In Likkutei Dibburim, a collection of stories and memoirs by the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, the author describes his father, Rebbe Rashab, playing lapta in Yalta, Crimea.


Apparently pub trivia has become a source of great amusement in this age where factoids have replaced knowledge and it is more important to remember who is credited with having said what than it is to understand what was said, in what context it was said and what its meaning is – in that context as well as in a current application. We contrarians hold that it is far more important to know how to apply the Pythagorean Theorem than it is to know that Pythagoras was probably not its author. If you are a major league manager it is better to know how to apply an infield shift than it is to have opinions on baseball vs. cricket or whether the Russians really did invent the game – as they have claimed.

Many historians have labeled the fifth through twelfth centuries an age of faith and would dismiss the thirteenth through eighteenth as the revival of paganism rather than reformation, renascence and enlightenment as the popular historians might have them. While this account of science in the middle east is interesting the suppositions about its influence on the west are somewhat like the Russian claim to have invented baseball – whatever their merits may be it doesn’t change the fact that it is America’s pastime and that however much like Russian Stengelize may sound he, and Yogi, were uniquely American.

The house of wisdom : how Arabic science saved ancient knowledge and gave us the Renaissance Jim Al-Khalili New York : Penguin Press, 2011 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xxix, 302 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. (some col.), maps ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

A mythic view of the medieval middle eastern world’s scientific innovations, which preceded the European Renaissance. This legacy of science and philosophy has long been hidden from the West. British born Iraqi claimant – physicist Jim Al-Khalili unveils that legacy to fascinating effect by returning to its roots in the middle east that would advance science and jump-start the European Renaissance.

Attributing all of this to 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 he ignores the facts of the centuries of learning that preceded Islam. 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.

Claiming 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. 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? That he fails to answer either satisfactorily is the result of the failure of his central premise coupled with the multiple failures to set his facts in their proper contexts. While the book does offer a somewhat skewed view of science in the middle east it fails to show how the area was a bridge from east to west, the importance of the contributions of the east or how it was the influence of Islam that largely destroyed that bridge from the 7th through the 19th centuries.

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