Persia: The cradle of science and technology By Layla Ehteshami

Persia: The cradle of science and technology

Layla Ehteshami

Persia was a cradle of science in ancient times. Persian scientists contributed to the current understanding of nature, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy.

Persians made important contributions to algebra and chemistry, invented the wind-power machine, and the first distillation of alcohol. Trying to revive the golden time of Persian science, Iran’s scientists cautiously reach out to the world. Many individual Iranian scientists, along with the Iranian Academy of Medical Sciences and Academy of Sciences of Iran, are involved in this revival.

Iran is an example of a country that has made considerable advances through education and training, despite international sanctions in almost all aspects of research during the past 30 years. Iran’s university population swelled from 100,000 in 1979 to 2 million in 2006. Seventy percent of its science and engineering students are women.

Science in Persia evolved in two main phases separated by the arrival and widespread adoption of Islam in the region. Many of the today’s concepts in Science including Helio-Centric model of solar system, finite speed of light, and gravity were first proposed by Persian scientists.

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Qanat (a water management system used for irrigation) originated in pre-Achaemenid Persia. The oldest and largest known qanat is in the Iranian city of Gonabad which, after 2,700 years, still provides drinking and agricultural water to nearly 40,000 people.

Persian philosophers and inventors may have created the first batteries (sometimes known as the Baghdad Battery) in the Parthian or Sassanid eras. Some have suggested that the batteries may have been used medicinally. Other scientists believe the batteries were used for electroplating–transferring a thin layer of metal to another metal surface–a technique still used today and the focus of a common classroom experiment.

Windwheels were developed by the Babylonians ca. 1700 BC to pump water for irrigation. In the 7th century, Persian engineers in Greater Iran developed a more advanced wind-power machine, the windmill, building upon the basic model developed by the Babylonians.

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The 12th century mathematician Muhammad Ibn Musa-al-Khwarazmi created the Logarithm table, developed algebra and expanded upon Persian and Indian arithmetic systems. His writings were translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona under the title: De jebra et almucabola. Robert of Chester also translated it under the title Liber algebras et almucabala.

The works of Khwarazmi exercised a profound influence on the development of mathematical thought in the medieval West.

Other Persian scientists included Abu Abbas Fazl Hatam, the Banu Musa brothers, Farahani, Omar Ibn Farakhan, Abu Zeid Ahmad Ibn Soheil Balkhi (9th century AD), Abul Vafa Bouzjani, Abu Jaafar Khan, Bijan Ibn Rostam Kouhi, Ahmad Ibn Abdul Jalil Qomi, Bu Nasr Iraqi, Abu Reyhan Birooni, the noted Iranian poet Hakim Omar Khayyam Neishaburi, Qatan Marvazi, Massoudi Ghaznavi (13th century AD), Khajeh Nassireddin Tusi, and Ghiasseddin Jamshidi Kashani.

The practice and study of medicine in Iran has a long and prolific history. Situated at the crossroads of the East and West, Persia was often involved in developments in ancient Greek and Indian medicine; pre- and post-Islamic Iran have been involved in medicine as well.

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For example, the first teaching hospital where medical students methodically practiced on patients under the supervision of physicians was the Academy of Gundishapur in the Persian Empire. Some experts go so far as to claim that: “to a very large extent, the credit for the whole hospital system must be given to Persia”. The idea of xenotransplantation dates to the days of Achaemenidae (the Achaemenian dynasty), as evidenced by engravings of many mythologic chimeras still present in Persepolis.

Several documents still exist from which the definitions and treatments of the headache in medieval Persia can be ascertained.

These documents give detailed and precise clinical information on the different types of headaches. The medieval physicians listed various signs and symptoms, apparent causes, and hygienic and dietary rules for prevention of headaches. The medieval writings are both accurate and vivid, and they provide long lists of substances used in the treatment of headaches.

Many of the approaches of physicians in medieval Persia are accepted today; however, still more of them could be of use to modern medicine.

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In the 10th century work of Shahnameh, Ferdowsi describes a Caesarean section performed on Rudaba, during which a special wine agent was prepared by a Zoroastrian priest and used to produce unconsciousness for the operation. Although largely mythical in content, the passage illustrates working knowledge of anesthesia in ancient Persia.

Later in the 10th century, Abu Bakr Muhammad Bin Zakaria Razi is considered the founder of practical physics and the inventor of the special or net weight of matter. His student, Abu Bakr Joveini, wrote the first comprehensive medical book in Persian language.

After the Islamic conquest of Iran, medicine continued to flourish with the rise of notables such as Rhazes and Haly Abbas, albeit Baghdad was the new cosmopolitan inheritor of Sassanid Jundishapur’s medical academy.

An idea of the number of medical works composed in Persian alone may be gathered from Adolf Fonahn’s Zur Quellenkunde der Persischen Medizin, published in Leipzig in 1910. The author enumerates over 400 works in the Persian language on medicine, excluding authors such as Avicenna, who wrote in Arabic. Author-historians Meyerhof, Casey Wood, and Hirschberg also have recorded the names of at least 80 oculists who contributed treatises on subjects related to ophthalmology from the beginning of 800 AD to the full flowering of Muslim medical literature in 1300 AD. Aside from the aforementioned, two other medical works attracted great attention in medieval Europe, namely Abu Mansur Muwaffaq’s Materia Medica, written around 950 AD, and the illustrated Anatomy of Mansur ibn Muhammad, written in 1396 AD.

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In 1000 AD, Biruni wrote an astronomical encyclopedia which discussed the possibility that the earth might rotate around the sun. This was before Tycho Brahe drew the first maps of the sky, using stylized animals to depict the constellations. In the tenth century, the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi cast his eyes upwards to the awning of stars overhead and was the first to record a galaxy out with our own. Gazing at the Andromeda galaxy he called it a “little cloud” –an apt description of the slightly wispy appearance of our galactic neighbor.

Tusi believed that a body of matter is able to change but is not able to disappear entirely. He wrote “a body of matter cannot disappear completely. It only changes its form, condition, composition, color, and other properties, and turns into a different complex or elementary matter”.

Five hundred years later, Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765) and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) created the law of conservation of mass, setting down this same idea. However, it should be noted that Tusi argued for evolution within a firmly Islamic context–he did not, like Darwin, draw materialist conclusions from his theories.

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Moreover, unlike Darwin, he was arguing hypothetically: he did not attempt to provide empirical data for his theories. Nonetheless his arguments, which in some ways prefigure natural selection, are still considered remarkably ‘advanced’ for their time.

Bible of European Chemists
Jaber Ibn Hayyam, the famous Iranian chemist who died in 804 at Tous in Khorasan, was the father of a number of discoveries recorded in an encyclopedia and of many treatises covering two thousand topics, and these became the bible of European chemists of the 18th century, particularly of Lavoisier.

These works had a variety of uses including tinctures and their applications in tanning and textiles; distillations of plants and flowers; the origin of perfumes; therapeutic pharmacy, and gunpowder, a powerful military instrument possessed by Islam long before the West. Jabir ibn Hayyam, is widely regarded as the founder of chemistry, inventing many of the basic processes and equipment still used by chemists today such as distillation.

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Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham is known in the West as Alhazen, born in 965 in Persia and dying in 1039 in Egypt. He is known as the father of optics for his writings on, and experiments with, lenses, mirrors, refraction, and reflection. He correctly stated that vision results from light that is reflected into the eye by an object, not emitted by the eye itself and reflected back, as Aristotle believed. He solved the problem of finding the locus of points on a spherical mirror from which light will be reflected to an observer. From his studies of refraction, he determined that the atmosphere has a definite height and that twilight is caused by refraction of solar radiation from beneath the horizon.

Biruni was the first scientist to formally propose that the speed of light is finite, before Galileo tried to experimentally prove this.

Kamal al-Din Al-Farisi (1267–1318) born in Tabriz, Iran, is known for giving the first mathematically satisfactory explanation of the rainbow, and an explication of the nature of colors that reformed the theory of Ibn al-Haytham. Al-Farisi also “proposed a model where the ray of light from the sun was refracted twice by a water droplet, one or more reflections occurring between the two refractions.”

He verified this through extensive experimentation using a transparent sphere filled with water and a camera obscura. He was also the first who scientifically explained the rainbow.



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