Science, certainties and unsung heroes

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Christopher Culpin reviews an encyclopaedia of invention and discovery

Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions and Discoveries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

By Robert E Krebs

Greenwood pound;36.99

This book places the discoveries of Chinese, Indian and Arabic scientists alongside the Europeans. Here, for example, we find Abu Rayhan al-Buruni (973-1048), who used triangulation to measure the Earth's radius and came within 38km of the right answer; Ulugh Beg, a Mongol astronomer who built a 60-foot quadrant in Samarkand in the 1430s to measure the position of stars more accurately; and Sripati (1019-1066), a Hindu mathematician who drew up many of the rules of algebra we use today.

For the period covered by this book, 500-1500ad, it is the Arab contribution to all branches of science and discovery that stands out. As a teacher of the history of medicine, I was not surprised by the sophistication of medieval Arab medical knowledge. But I was ignorant of Arab mathematicians whose discoveries seem to me to have provided at least half the key stage 3 maths course.

In a pre-globalised age, the transmission (or not) of ideas across cultures becomes crucial. Unsung heroes emerge from the pages, such as Roger of Chester, who in the 1150s translated not only the Qur'an but many Arabic chemistry, astronomy and maths texts into Latin.

There are resonances here with how we handle changing ideas in our own time. The author is certain that science is "self-correcting": that is, new and better experiments, observations and deductions lead to refinements and adjustments in our explanations of how the physical world works.

I am not so sure. Galen's books of anatomy and physiology contained more than 200 errors, yet were the basis of medical knowledge for 1500 years.

When Vesalius demonstrated some of these errors, his teacher, Jacobus Sylvius, could only swallow the truth by insisting that human anatomy had changed since Galen's day.

What excuses will our scientific establishment offer, I wonder, when it is time to rip up the physics books?

Christopher Culpin is director of the Schools History Project

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