Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Forgotten Origin of Algebra, Alchemy, Alkali and Algorithm

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Forgotten Origin of Algebra, Alchemy, Alkali and Algorithm

Article excerpt



THE House of Wisdom was an academy of sciences founded in 8th-century Baghdad by Caliph al-Mansur to collect, translate, test and extend every scrap of knowledge its scholars could lay their hands on, Greek or Indian, mathematical or technological, astronomical or philosophical.

Al-Mansur loved science. He'd had his new city beside the river Tigris laid out in a perfect geometrical circle, at a time when Western Europe's "cities" were ruined Roman shells, inhabited hermitcrab-like by dirty, illiterate subsistence farmers.

Al-Mansur's successors loved science, too, encouraged by early Islam's assumption that all learning must be compatible with religion -- not that it had to be made to be compatible, but that it was. His grandson Caliph al- Mamun, Jonathan Lyons tells us, had a dream in which the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle appeared at the end of his bed, looking "bald" and "light-skinned", and told him reason and revelation were both good things.

This book is, in effect, the story of how Aristotle turned up at the end of Europe's bed as well. Jonathan Lyons has picked out as his focus the journey begun in 1109 by one Western seeker after knowledge, the scholarly pilgrim Adelard of Bath, who scavenged through the disrupted territories of the Middle East after the Crusades looking for manuscripts. There were other intellectual trade routes, especially the one that ran up from Muslim Spain, but the ideas Adelard transmitted home helped to kick off the phenomenon known as "the 12th century Renaissance", a burst of intellectual activity which laid down a lot of what we think of as distinctively medieval, from the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas to cathedrals with pointy arches. Very quickly the recipients of Arab learning contrived to forget where they'd got it from, leaving only a permanent deposit of Arabic words to show the science had been imported: algebra, alchemy, alkali, alcohol, algorithm. …

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