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Archive for May 2009

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Chemistry

Modern chemistry may owe more to Islamic science than just about any other area. Its very name of course is derived from al-kemia, the word for alchemy.

Although alchemy was very important, and had come to the Arabs from both India and the Roman Empire, we now understand increasingly how many Arab scientists refuted the belief in transmuting base metals into gold.

Arab breakthroughs in chemistry are plentiful, and were aided by new scientific practice, as we have seen. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the various that were championed under the Abbasids.




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Knock on effect...

Understandings in our environment and the natural world allowed for breakthroughs in agriculture. These included areas such as pollination, pesticides, irrigation, grafting, crop rotation and soil preparation, as well as the classification of plants. Works such as those by the thirteenth century Andalucian botanist al-Baitar, were used in Europe for centuries to come. His masterwork listed 1400 plants (300 discovered by himself). His writings were translated into Latin and kept in print until 1758, and used until the start of the nineteenth century. Breakthroughs in water technology and hydraulics meant that regions which had been barren could be irrigated, and man could control his environment in ways that had never been possible.



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Evolution

Theories of evolution were widespread across the Islamic world by the 12th century. One of the pioneers of this thinking was Al-Jahiz, who was working in ninth century Baghdad. He wrote about the idea of the environment on an animal, and the animal’s chances of survival based on the environment; as well as writing on what he called ‘the struggle for existence’, a forerunner of Darwin’s ‘natural selection’.

Al-Jahiz also described the idea of food chains were first described, and the concept of nature versus nurture.



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Medical Breakthroughs

Medical breakthroughs and developments during this golden age are too extensive to list here. But they included:

1.    The first inoculations against smallpox.

2.    The existence of micro-organisms, especially bacteria, centuries before the invention of the microscope.

3.    Dentistry, and pioneering work on dental fillings (although god help some of the patients, for example, Ibn Sina suggested that arsenic be boiled in oil and used to fill teeth!).

4.    Caesarean sections and pain control.

5.    Antiseptics – from tenth century purified alcohol (an Arab discovery itself) was being applied with lint dressings to wounds.

6.    Cataract surgery, which used the first hollow metallic hypodermic needles and glass suction tubes in about 1000 AD.

7.    Hundreds of steel medical tools, such as scalpels, were pioneered (a result of sword-making breakthroughs, Damascene steel).

8.    The first psychiatric hospital, built in Baghdad in 705 AD.

9.    Music Therapy, including 10th century Persian music theorist al-Farabi, whose book Meanings of the Intellect, discussed the effect of music on the soul.

10.And for the first time specific diseases were isolated and studied, including diabetes, meningitis, and cancer, as well as rabies, smallpox, and forms of plague.



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Medicine

During the Abbasids’ Golden Age, the first true hospitals were created, including free public ones in Baghdad and elsewhere in the region. The main difference from the ‘sleep temples’ and asylums of the Classical era was that these hospitals were designed to treat and heal, rather than merely to isolate the infected and the sick. The idea was something of a revolution within itself, and later spread to Europe, along with pharmacology, taken back West by the Crusaders.

         These hospitals featured competency tests for doctors and surgeons, grading for purity and strength of pharmaceuticals, and separate wards for people with similar contagious diseases, as well as the first real autopsies. Patients from different religions were treated, and the surgical staff were Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. There were female doctors and nurses for the first time as well.

         The rise in cheap paper and literacy meant that everything could be written down and passed to other cities along the pilgrimage routes, for others to master. Great books were amassed from all the new knowledge. These eventually found their way into Europe and were translated into Latin… although only the Latin-speaking elite could understand them. They included pioneering works like the 30-volume medical encyclopaedia, the ‘Kitab al-Tasrif’, (The Book of Concessions), written by al-Zahrawi, and published in the year 1000 AD. It was used for centuries in both East and West.

And Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine (c. 1020 AD), is still regarded as one of the most important medical textbooks of all time. It was used at the University of Montpellier’s medical department as late as 1650 AD, and was even used across until even later China.

         Dozens of Renaissance and later medical breakthroughs had already been accurately described by the Arab polymaths. Blood circulation, for instance, usually credited to the 17th century English physician, had been published by Ibn al-Nafis  in the 13th century.


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Peer Review

Peer Review was first described by al-Rahwi, working in Damascus in the ninth century AD. In his ‘The Ethics of the Physician’, he states that the physician must always make duplicate notes of a patient’s condition on every visit. He said this was important so that when the patient has been discharged or has died, one set of notes can be given to a local medical council, to ascertain whether satisfactory medical care was provided. It was the start of lawsuits for medical malpractice… something that many a legal service may have wish was never invented at all.



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Scientific Method

Scientific Method includes the use of controlled experimentation, and the idea of quantifying results, to distinguish between competing scientific theories. What’s interesting is that this scientific method took off in a big way and was used across the board, and is still used by all scientists today.

         The first ‘modern’ medical experiment is known to have been carried out by al-Razi in the tenth century, when he was working out where to build his hospital in Baghdad. He hung pieces of meat all over the city and observed where the meat decomposed least quickly. It was there that he built the hospital.



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Polymaths

Just like the Classical world before and the so called Renaissance Men after, the golden age of Islam was championed by polymaths, whose works rival those of Aristotle, Da Vinci or Newton.

The Arab polymaths arrived in the Renaissance under their Latinised names. For example,

1.    Ibn Sina was Avicenna

2.    Ibn Bajjah was Avempace

3.    Ibn Hayyan was Geber

4.    Ibn Rushd was Averroes

5.    Al-Kindi was Alkindus

6.    Ibn al-Haytham was Alhazen

They were so important because they used breakthroughs in one area to push forward knowledge and understanding in another. Indeed, ‘Polymathy’ is a method that has almost been lost in the West, and is only now being rediscovered – so called ‘interdisciplinary’ study. (e.g. Stanford University’s new Bio-X Program, which brings together biologists, computer scientists, medical scientists and engineers, who learn from each other’s fields). The scientists and Polymaths from the golden age worked on areas of science which are familiar to us all, and are still being studied in schools and universities today, with the same scientific method.



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Correcting Misconceptions

The Arab polymaths corrected a great deal of Classcial misconceptions, e.g. the Greek idea that light is emitted from the eye. The 10th century physicist al-Haytham (Latinised to Alhazen) correctly stated that light bounces off an object in straight lines before striking the eye. He developed for first camera obscura – which centuries later enabled photography. Alhazen first devised the ‘method of proof’ too, stating that theories had to be verified in practice, a key element from modern science practice, which was missing from the classical world. Abbasid scientists also introduced what we would call peer review and academic citations, unknown before their time.



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