Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rag-Heads, Camel Jockeys & Modern Science

The perception of Arabs and other Middle Easterners in the West has hardly ever engendered a strong, positive view in the nations of the modern Western world. Arabs have often been accorded second class status even within the ranks of Middle Easterners, labeled as rootless, ignorant and isolated nomads on the edges of some of the earliest and most powerful organized societies in early history. Long before the birth of Christianity, even the rise of the Roman Empire, and most certainly even longer before the establishment of Islam, the areas around modern Iran and Iraq gave rise to some of the most sophisticated and organized civilizations the world had even seen.
Beyond our visions of ancient Egypt and Carthage, these early civilizations, in Assyria, Babylon, Mesopotamia, etc., etc. had cities with massive buildings, aqueducts transporting water across these urban areas. Science, mathematics, art and the establishment of a written language flourished. This is the ancient region that centered on the great rivers, the Tigress and Euphrates, and expanded from there. It was where the powerful Persian Empire took root. Cyrus the Great ruled and expanded the Empire from 559 to 530 B.C. after defeating unpopular regional monarchs.
Cyrus is a politician as well as a conqueror. He presents himself as liberator of Babylon, releasing the people from the yoke of an unpopular king, and he is received as such. He makes a point of respecting the Babylonian religion. He allows the Jews to return from their Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem, and encourages the rebuilding of their Temple.”
From 522 to 546, Persia’s Darius I moved his conquests into Macedonia and Northern India. The system of government divided the nation in to satraps, provinces each with their own governors and a local governance structure tailored to individual regional needs and practices. These were ultra-modern people for the time, when the Western world was ruled by barbaric tribes and scattered villages. Rome found little in the way of resistance (until their fall in 476 A.D.) from these primitive Westerners as they marched northwards.
But the levels of achievement of these ancient peoples are staggering given the world in which they lived. One most recent analysis of clay tablets from an era between 350 and 50 B.C. explains just how advanced these ancient societies really were. 1400 years before Westerns tackled the same issues, these ancient Babylonians created a mathematical system that could be used to track the motion of heavenly bodies. Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin, is an astrophysicist who became an expert in the history of ancient science who deciphered these writings. Recently, looking at these clay tablets, Ossendrijver realized what they said.
“The astronomers of Babylonia, scratching tiny marks in soft clay, used surprisingly sophisticated geometry to calculate the orbit of what they called the White Star — the planet Jupiter…  Officially named BM 40054 by the [British Museum in London], and dubbed Text A by Ossendrijver, the little tablet had markings that served as a kind of abbreviation of a longer calculation that looked familiar to him. By comparing Text A to the four previously mysterious tablets, he was able to decode what was going on: This was all about Jupiter. The five tablets computed the predictable motion of Jupiter relative to the other planets and the distant stars.” Washington Post, January 28th.
Indeed, triumphs in medicine, geography and mathematics emanated in the Middle East from these ancient societies. Maps were increasingly accurate. Anatomy was codified. Math? Ever try adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing using Roman Numerals? Yeah, it just doesn’t work. Mathematicians in the second century B.C. in ancient Persia began exploring new ways to use numbers. It was complicated. When the concept of “zero” emanated from somewhere in Northern India circa 500 A.D., scholars began the move to a modern decimal system using what we today call “Arabic Numerals.” “Between the years 825 and 830, Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi and Arab mathematician Al-Kindi each wrote separate books on the principles of using Arabic numerals.” These scholars quickly found new values for these constructs as noted below.
The ancient Arabs were also famous for keeping and cataloging books from all over the world, with scholars pouring over those writings to understand history and literature. The famed Library of Alexandria (Egypt) was one such repository, but its knowledge threatened ancient leaders such that by 270 A.D. (picture Julius Caesar with a match), it was burned to the ground. But the notion of Arabic scholars preserving ancient texts, including our Greco-Roman philosophical and literary writings that barbarians were burning in the name of Christ during the Middle Ages, is a gift which would have been lost had the Westerners been in charge.
Even after the Muslim conquests in the seventh century, science, medicine, geography and mathematics progressed rapidly. Remember your algebra classes in high school. Seemed really complicated at the time. But who moved mathematics into this new, higher plane of analysis? First, even the word “algebra” is an Arabic word (from Al-Jabr). The system of balancing equations we call algebra “comes from the treatise written in 830 AD/CE by the medieval Persian mathematician, Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, entitled, in Arabic Kitāb al-muḫtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa-l-muqābala, which can be translated as The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. The treatise provided for the systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations.” Wikipedia. It wasn’t until the 16thcentury that the West really began embracing this new mathematical system with any vigor.
We could call-up Steve Jobs’ Syrian ethnicity as further evidence of this pattern of mathematical achievement, but the reality is that we forget or simply do not even know of this significant set of seminal achievements. So as the Western world looks down on these darker-skinned peoples from the very cradle of civilization, the birthplace of Christianity itself, we need to know that the essence of our entire modern technological world could not exist without the contributions of these “rag-heads and camel jockeys,” and that in fact our entire understanding of ancient literature and philosophy is based on the books they preserved.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I think that a lack “respect” for cultures seemingly so different from our own often blinds us to the achievements that have allowed our own triumphs to have happened.

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