A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter II
Medieval science among the Arabians
The successors of Mohammed showed themselves curiously receptive of the ideas of the western people whom they conquered. They came in contact with the Greeks in western Asia and in Egypt, and, as has been said, became their virtual successors in carrying forward the torch of learning. It must not be inferred, however, that the Arabian scholars, as a class, were comparable to their predecessors in creative genius. On the contrary, they retained much of the conservative oriental spirit. They were under the spell of tradition, and, in the main, what they accepted from the Greeks they regarded as almost final in its teaching. There were, however, a few notable exceptions among their men of science, and to these must be ascribed several discoveries of some importance.

The chief subjects that excited the interest and exercised the ingenuity of the Arabian scholars were astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. The practical phases of all these subjects were given particular attention. Thus it is well known that our so-called Arabian numerals date from this period. The revolutionary effect of these characters, as applied to practical mathematics, can hardly be overestimated; but it is generally considered, and in fact was admitted by the Arabs themselves, that these numerals were really borrowed from the Hindoos, with whom the Arabs came in contact on the east. Certain of the Hindoo alphabets, notably that of the Battaks of Sumatra, give us clews to the originals of the numerals. It does not seem certain, however, that the Hindoos employed these characters according to the decimal system, which is the prime element of their importance. Knowledge is not forthcoming as to just when or by whom such application was made. If this was an Arabic innovation, it was perhaps the most important one with which that nation is to be credited. Another mathematical improvement was the introduction into trigonometry of the sine - the half-chord of the double arc - instead of the chord of the arc itself which the Greek astronomers had employed. This improvement was due to the famous Albategnius, whose work in other fields we shall examine in a moment.

Another evidence of practicality was shown in the Arabian method of attempting to advance upon Eratosthenes' measurement of the earth. Instead of trusting to the measurement of angles, the Arabs decided to measure directly a degree of the earth's surface - or rather two degrees. Selecting a level plain in Mesopotamia for the experiment, one party of the surveyors progressed northward, another party southward, from a given point to the distance of one degree of arc, as determined by astronomical observations. The result found was fifty-six miles for the northern degree, and fifty-six and two-third miles for the southern. Unfortunately, we do not know the precise length of the mile in question, and therefore cannot be assured as to the accuracy of the measurement. It is interesting to note, however, that the two degrees were found of unequal lengths, suggesting that the earth is not a perfect sphere - a suggestion the validity of which was not to be put to the test of conclusive measurements until about the close of the eighteenth century. The Arab measurement was made in the time of Caliph Abdallah al-Mamun, the son of the famous Harun-al-Rashid. Both father and son were famous for their interest in science. Harun-al-Rashid was, it will be recalled, the friend of Charlemagne. It is said that he sent that ruler, as a token of friendship, a marvellous clock which let fall a metal ball to mark the hours. This mechanism, which is alleged to have excited great wonder in the West, furnishes yet another instance of Arabian practicality.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.