Columbia prof discusses Islamic science
Columbia professor George Saliba discussed the role of pre-modern Islam in advancing the scientific knowledge of the ancient Greeks in a lecture to the Princeton Middle East Society on Sunday evening.
Saliba, who specializes in studying the diffusion of scientific knowledge across cultural boundaries and the role of Islam in the formation of scientific ideas, discussed Arabic modifications to Greek mathematics and astronomy that originated from religious needs but were subsequently used as tools in all aspects of life.
The Islamic obligation to pray in the direction of Mecca several times each day, for example, led to significant developments in astronomical calculations, including a new, more correct measurement of the tilt of the earth's axis and the invention of the law of sines, Saliba said.
It also led Arabic scholars to develop a complex system of tables and charts indicating the precise direction of Mecca from every location in the known world.
Saliba is perhaps best-known outside the academy for his role in the recent controversy surrounding Columbia's Near Eastern studies department. He was featured in a recent documentary, "Columbia Unbecoming," which accused him and other Columbia professors of presenting anti-Israel viewpoints in their classes and blocking the expression of dissenting opinions.
Saliba called the controversy "a silly waste of time," adding that he had put the matter behind him and that the politics of that region is not his main focus.
"What you saw [in the lecture on science] is what I do," he said, and in his lecture, politics generally took a back seat to the history of science.
In discussing the Arabic creation of algebra, Saliba noted that it was originally invented to determine distribution of property under Islam's complicated inheritance traditions. Its use, however, was soon recognized in a multitude of other fields, and the words algebra and algorithm both have their linguistic roots in Arabic.
Moreover, the creation of Arabic numerals significantly improved upon Greek and Roman number systems because it simplified addition and finally allowed for the decimal evaluation of fractions, Saliba said.
The influence of the new system, which eventually became standard in the Western world, is evident in the Western tradition of adding right-to-left (from the ones place, to the tens, to the hundreds).
Arabic scholars also expressed doubts about the theories of Galen, the famous Greek medical scholar, and modern medicine eventually proved them right, Saliba said.
The Princeton Middle East Society (PMES), which sponsored the lecture, is an U.N.-recognized nongovernmental organization founded in 1982 by people in the Princeton area to promote education about the Middle East.
Its founders felt that Americans don't get enough information about the Middle East and that people should be educated so they can influence "foreign policy that they think is a big disaster," Marilyn Jerry, president of PMES, said.
Though no University students attended the lecture, Jerry said that PMES encourages student involvement and that events with political overtones, unlike Saliba's, tend to attract the greatest number of students.
Saliba did make one brief comment about the war in Iraq.
When he described the Muslim takeover of two ancient empires, explaining that they kept bureaucracies intact and slowly introduced standardization to prevent widespread unrest, he added that Paul Bremer and other Iraqi administrators "couldn't figure out how to do something along similar lines."
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