The House of Wisdom, by Jim Al-Khalili

2012 Book 156: The House of Wisdom, by Jim Al-Khalili

Reason for Reading: Science, Religion, and History group read on LibraryThing. 

Review

Many of us were taught that the origins of science were in Ancient Greece but that the Western World fell into the “Dark Ages” where science was lost and no progress was made. This traditional story concludes that the Western world rediscovered the Greek philosophies thus spurring on the Renaissance. A few months ago, I reviewed The Genesis of Science, by James Hannam, which was meant (partly) to dispel our notions of the Middle Ages as a time of darkness, a mire of progress. Hannam then describes how in the early years of the Renaissance, old scientific documents were rediscovered and translated. He only only briefly mentions the fact that those rediscoveries (and the ability to translate them) came from revitalized contact with the Arab world. The House of Wisdom fills that gap, by describing the ways in which the Arab world built upon the science of the Greeks, thus building the foundation for the scientific progress made during the Renaissance. I don’t mean to say that Al-Khalili’s book is only a gap-filler in the other book, but that the two books complement each other. The weaknesses in each are fortified by the strengths in the other. 

The House of Wisdom is an engrossing description of Ancient Arab history of science. Al-Khalili discusses the development of math, optics, medicine, chemistry, and philosophy by sketching descriptions of major scientific figures and their accomplishments. While Hannam’s book tended to have a lot of gossipy digressions about the scholars, Al-Khalili tended to focus on facts that were more to the point. This makes Al-Khalili’s book more informative, but less entertaining, than Hannam’s book. For relief, All-Khalili inserts little passages about his own experiences in Iraq, which were helpful for lightening the mood. One thing I didn’t like about Al-Khalili’s book is that he is still stuck on the old-fashioned belief that the Western Middle Ages were dark and progress-free. And neither book covered the development of science in China or India. 

Overall, if you’re interested in reading about Arabic science, I think this book is an excellent place to start. 🙂

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