One Million Seconds in Wigtown, Part 1


Wigtown Book Festival is up and running – hence my usual mea culpa over silence – and I’m spending eleven days here, which works out neatly at nearly one million seconds. It’s one of the best book festivals, with a mixture of the popular and the literary, the weel-kent and the utterly bizarre (ah, the “Wigtown’s Got Talent” night! What can I say? I have never seen anything like it).

Here’s a selection of things I’ve learned over the million seconds thus far:

According to Andrew Greig, Norman McCaig could be beastly about Edwin Morgan – “Edwin Morgan, poet or ventriloquist? Discuss”, he would drawl.

Allan Massie, were he not a novelist and man of letters, would be an actor.

Janice Galloway has nearly finished her second volume of memoirs – or so she assured her publicist.

Sara Wheeler broke off from her interesting talk on the Arctic to comment on how weird Ed Milliband looks. The audience agreed.

Jim Crace, despite being the sharpest-tongued literary satirist alive, is charm personified. He nearly made the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins dissolve on stage, mostly by quoting John Buchan on “dagoes” a lot.

Robert Twigger has mental powers. The ambiguity is intentional.

Shaun Bythell of the Wigtown Book Shop is like a drug dealer to me. Having supplied me with a complete Stevenson, he shamelessly brought out a complete Galt. I may well be bankrupt by the end of the million seconds. Henceforth, he should be called Shaun “The Man” Bythell.

Ian Rankin doesn’t like serial killers. To be fair, not many people are all that keen on them. He met the Pope and told me about the photograph which is at the end of this post, after this week’s review, which coincidentally also mentions the Pope.

THERE can’t be many points of agreement between Pope Benedict XVI and Robert Kilroy-Silk, but both have subscribed to the view that the European Renaissance was a rediscovery of “our” classical past, and that Islam played a very minor role in that: a t best it is seen as a kind of theological aspic that preserved Aristotle and Euclid during the Dark Ages.

Jim Al-Khalili’s spry, informative and timely study should do much to redress that misconception. As he shows, the scientific revolution of the 14th century onwards had its roots in Baghdad and Cordoba. It was not “Graeco-Roman” but “Graeco-Roman-Arabic”.

Al-Khalili takes the reader through a brisk survey of the highlights of the period, especially the scholars associated with the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun’s “House of Wisdom”. In rapid succession we meet the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, the philosopher al-Kindi, the polymath al-Biruni, the physicist Ibn al-Haytham (who feigned madness to get peace and quiet to write) and figures better known by their Latinised names; Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). The list of their achievements ought to be general knowledge, and often overturns a “Eurocentric” notion of who discovered what and when. So Ibn al-Haytham was calculating the refraction of light 600 years before Newton; from al-Khwarizmi’s book al-Jebr (or The Compendium On Calculation By Restoration And Balancing) we get algebra; and from the medical writer al-Razi we get the first accounts of clinical trials.

Al-Khalili is careful to the point of pedantry not to make grandiose claims. As a scientist (and secular Iraqi) he is well aware that discoveries are, in the words of Newton, pygmies on the shoulders of giants. He does, however, make a very acute case for the idea that the scientific advances attributed to these figures is less important that the scientific method they adopted. They relied on observation and experimentation and, when their results differed from what they read in Aristotle or Ptolemy or Galen, they went with the results not the doctrine. There was a spirit of open-mindedness and rationalism, called Mu’tazilism, which predated the Enlightenment by a millennium.

Why did the Arabic scientific revolution falter? Al-Khalili claims that suspicion of printing impeded progress (the printed Korans sent by the Venetians to the Ottomans were so full of errors that they seemed almost blasphemous). That the Golden Age waned is no reason to discount the achievements of these scholars. Indeed, another book on the humanities rather than the sciences would be most welcome.



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2 responses to “One Million Seconds in Wigtown, Part 1

  1. ‘As he shows, the scientific revolution of the 14th century onwards had its roots in Baghdad and Cordoba. It was not “Graeco-Roman” but “Graeco-Roman-Arabic”.’

    A rather ‘inconvenient truth’ also covered in J Lyons’ The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation.

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