Professor advocates higher profile for Arab science

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair: Jim Al-Khalili says the great thinkers of the early Islamic era deserve to be as revered and familiar as Galileo.

An Arabian physician cauterises a wound on a patient's neck. Professor Jim Al Khalili says many people in the Arab world are ignorant of their ancestors' scientific achievements. Bettmann / Corbis
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Once, the Arab world was the centre of scientific research, creating the platform of knowledge on which today's society was founded.

The Iraqi-born British academic and science educator Jim Al-Khalili wants those early Arabian researchers to be as revered and familiar as the European geniuses credited for modern learning. Instead they languish in relative oblivion, as does the five-century span when Arab researchers led the world in science, philosophy, medicine and education.

Professor Al-Khalili wrote Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science in 2010 to raise the profile of the under-appreciated researchers of the early Islamic era. Two-and-a-half years later, his campaign for them to take their place in the first rank of great thinkers has him giving lectures at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Al-Khalili hopes his book has helped to reverse the lack of knowledge about Arabic science.

"It always saddens me when I am reminded that so many in the Arab world, and the wider Islamic world, are ignorant of the scientific achievements of their ancestors a millennium ago," he says. "Characters such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Al Haytham, Al Khwarismi and many others are not just names taught in history lessons. These geniuses should be spoken of in the same breath as Galileo, Newton and Einstein."

Al-Khalili is anticipating the way the book fair - as well as the city of Abu Dhabi - represents the meeting of different cultures.

"This will be my first Abu Dhabi book fair, so I am really looking forward to being part of the mix of Arab and non-Arab authors," he says.

"What I find exciting is that there is so much scope for science writing in the Arab world, simply because there is currently a vacuum that needs to be filled.

"In the UK we are used to a very vibrant and active science communication scene, with many people trying their hands at science writing. But the thirst for stories is the same the world over.

"So where do the promising young scientists of the Arab world go to get their fix of the latest science stories? The potential is there, but we have yet to see the new science writers stepping up."

Abu Dhabi's increased prominence as an international city helps add an extra hub to the two historical centres of publishing in the Arab world, Al-Khalili says.

"Traditionally, one would have looked to the cities with a long pedigree in publishing - Cairo and Beirut - to provide the base for any renaissance in science writing.

"But the book fair in Abu Dhabi has steadily built up an excellent international reputation. It is ideally placed to take on the mantle of the centre of the Arab publishing world.

"It should not just be a place where the book scene comes alive for a few days each year."

One factor of communicating now is there are so many media available. Al-Khalili writes books - his latest, Paradox: the Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science, is his fifth - but also blogs, tweets and broadcasts.

"I am very lucky in that I have been able to pursue an academic career alongside a career in science communication.

"I think if I am honest I have to say that I have achieved the biggest successes through my broadcasting work. Many of my BBC science documentaries have been exported around the world and reached millions of people."

Professor Jim Al-Khalili will present two hour-long lectures at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. At 7pm on Sunday, he will talk about Pathfinders, his book on the golden age of Arabic science. At 11am on Monday, he will speak about Paradox, his book on the nine greatest enigmas in science.

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