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The Third Dimension

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Bianca
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« on: May 29, 2009, 09:16:24 am »


               






Dr. Fuat Sezgin, 82, is framed by the rings of an armillary sphere in his Institute for the History of Arab–Islamic Science in Frankfurt.

He established the institute in the late 1970’s after winning Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal Prize for science.

The institute is located in a villa in a quiet neighborhood in Frankfurt. It houses the most comprehensive collection of texts on the history of Arabic–Islamic science in the world,
and contains more than 800 replicas of scientific and engineering innovations.


                                         
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« Reply #1 on: May 29, 2009, 09:18:12 am »

                 








Like a kid in a toy store, Fuat Sezgin, still spry at 82, can barely suppress his enthusiasm as he shows off
the 800 exhibits that fill the museum of Arabic–Islamic science he’s built up in Frankfurt over more than two decades. This little-known treasure house of astrolabes, water-lifting machines, automatons, globes, maps, clocks, balances, weapons, surgical tools and astronomical and architectural models is unequalled in the world.

“Wonderful, wonderful!” the exuberant Turkish-born science historian says with a chuckle as I activate a 2.3-meter-tall (7'6") clepsydra, or water clock, a brightly colored Rube Goldberg contraption that tells time. Every half-hour, enough water fills a floating basin inside the stomach of a wooden elephant to cause the basin to sink, pulling strings that release a ball that rolls out of a latticework tower into the mouth of one of a pair of joined serpents. Under the weight of the ball, the heads of the serpents fall, raising their tails; this simultaneously starts a scribe writing and triggers a figure in the tower to lift its left hand on the half hour, its right hand on the hour. Strings attached to the rising tails also raise the basin back to the floating position to start the process over again as a drummer seated atop the elephant’s head smartly taps out two beats and
the ball clatters into a barrel.

Ta-da! Who said science couldn’t be silly?
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« Reply #2 on: May 29, 2009, 09:20:38 am »



                                     






The water clock model at the institute (below) tells the time, and fascinates anyone watching, with a series
of intricate, hydraulically driven movements. It mirrors the Elephant Clock from al-Jazari’s Book of Knowledge
of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (above), written in the early 13th century.
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« Reply #3 on: May 29, 2009, 09:24:37 am »










Part Ali Baba’s cave, part science fair, the museum occupies two floors of a stately, three-story villa on the grounds of Johann Wolfgang Goethe University. It contains very sophisticated toys indeed, modern reproductions of ancient instruments. Some were fashioned by Mahmut Inci, a Turkish-born designer who makes prototype scale models for Mercedes Germany. Swiss clockmaker Martin Brunold fabricated a number of the astrolabes, and Ayman Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, an instrument-maker in Cairo, created others, employing traditional techniques that eschew chemical solvents and electrical tools.

The collection gives science a three-dimensional reality, making it immensely easier to visualize complex concepts that are well-nigh unfathomable on the printed page. Studying an elaborate model of a waterwheel powering a six-piston pump, a device invented by the 16th-century Arab engineer Taqi al-Din, I finally understand the design, which had left me mystified when I originally read about it.
 
“Now I get it,” I blurt out to Sezgin in a “Eureka!” moment. Beaming, the white-haired professor gives me a knowing nod and moves on briskly to an ingenious steam-powered turnspit for roasting meat, also invented by the prolific engineer.“A hundred years after Taqi al-Din created this simple steam engine, Italian designers put wheels on it to fabricate a rolling chair that they presented to Kangxi, the 17th-century Chinese emperor,” Sezgin explains.

The Indiana Jones of Islamic manuscripts, a tireless bibliographer who has tracked down more than 400,000 texts from Oxford to Oman and Kashmir in half a century of passionate research, Sezgin has made the propagation of Muslim science a lifelong crusade. When he became the first recipient of Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal Prize for science in 1978, he persuaded Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, the amir of Kuwait, to purchase the villa that now houses the museum and the Institute for the History of Arabic–Islamic Science, which Sezgin created at the Frankfurt university. He also donated his entire prize—200,000 marks (around $97,000 at the time, approximately $290,000 today)—to the institute and persuaded government ministers from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco to help finance its operation.
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« Reply #4 on: May 29, 2009, 09:25:53 am »










Sezgin’s original notion for the museum grew out of a determination to make it easier to comprehend hard-to-picture text descriptions of scientific instruments. The first exhibit was a model of al-Jazari’s animal-powered machine that used waterwheels, gears and pumps to raise water. The idea was a hit: From the 20 exhibits he had initially imagined, the museum has mushroomed to display some 800 pieces for select groups of students, scholars, scientists and diplomats— a total of around 4000 visitors a year. For most guests, the breadth of the collection comes as a dazzling surprise.

“Muslims themselves do not really know the extent of their own contribution to European science and the Renaissance,” laments Sezgin, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling books in his light-filled office. “What little they do know about the subject they owe to the work of European Orientalists who started researching Islamic science in the 19th century.” (See “Lines of Transmission”).

Sezgin has certainly made a valiant effort to spread the word—many words, in fact. His institute publishes a huge booklist comprising around 1300 academic treatises and monographs written in German, English, French and Arabic on a wide range of subjects, including geography, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and physics. Sezgin himself is the author of the encyclopedic 12-volume series Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums (History of Arabic Literature), which covers many manuscripts on Muslim science. At a ceremony in Tehran in February 2006, he won the Iranian World Prize for Book of the Year for the French version of his five-volume work Science et Technique en Islam, which provides a beautifully illustrated catalogue of all the objects in the institute’s museum. (German and French versions are available under the heading “Natural Sciences of Islam” at www.uni-frankfurt.de/fb13/igaiw. English, Turkish, Arabic and Persian translations are in various stages of preparation.)

“When the Iranian president asked me for his own personal copy, I gave him one,” the professor explains, “but I made sure to emphasize the debt Islamic science owed to the French and German Orientalists.”
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« Reply #5 on: May 29, 2009, 09:27:20 am »










Everywhere he travels in the Muslim world, Sezgin finds an overwhelming curiosity about the achievements of medieval Arab and Muslim scholars. After a series of lectures in Istanbul, he received some 200 letters from people thanking him for opening their eyes to Islamic science. In Cairo, local newspapers report on his lectures because there is so little knowledge about the subject. “To the Egyptians, ancient Muslim science is almost breaking news,” he says.

Tucked away in a quiet, leafy neighborhood about a 1.5 kilometers (1 mi) from downtown Frankfurt, the institute is a world away from the high-powered financial centers that the city is famous for. Inside, there is a rarefied aura of scholastic tradition, a feeling that here an essential chapter of global civilization is being preserved and passed on. Lining the stairwell are engraved portraits and vintage photographs of such revered Orientalists as Carl Brockelmann and Eilhard Wiedemann, music specialist Henry George Farmer and, crucially for Sezgin, Hellmut Ritter, his life-changing mentor at Istanbul University.
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« Reply #6 on: May 29, 2009, 09:28:37 am »




             

              Galleries at the Institute for the History of Arab–Islamic Science are packed
              with reproductions of astronomical and navigational instruments.








Upstairs in his office, the professor recollects how Ritter, one of the world’s leading Orientalists and a famously demanding teacher who insisted that students learn a new language every year, took the 19-year-old aspiring engineer aside one day and recommended that he broaden his background in mathematics and physics by reading the works of al-Khwarizmi, Ibn Yunus, al-Biruni and al-Haitham.

“I had never heard of them,” Sezgin recalls with a laugh. “But I stayed up all night poring over their books, ones Ritter had lent me, and the next day he took me to Topkapı Saray library to show me al-Jazari’s Kitab fi ma‘rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices). I decided right then and there that [the history of Muslim science] was the research I wanted to dedicate my life to.”

In 1960, Turkish generals overthrew the ruling Democratic Party. Even though Sezgin had been very little involved in politics, he was among 147 academics dismissed from Istanbul University in the wake of the coup. Disgusted by the new regime, the 36-year-old professor left the country voluntarily to take up a position as a visiting lecturer of natural science at the University of Frankfurt.

Shortly before leaving Istanbul, Sezgin remembers telling one of his Turkish colleagues of his ambition to compile a bibliography of all the manuscripts in existence on Islamic science. “Impossible,” sniffed the man. But Sezgin set out to prove him wrong, devoting more than three decades to the search, uncovering manuscripts in England, Europe, Africa, Russia, Turkey, the Middle East and India. Although he has not traveled to the United States, the Frankfurt scholar has drawn on catalogues from American libraries and private collections for manuscript listings.
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« Reply #7 on: May 29, 2009, 09:29:57 am »




               




Top:

Through a feat of engineering, 12 oil lamps burn in succession to create an elegant “fire clock.”




                                                 




Above:

The model of the camera obscura on display at the institute is based on an explanation by its 11th-century inventor, Ibn al-Haitham. The device was an early progenitor of modern photography devices.
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« Reply #8 on: May 29, 2009, 09:32:08 am »










After locating more than 400,000 texts, if Sezgin hasn’t found all the medieval Muslim scientific writings extant, he probably hasn’t missed too many. In his opinion, the most important manuscript he discovered was a copy of a landmark map drawn up for the ninth-century caliph al-Ma’mun. He stumbled across it in 1984, in a 1340 encyclopedia at Istanbul’s Topkapı Library as he was making a facsimile of the book.

“Ma’mun’s map was a giant step forward,” Sezgin explains. “It gives the first really accurate representations of longitude and the circumference of the Earth.” For example, where Ptolemy estimated the distance from the Canary Islands—then regarded as the westernmost point of the world—to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean as 63 degrees of longitude, al-Ma’mun’s cartographers calculated a substantially smaller figure that is only two or three degrees off the true 50-degree measurement. They also depicted the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as open bodies of water, not land-locked seas as Ptolemy had done.

Back down in the museum, Sezgin shows me a model of al-Ma’mun’s globe, vividly painted in gold and blue with red bands indicating mountain ranges and thin green lines for rivers. Nearby is a copy of Muhammad al-Idrisi’s 12th-century world map, first engraved for Roger ii, the Norman king of Sicily, on a ponderous 135-kilogram (300-pound) silver plate two meters (78") in diameter. Although the later map distorts the known world by squeezing land masses and oceans into seven equal climatic zones, it provides considerably more detail on northern Europe, northern Asia and the islands of what is now Indonesia.
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« Reply #9 on: May 29, 2009, 09:33:41 am »

   



WORLD MAP BY MOROCCAN CARTOGRAPHER AL IDRISI FOR KING ROGER II OF SICILY
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« Reply #10 on: May 29, 2009, 09:35:00 am »









Among the institute’s 25 elegant compasses made of wood and brass, with magnetized iron needles, perhaps the most historically significant is the simple copper ring with Arabic lettering designed by Ahmad ibn Majid, the great Arab navigator. According to Sezgin, Ibn Majid was the first to mount a magnetized needle on a revolving support above the compass face. Earlier, the professor had eagerly hauled out a copy of one of Ibn Majid’s maps, probably similar to one employed on Vasco da Gama’s 1498 voyage from East 

Africa to India, and marveled over its accuracy: It pegged the distance between Africa and Sumatra to within 40 minutes of a single degree of longitude, off by the equivalent of around 74 kilometers (46 mi).

“Eighty percent of the history of cartography until the 18th century dates from the medieval Islamic period,” Sezgin asserts. “Only 20 percent came from the ancient Greeks and from later European sources.” As proof, he lays before me copies of Chinese and Korean maps that use Arab, not European, place names, and a 1669 French map by Nicholas Sanson that also recycles Arabic longitudes and latitudes. Sanson’s map repeats a mistake al-Ma’mun had made about the location of Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, 800 years earlier. Since Muslim cartographers had corrected the error by the 16th century, it is clear that Sanson, working more than a hundred years later, was copying al-Ma’mun’s original map, Sezgin says.

Wandering through the museum provides an eye-opening course in eight centuries of Muslim science and Europe’s liberal appropriation of Islamic discoveries. In one room are 10 instruments that the 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe modeled on instruments from the 13th-century Maragha observatory in northwestern Persia. Among the dozens of gleaming brass astrolabes and equatories—related instruments used to determine celestial longitudes—is one designed on an Arab model by Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th-century English author of The Canterbury Tales, to instruct his son in astronomy.
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« Reply #11 on: May 29, 2009, 09:36:23 am »


             






A replica of the globe commissioned by the ninth-century caliph Ma’mun bears witness to the remarkable accuracy of Muslim cartographers.



Below:

A reproduction of a 14th-century candle clock shows how screws released in rapid succession freed metal balls to chime bells in a rough measurement of equal hours.






                                                                   
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« Reply #12 on: May 29, 2009, 09:37:33 am »









Muslim clocks were some of the most ingenious ever created. One extraordinary reproduction in Sezgin’s museum, modeled after an original timepiece from 13th-century Toledo, has hands that move as mercury shifts from compartment to compartment around a wheel. The steadily moving weight of the mercury rotates the wheel through a complete cycle in 24 hours. In addition to showing the hours and sounding them with bells, the clock face represents an astrolabe that indicates the position of the sun and stars. More than three centuries later, in 1598, Attila Parisio, an unscrupulous Venetian watchmaker, wrote a book claiming that he had invented the device. And in 1656, the Campani brothers presented a similar clock to Pope Alexander vii, no doubt omitting to mention its Muslim origins.

Elsewhere in the museum is a delicately incised 12th-century brass balance with a miniature bowl at one end that drips water with such precise regularity that the counterweight at the other end tracks time in minutes. “This was unheard of in the history of science,” marvels Sezgin. “The Greeks could mark time in 15-minute intervals, but no one before had managed to divide it into minutes.”

Amid cases holding pear-shaped alembic jars and a cylindrical brass tower sprout-ing glass retorts with long curved necks, used to distill rosewater, is a 1.5-meter- tall (5') still with coiled pipe running through cold-water basins. It is a reproduction of a 16th-century German apparatus that was modeled after a design by the 10th-century Andalusian doctor Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (known as Abulcasis in the West).

Anticipating Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine by more than 600 years, the Córdoban polymath Abbas ibn Firnas concocted a rudimentary glider in the ninth century that is represented in the museum with leather straps and cloth wings. Looking more like a contemporary hang-glider than Leonardo da Vinci’s design, whose weight kept him Earth-bound, Ibn Firnas’s glider managed to stay aloft for a few meters, Sezgin assures me, though its 70-year-old designer later died of back injuries suffered during his crash landing.
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« Reply #13 on: May 29, 2009, 09:39:01 am »



               






The Muslim compass used in the Indian Ocean around 1500 (right) had improved on the 32-point compass used in the West at the same time, allowing Muslim sailors to make more precise navigational calculations than their European counterparts.
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« Reply #14 on: May 29, 2009, 09:40:27 am »









Despite his irrepressible energy and inveterate optimism, the professor is far from encouraging about the future of Islamic science. “In Turkey, Egypt, Iran and a few other countries in the Middle East, there are a handful of universities offering courses in the history of Muslim science, but so far, the education is not at a very high level because there is a critical shortage of teachers,” he complains. Germany and the UK have suffered a decline in interest in recent years, although there is a small surge in programs in the US, he notes. On the plus side, Granada’s Science Museum is planning a new wing devoted to the Arab era, and Turkish cultural officials have recently signed a contract with Sezgin to open a new Muslim science museum at the Süleymaniye complex in Istanbul that will draw on the Frankfurt collection.

“So the interest is there, but it’s very difficult work to carry on the history of Islamic science,” he says with a sigh. For starters, competent scholars need to be conversant in Arabic, German, French, English and, ideally, Turkish—like Sezgin. When I point out that this is a very tall order, if you also throw in possession of a modicum of knowledge of astronomy, mathematics and other scientific disciplines, Sezgin nods his head in agreement.

“That’s why our work here in translating the scientific documents is so crucial,” he says. Not to mention the exhibits themselves, which should be viewed by hundreds of thousands rather than a mere 4000 visitors a year. Putting these highly engaging displays on tour could work miracles for educating the public about the depth and ingenuity of the Muslim contribution to science, Sezgin readily agrees, but so far no government, international organization or museum has come forward with a feasible plan—with the possible exception of the Turkish project. If the venerable professor is to have any success in his campaign to carry on the long tradition of Muslim scientific scholarship and research, this illuminating intellectual road show should quickly get on the move.

 





 Paris-based author

Richard Covington

writes about culture, history and science for

Smithsonian,

The International Herald Tribune,

U.S. News & World Report and

the London Sunday Times.



His e-mail is richard peacecovington@gmail.com.

 




This article appeared on pages 17-21 of the May/June 2007 print edition of

Saudi Aramco World.




SEE ALSO


http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200703/rediscovering.arabic.science.htm
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