Monday, May 01, 2006

Is there life on Moors?

Exciting times for Islamic science, as the Muslim conquest of space is discussed at a conference in Malaysia.

More than 150 delegates attended a seminar to consider how to pray in space given the difficulties of locating Mecca and holding the prayer position in zero gravity; as well as other questions such as halal food and washing.

The International Space Station (ISS) moves at almost 17,000 mph, so the relative position of Mecca is constantly shifting. With 16 orbits a day, and the timing of five daily prayers determined in relation to sunrise and sunset, devout Muslim astronauts could find themselves intoning their chants 80 times in 24 hours.

Well, that would be terrible, obviously. And not at all funny.

Fortunately, the Islamic Astronomers' Association is on the case. Taking a break from calculating the most auspicious times to stone women to death, these top Muslim boffins have gathered near Kuala Lumpur to discuss how to get around what would normally be considered cast iron strictures.

And they’re already off to a flying start, if you’ll pardon the pun. With the keen sense of priorities for which Islamic jurisprudence is justly famed, delegates dealt with the difficulties of hanging rape victims in zero gravity in five minutes flat, by means of a brief reference to the potentialities offered by the presence of airlocks.

I’m sure we all wish them well in their noble struggle to bring obscurantist medieval theocracy to the stars.

Another aspiring astronaut prepares for blast-off, yesterday.


Aunty Marianne said...

You're stringing up the wrong Muslims, Ivan.

"Muslims in Space" may be risible, but it at least shows a clerical intention to evolve and cope with change and progress. Other branches of Islam prefer to stifle change, to keep people undereducated and therefore radicalisable. IMHO that's who your real targets are.

Gorilla Bananas said...

The only way of keeping true to the faith would be to take Mecca into space with them. Anything else would be an evasion.

PI said...

Is there racism in spacism? Has there ever been a Muslim or Black in space?
Now I'm worried about that Black but I don't just mean Aafrican Americans. What on earth is the generic term for other than white people?

Ivan the Terrible said...

Hi Aunty. Alas, wherever Islam goes, its psycho fringe inevitably follows. And while that is true for any religion I'm afraid it has special resonance for the only major religion that explicitly urges murder and intimidation as a means of conversion and control.

Bin Laden et al are not after all against technological change. Just the parts where people worship freely, vote for secular governments, and eat bacon sandwiches. Sure, they'll find a way to allow their astronauts to pray five times a day instead of eighty, but once they're up there they'll still be expected to point their Iranian-made nukes at any country that harbours Jews or lets women drive.

Mecca in Space - I like the way you think, GB. We could put it in orbit around a gratifyingly distant planet. If only there were some humorously-named astrological body upon which I could hang this joke. *sigh*

And Pi, the word or phrase you're looking for varies according to who's using it. The generic term for non-whites approved for caucasian use is non-whites. However, when non-whites refer to themselves, "victims" is the mot du jour...

Mack said...

I appreciate Aunty's sentiments, and it's important to remember that there are people out there who needto be reminded that we are not at war with Islam.

That being said, I think it is sad that we're talking about a culture and religion that brought us the mathematical concepts that made space travel possible, and yet now have their Astronomical Society wrapped around the axle on the minutae of which we to face and how to coordinate prayer with a moving spacecraft.

In the spirit of ecumenicalism, I'll make it easy for them, and even face the wrath of Allah if he is displeased with the solution. Pray five times a day at the time you normally pray on Earth. Face the eastern side of the space station, and recite a hadith begging for Allah's forgiveness for our human frailty and imperfection.

If this doesn't fit the bill and Allah and his enforcers seek flesh for retribution, the Astronomical Society can lay the blame squarely on me, Roscoe P. Coltrain.

JPW said...

The funny thing about this is that they're seriously discussing the possibility of sitting in orbit several hundred miles above Earth, where the infiniteness of the galaxy is rendered more apparent than ever, but they still think that Mecca is the place where all the shit goes down.

Desargues said...

Those who can, do; those who can't, watch.

But what are those Islamic conncepts that made space travel possible again? As far as I know, the physics behind space travel emerged, like Pallas Athena of the ancients, whole from the head of a single Britishman, Isaac Newton. He also invented the mathematical formalism to handle it--the differential calculus. The chemistry that explains jet propulsion was framed in modern quantitative terms by a Frenchman killed by the Jacobins in 1794--Lavoisier. If we're talking relativistic effects, then they're due to a german Jew from Ulm--Albert Einstein. For the computing machines that direct interplanetary flights and handle complex calculations, we owe eternal gratitude to another Britishman, Alan Turing, and perhaps some distant respect to an earlier German, Leibniz. No offense to any Muslim, but I'm not really sure what their contributions to important physical science are. A major contribution to contemporary particle physics by a Muslim was the discovery of the electro-weak interaction at subatomic level by Professor Abdus Salam. But the Islamic Middle Ages in science are rather overrated.

Ivan the Terrible said...

Top notch summary, Des! And one need only add that medieval Islamic science was based directly on the work of the classical world, whose heirs and successors the Muslims had driven out or exterminated from Carthage to Ephesus. They have the nerve to tell us that they "preserved" those texts when Europe was in darkness, as if the Byzantines weren't doing that already.

It's a bit like squatters taking over half your house and then demanding thanks for looking after your CD collection.

Mack said...

Wow, I guess my ignorance is showing, but I have to admit I'm a product a public university education over 20 years ago.

I was under the impression that the works of al-Khwarizmi were key to moving mathematics from classical Greek geometry to what we now know as algebra and it's derivative disciplines. Al-Khwarizmi is the only one that I remembered off hand, as our high school algebra teacher has us remember him as "the core is me". Overstated, but hey, I remember the name more than a quarter century later.

I'd be the first one to admit that I'm not a astro-physicist, so I really wouldn't know whether space travel could have been done without the concepts of tangent, co-tangent, the binomial theorem, sine law, geometric solutions to cubic equations or the Tusi-couple.

At the least, I do think it's rather disingenous to discount any Tusian influence on Newton, given Tusi's influence on John Wallis' work and Wallis' later influence on Newton.

Desargues said...

Look, Mack, I didn't mean to deny that there were any discoveries at all during the Muslim Middle Ages. But not all discoveries are created equal--some of them just increase a field, others create new fields entirely; they are ground-breaking in an almost literal sense. Secondly, it is always a relevant question to ask whether the Western creators of modern science and mathematics had any access to those Arabic texts you allude to. My suspicion is, no. John Wallis may have been aware of mathematical research in the Arabic world (he was quite the polymath), but al-Tusi's influence on him remains to be documented (together with the very idea of intellectual influence). As to Wallis' own influence on Newton, and whether that qualifies as indirect influence by al-Tusi, I'm rather skeptical. It's true that Sir Isaac modestly declared, "If I have seen farther, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants." But this should not blind us to the real merit that must be ascribed to true innovators, rather than mere laborers in the field of mathematics. Newton simply rediscovered most of the mathematics available in hsi time by studying the works of Euclid and Pappus (translated in 1565 into Latin by Federico Commandino) and the analytic geometry of Rene Descartes. He invented the quite novel field of the calculus. Maybe Arabic mathematicians studied tangents and co-tangents (I'm fairly sure they didn't discover tangents or the elements of trigonometry--these were already available in the Hellenistic world of the Late Antiquity). Maybe they also did some work in elementary algebra. But this still doesn't amount to setting the kind of conceptual foundations that support new worlds. It was discoveries such as Decsartes' and Newton's that made such things possible. Without the calculus, you simply cannot do any modern science at all--that is a fact. And, just because Newton chose to present most of his discoveries in Principia Mathematica in geometric form doesn't mean that he needed geometry to arrive at them. Far from it. He used geometric presentations for pedagogical purposes, as there were only a handful of men in Europe at the time able to handle calculus. Plus, what is most important: He invented modern dynamics. That is an advance that, in human terms, can only be compared with things like the discovery of fire. The true measure of his genius becomes more apparent when you look at the fifty years or so of intellectual struggle that some of the sharpest minds of humanity--Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Leibniz, and Huygens--engaged in at the time to deal with the problems of force and inertia. They may seem minor aspects, but they're incredibly difficult. By comparison, geometric solutions to cubic equations and the Tusi-couple become minor additions. In our talk of influence, we tend to ignore sometimes that influence does not mean condition of possibility.

Similarly, we had a lot of minor innovators in the West, too--but again, this is no licence to ignore true discovery. Thus, Pappus, Saccheri, and Lambert all struggled to prove Euclid's Fifth Postulate, and got some interesting results in the process. But that doesn't amount to non-Euclidian geometry, which must be credited to Lobachevsky and Bolyai, its true discoverers. Likewise, for centuries many had speculated that alternative, multi-dimensional geometries may be possible. But credit for actually creating them must go where credit is due--to H.-G. Grassmann and Bernhard Riemann.

Obviously, I don't mean to deny that Muslim thinkers didn't contribute anything important to scientific civilization. But that shouldn't stop us from assessing those contributions with a clear head. Also, I'm far from suggesting that being an Arab might somehow prevent one from engaging in cutting-edge science. That would be racism, and I'll have none of it. But, pace any PC accidental reader of this blog, I will claim that certain forms of Islam have been very stifling to the spirit of free inquiry that is the prerequisite of scientific progress. Also, against cultural relativists, I will say that if anyone thinks al-Khwarizmi (who gave us the word algorithm) is equal to Euler or that Avicenna is equal to Kant, then he is sadly mistaken.

Now maybe I should put my cards on the table, as George Bush says: I'm neither a Muslim, nor a Westerner. I hope this makes my PC credentials impeccable. :-)

Mack said...

Des - very well reasoned, well written response. If you blogged, I would almost certainly be a regular reader. Al-Tusi's works were absolutely available in Latin by the mid-1600's. Check out the links in my previous post - some interesting reading there.

Also in the spirit of disclosure, I am also not a Muslim, am not white and know a thing or two about financial derivative instuments.

Ivan the Terrible said...

Guys! Guys! Can't we all just get alo... oh wait, you already are.

Carry on - don't mind me.