Arts & Culture

Houghton exhibit features Islamic sciences

6 min read

If scholarship is the only reliable means of time travel, the Houghton Library offers up Harvard’s latest time machine: “Windows into Early Science,” an exhibit of scientific manuscripts, maps, and illustrated books on display through May 23.

The exhibit reaches back to an era when scholars from the Middle East were translating the works of ancient Greek scientists, making science of their own, and preserving a legacy of knowledge that would one day help power the Renaissance in Europe.

Walk up the curving stairs to Houghton’s second-floor Amy Lowell Room. Set between shelves of rare books — Melville, Longfellow, Whitman, and others — are three glass cases that bottle up time from 800 through 1400 A.D.

To the far left are geometrical drawings from the work of Euclid, the Greek mathematician of the third century B.C. who is known as the father of geometry. He was widely translated from Greek to Arabic and Persian in a pre-Renaissance world where scientific pursuits were dominated by Islam.

In the Middle Ages, Islamic scholars thrived in a period of competitive patronage. They made advances in astronomy, optics, surgery, navigation, chemistry, and the tools of warfare, including sea mines and flamethrowers. These scientists of the Islamic Middle Ages are also credited with advancing mathematics, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and other mathematical sciences.

In the Amy Lowell Room, among the other ornate manuscripts and drawings, there is a facsimile reproduction of the frontispiece of a 1572 Latin edition of “Optics,” the magnum opus of al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (also known by his Latinized name, Alhazen or Alhacen).

The 11th century empiricist, polymath, and skeptic — born in what is now Basra, Iraq — was known as the “father of optics.” He copied Arabic translations of Euclid and Ptolemy, reveled in geometry, and went on to revolutionize the science of optics with his mathematical theory of vision.

The Houghton exhibit is the brainchild of science historian, mathematician, and educator Elaheh Kheirandish Ph.D. ’91, a lecturer in Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. To help set it up, she tapped students from three recent classes, including her spring 2008 Freshman Seminar 48q, “Historical Dialogues from the Near East: Case Studies in Early Science.”

Science in Islamic lands was more than a temporal bridge between the genius of early Greeks and the scientific advances of Renaissance Europe, she said. Islamic scholars made Greek science their own, transforming and improving it.

Alhazen, for instance, refuted one idea held by both Euclid and Ptolemy — that “visual rays” issued from the eye allow humans to see. He offered a comprehensive alternative to what became known as ‘the “extra-emission theory” of vision favored by the Greeks. He insisted that vision occurred because of rays entering the eye. That prompted centuries of investigation into the properties of light and color, and even into the psychology of visual perception.

Early Islamic scientists worked in a tradition that still conflated mathematics, the natural sciences, astronomy, and other pursuits under the rubric of “philosophy.”

But “they laid the foundations for everything” in modern science, contended Colin Donovan ’11, one of two students in Kheirandish’s Freshman Seminar. (He’s studying Arabic, and considering a concentration in either Near Eastern languages and civilizations or — inspired by Kheirandish’s course — the history of science.)

The seminar included replications of early science experiments, he said, like measuring the height of objects using mirrors. There was also hands-on time with old instruments. In the Amy Lowell Room, Donovan demonstrated the astrolabe, a flat metal disk with clocklike hands used in ancient times to predict the position of the sun, moon, and planets.

Kheirandish, a native Persian speaker who learned her classical Arabic at Harvard, has taught courses or done research in science in the Islamic Middle Ages, pre-modern optics, early Arabic mechanics, and Islamic literature.

She has also brought modern techniques into the study of ancient science, as a champion of interactive maps (hinted at in the Houghton exhibit) and as a research associate with Harvard’s Archimedes Project, an international initiative to digitize, combine, and disseminate scholarship on ancient mechanics.

The Houghton exhibit — with its themes of authority, locality, and universality — offers a glimpse into the mixed influences in the science of the Islamic Middle Ages, said Kheirandish. But it was also a chance for students, from freshmen to doctoral candidates, to work together on captions, profiles, and the selection of documents and artifacts. Cooperative scholarship, she said, “is an important step that doesn’t always happen.”

Cooperation in the exhibit went beyond Harvard Yard. Kheirandish enlisted students from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) undergraduate seminar on recreating experiments from history, taught by watercolorist Elizabeth Cavicchi, a one-time MIT physics and art major who has a doctorate in education. For the exhibit, Cavicchi painted the margins and gold illumination for a manuscript reproduction.

Kheirandish’s Freshman Seminar this spring hosted visitors like those from MIT and required weekly readings from primary and secondary sources in the history of science.

But it was also a guided tour of little-known Harvard collections, exhibits, and archives, said prospective classics concentrator Patrick Brennan ’11. He and Donovan glimpsed Houghton archives, the Science Center’s gallery of historical instruments, Widener’s science collections (including the old work space of George Sarton, Harvard’s history of science pioneer), and other corners of scholarship.

For the exhibit, Brennan studied the provenance of a calendar manuscript written in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish.

“A lot of this stuff has never been extensively researched,” he said, including the calendar manuscript that has not even been cataloged. “There’s so much out there that Harvard owns that almost no one looks at.”

The multi-language calendar is proof of the rich mix of traditions that contributed to science in the Islamic Middle Ages, said Kheirandish.

Arabic was the language of science in the Middle East, just as Latin was in Europe, she said, but early scholars “were much more diverse than one label would suggest.”

The exhibit — and the Freshman Seminar — are all about the creative diversity between different cultures, said Donovan, and “how it informed science.”

The exhibit is a corrective of sorts, too, added Brennan. Given current events, it’s easy to see the Middle East as backward and dysfunctional, he said. “But when Europe was treading water [in science], Islam brought in lessons.”