Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Khayyam, Galileo, fundies and the finger salute

The present issue of Nature had a pithy editorial on the state of science in Iran and starts off with a nice historical story:
…… “In eleventh-century Persia, it is said that three school friends pledged to serve their country and share their fortunes. Very different fortunes, it turned out.
Nizam al-Mulk became prime minister to two consecutive Persian kings. …..and established the chain of 'Nizamiyya' schools, which taught theology, science and mathematics, adhering to a national curriculum…………………….

Hassan-i Sabbah became the head of a fanatical religious group, the Hashshashin, which operated an almost independent government, protected by a string of castles………

Omar Khayyam became the greatest astronomer and mathematician of his age. He invented, for example, the Khayyam triangle — better known as the Pascal triangle, after Blaise Pascal who described it hundreds of years later. Khayyam also provided his country with a solar calendar…….”

A rather typical but nice early example of typical conflict of politics, religion and science. As is usually the case, politics and religion slugged it out (and overlapped space) while the scientist was squeezed.

But this story is a good one. Nizam al-Mulk was a rather decent chap, and when he became prime minister, his two old pals came to him. Hassan-I-Sabbah was given a nice, cushy government post, got too ambitious, was dismissed, and then used religion to gain incredible power. His band of men (army, more likely) makes Osama pale in comparison, and his troops, high on Cannabis indica, better known as hashish or hash, went about their job of getting rid of the who’s who of the middle east, giving English a new word (assassin; from hashshashin). Khayyam though went up to Mulk, and all he asked for was a quiet place to study. The delighted prime minister packed Khayyam off with a small pension, and a little estate.

And there Khayyam produced some rather nice verse (in the form of the the Rubaiyat), but that was perhaps the least important of his contributions, since it was typical of a lot of excellent Farsi verse that was written between the borders of Turkey and Mughal India for 500 years or so. More importantly he went about answering some rather fundamental questions in mathematics and astronomy. Like a lot of mathematician astronomers, he tried to answer one of two questions (the other being the value of pi). He calculated the length of a year to be 365.24219858156 days (the Gregorian calendar estimate is 365.242190 days, and is less accurate). He went on to solve the cubic equation (ax3 + bx2 + cx + d = 0) by intersecting a parabola with a circle, and said that this couldn’t be solved by a rule and compass method, but needed conic sections. He did plenty of other interesting stuff, like contributing to non-Euclidean geometry, demonstrated the existence of equations with two solutions, and similar fun stuff [link]. But, like too many other scientists, he was skeptical and resistant to religious (in this case Islamic) dogma, particularly in divine intervention in daily life, as well as not believing in judgment day. That of course got him in to trouble, and he had to undertake the hajj to prove his faith.

And thus he joined a long list of scientists who got in to trouble with religious authorities.

While reading about Khayyam, I was reminded off the great Galileo Galilei, perhaps the first western scientist to quantitatively and mathematically analyze all data, and not relying solely on logic. He happily improved telescopes, discovered satellites of Jupiter, helped throw out the geocentric model of the earth as the center of the universe, studied sun spots, observed lunar craters, dropped spheres from the leaning tower of Pisa to show that the descent of an object was independent of mass, and determined laws of acceleration (to name just a few observations). And he got himself in to plenty of trouble with the Church, for not taking every word in the bible literally. His heliocentric model resulted in troubling the religious fundies so much that he died finally under house arrest.

But I discovered that he did indeed have the last laugh. Tourists throng to Florence, and most spend their time staring at splendid art at the Uffizzi or running to the Accadamia to see the statue of David. But hidden close to the Uffizzi is a splendid museum of the History of Science. This superb museum has a fantastic collection of medieval scientific instruments (including navigational tools the Arabs used), maps and early electronic devices (including those used by another Tuscan, Volta!). It also pays tribute to two of Florence’s greatest sons, Galileo and Da Vinci, and has a superb collection of many of Galileo’s original telescopes and instruments.

And there I saw, in a little brass capped glass bottle, mounted on a little pedestal, Galileo’s ultimate snub to the fundies who got him. On that pedestal was mounted a preserved finger of Galileo.

Galileo remains immortal to this day, giving the great one finger salute to all those forgotten fundies who tormented him, as the earth continues to orbit the sun.

To quote Khayyam on the finger,
“The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Now fundies, watch my finger wag.


apu said...

Very interesting indeed. In school, I dont remember reading much about non-Western scientists and mathematicians (except for a couple of lines about Aryabhatta, and that more as a concession to Indian nationalism).

Its interesting to know that the conflict between scientific discoveries and long-held religious beliefs is something that stretched across different cultures.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Science always has the last word, doesn't it? Just that it takes an incredibly long time sometimes..

Sunil said...

heh....Amrit....I've always thought Khayyam's contribution to science was more valuable than his contribution to literature, but that's always relative though. But putting it this way.....any one who's finished 12th grade has encountered conic sections, most of us haven't read a line of the Rubayyat.

Apu.....that's a pity though. You might want to visit this website, which lists ALL great mathematicians.......including many Indian ones. There were some really good studies, the discovery of the pythogoras theorem independent of (and actually before) Pythogoras by Bahudayana, for example. Indian mathematics was also very closely mixed with religion, so sometimes its hard to separate the fact from the belief :-). But there's a lot of that out there. And the conflict between religion and science is inevitable, given the nature of science, and of constant questioning, and of faith and absolute belief.

thanks, Sue. I'm not sure if science does have the last word though, even though I think i'm an optimist. Sometimes people are too caught up in their own beliefs and are so beyond openness.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the fascinating piece Sunil! Right opposite the University of Central Florida in Orlando is a by-lane called Khayyam Avenue, and I have always wondered about what the Indian composer did to make such an impact in Orlando, that the street got his name.

I think I have my answer now, I will die content. :-)

Sunil said...

heh....Mangesh, that's a good one. Live content :-)

Interesting though that there'll be a street in Florida named after Khayyam......who'd have thought?

Anonymous said...

Any relation to Victor Kyam?
He liked Occam's razor so much, he bought the company.

Anonymous said...

>>>.....any one who's finished 12th grade >>>>has encountered conic sections, most >>>of us haven't read a line of the >>>Rubayyat.

Hmmm not in Tamil Nadu State Board Syllabus. I have read tamil translations of the rubbayat in atleast two different grades...

Anonymous said...

To have worked out the length of a year to 11 decimal places must have required some high-precision equipment, which implies either that Khayyam was also an excellent craftsman or could call on a sophisticated artisanal infrastructure. He lived more than five centuries before Europeans had either telescopes or clocks which measured seconds - how could he have done this?

Sunil said...

Grasshopper.....wasn't Victor Kyam the person doing something with electric razors?? I know little about Victor Kyam. :-)

Bala.....too bad about not seeing conic sections. I know ISC (ICSE 11/12th) or CBSE do encounter conic sections. Interesting though that you got to read the rubayyat it Thamizh....didn't know translations existed, and were taught in school.

Pierce Butler.....good questions. Given Khayyams support from Nizam, he might have had access to very good craftsmen. But as far as clocks go....the Arabs were known to have excellent water clocks that perhaps measured seconds. As far as telescopes go, again it may be that during the middle ages Persia or Arabia had some very good telescopes.....that reached Europe during the crusades. This Wikipedia link (don't know how good it is) suggests that Visby lenses may have been known to Arabs/Persians around the 10th century. I have no idea how exactly he did that though. Any information you could dig out will be fantastic! The link I had on the post (to Khayyams biography) is from a rather good website (from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and is one of the best resources for biographies of mathematicians around though.....

Sujatha Bagal said...

That's my dad's favorite quote from the Rubaiyyat. So funny to see it in words after hearing it so often.

Sunil said...

Good for your dad .....but I don't think he used it in this context. :-)

Anonymous said...