of the world's greatest academies, the holy city of Isfahan, the melting pots of Damascus and Cairo, and the embattled Islamic outposts of Spain. Al-Khalili tackles two tantalizing questions: Why did the Arab world enter its own Dark Age after such a dazzling enlightenment? And how much did Arabic learning contribute to making the Western world as we know it? Given his singular combination of expertise in both the Western and Middle Eastern scientific traditions, Al-Khalili is uniquely qualified to solve those riddles"--Provided by publisher.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
For a layman's book, it's a little heavy on its various subjects. There's a serious emphasis on history early on (which is necessary to put everything into context, but still a lot of information relatively quickly), and then various spots where the math gets very in-depth.

Overall, though, an excellent read. I learned a bunch of stuff, and I have a better, more rounded view of both the middle ages and the history of scientific discoveries. ( )
  whatsmacksaid | Sep 21, 2018 |
We tend almost always to be too generous to those who made the most recent steps in a scientific discipline, who inevitably reap the rewards of all antecedent discoveries, while not giving enough credit to those who made the first, and least profitable steps, even though those are often the most important ones.

Jim Al-Khalili tells the story of science in the Arabic world of the Middle Ages, an era too late to get the credit for the earliest foundations of science and too early to get the credit for the latest dazzling discoveries. Scientists in the Arab/Islamic world translated Greek scientific writing and added their own discoveries. European scientists continued to build on this body of knowledge and discovery in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, sometimes translating the Arabic translations of the Greek works into Latin and European languages rather than translating directly from the Greek. In some cases, copies of the original Greek works have not survived, and the earliest known copies of these works are their Arabic translations.

Al-Khalili has a talent for writing about science for educated lay readers. Many of the advances made in Arabic science in the middle ages were concentrated in advanced mathematics and geometry. In fact, the word “algebra” and other terms have Arabic roots. Although my algebra, trigonometry, and geometry knowledge is very rusty, I was able to follow Al-Khalili's explanations with the aid of the diagrams provided. Before I read this book, I'm not sure I could have named a single scientist who was active in the Middle Ages. Recommended for readers who, like me, need to fill in a gap in their education. ( )
  cbl_tn | Jun 28, 2013 |
In the overall survey view of history and science that many of us get in school, not much happens as far as scientific advancement between the Greek philosophers and the Renaissance. In this book, Jim Al-Khalili makes the case for the forgotten scientists of the Arabic-speaking world, including both Arabs and Persians, Muslims and Christians.

This book, too, is necessarily a survey and covers a few centuries and places. If you're not a names and dates person, it might be difficult to take in the sheer number of names and keep them all straight. But it's an informative look at a culture who began with translating Greek works into Arabic and then went on to make scientific progress in a wide range of subjects, from algebra to astronomy. I found the presentation dry and sometimes technical (the math was hard to me to follow - my fault, not the book's), but the book is intended for a general rather than academic audience, as the author often inserts his opinions and personal anecdotes into the narrative. He sometimes overstates his case for these little-known scientists, introducing them in such a way that made me think they made a huge discovery, only to find that the actual advancement was a much smaller - but necessary - step on the way to the larger one. The facts could have stood better on their own without such buildup. Still, it's a useful introduction to the topic, and worth checking out if you're interested. ( )
1 vote bell7 | Apr 7, 2013 |
This was not the book that I thought it was. Less math and science more history. ( )
  wagon333 | Dec 17, 2012 |
An interesting book which rests on the authors special position an english trained physics professor who went to school in Iraq. Al-Khalili states the case for arabic science in the 8th-14th centuries (CE) by biographical sketches of the scholars involved. The term arabic rather than islamic is used since many of the leading scholars were not muslims, but wrote in arabic. The book relies mostly on secondary sources and is aimed at a popular rather than academic market.

The main problem I have with this book is that it tends to become a list of scholars, indeed by the end this is exactly what it becomes -with an alphabetical appendix of short biographies. Also the biographies tend to become a list of 'ologies as the interests of the scholars are listed, astronomy, astrology, geography, mathematics etc. There is not enough details about what they actually did.

However, the book is welcome for bringing to greater notice the great figures of arabic science. It also reads very well. It certainly will encourage me to find out more about these great scholars of the past. ( )
  MarkHurn | Nov 17, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
By all means, if you are curious about Arab, Persian, and Muslim history during the European dark ages there could be no better introduction than this.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jim Al-Khaliliprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cohen, RonaldTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.

Nathaniel Schmidt, Ibn Khaldun
To Julie
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An hour's drive south of Baghdad lies the town of Hindiyya. - Preface
The Bab al-Sharji district in the centre of Baghdad derives its name, which means East Gate, from the medieval fortifications of the city. - Chapter 1
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