Changing Times

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: US need not lose its edge in science … but if things continue as they have been the last couple decades, it will. This seems quite similar to the talk that Mia McDavid, Rachel Hadley and I heard him give in May

One cultural shift a thousand years ago turned the huge Islamic region of the world from the scientific center of the world to a backwater. From about 800 to 1100 in the Islamic world was “one of the most intellectually fertile periods in the history of the human species,” Tyson said, producing among other things algebra and the Arabic numerals in use globally today.

But a Muslim cleric, Hamid al-Ghazali, undid that with Islamic conclusions that “manipulating numbers is outside of your spiritual responsibilities and that all the events around you are the will of Allah,” Tyson said. The casualties were mathematics and curiosity about how the universe works. If you’re content with an explanation that the world works the way it does because God made it that way “you’ll not be the one who discovers gravity,” he said.

That Islamic legacy persists. There are only about 15 million Jews in the world, but they have received 25 percent of science Nobel prizes. Islamic scientists have won just 3 of the 609 science Nobel prizes so far issued, even though they account for about 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people.

We heard this talk at a synagogue, so those numbers were very well received by the audience.

I had read of al-Ghazali’s influence on Islamic science many years before, in The Ancient Engineers, by the science fiction and fantasy writer L. Sprague deCamp. AKICIF. DeGrasse Tyson did not suggest any names for the modern American counterpart of al-Ghazali. In a phrase well known in the mathematical sciences, that is left as an exercise for the reader.

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