Fjordman: A History of Mathematical Astronomy, Part 2

The second part of Fjordman’s “History of Mathematical Astronomy” has been published at Jihad Watch. Some excerpts are below:

Part 1 of my history of mathematical astronomy was published at Jihad Watch in December 2009. I will continue with part 2 here. Ancient Greek planetary theory was brought into its final, very successful form with Ptolemy’s masterpiece in Alexandria in the second century AD. James Evans explains in his book The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy:

“The original title was something like The 13 Books of the Mathematical Composition of Claudius Ptolemy. Later the work may simply have been known as Megale Syntaxis, the Great Composition. The superlative form of the Greek megale (great) is megiste. Arabic astronomers of the early Middle Ages joined to this the Arabic articleal-, giving al-megiste, which was later corrupted by medieval Latin writers to Almagest…. The Almagest is one of the greatest books in the whole history of the sciences — comparable in its significance and influence to Euclid’s Elements, Newton’s Principia, or Darwin’s Origin of Species.”

The mathematician al- Battani (ca. 850-929) made measurements of the stars and planets. The Persian astronomer Abul Wafa (940-998) was a capable mathematician who made good trigonometric tables. Ibn Yunus (950-1009), an Egyptian mathematician, made reliable observations of the Moon and described many lunar eclipses. A lunar crater has been named in his honor and another one in honor of Ibn al-Zarqali, Latinized as Arzachel, an eleventh-century Andalusian astronomer who was partly responsible for the so-called Toledan Tables. These were accurate for their time and were later translated into Latin and used in Europe.

The Mongols under the leadership of Hulegu Khan (ca. 1217-1265), a grandson of the feared and powerful Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan (ca. 1162-1227), sacked Baghdad in 1258. Hulegu believed that many of his military successes were due to the advice of astronomers who were also astrologers (astrology was important in Mongol culture) and was persuaded to found an observatory in Iran by the talented Persian mathematician Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274). Muslim achievements in astronomy thus peaked after the Mongol conquests.

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Astronomy in the Islamic world remained fundamentally Ptolemaic and Earth-centered, but Ptolemy did have critics regarding certain technical details. The planetary models developed by Maragha astronomers such as Ibn al-Shatir of Damascus (ca. 1304-1375) showed some originality. Some mathematical constructions similar to those of Ibn al-Shatir later turned up in the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, who may have learned of them while studying in Italy.

The Maragha observatory from 1259 was destroyed already in the early 1300s. According to author Toby E. Huff, “The fact that the Maragha observatory not only stopped functioning within fifty years but soon thereafter was completely obliterated suggests that there were very strong antipathies against it and its activities” because of their alleged association with astrology, which was considered a challenge to the omnipotence of Allah. The observatory as a scientific institution failed to take root in the Islamic world due to religious resistance. As historian Bernard Lewis states, in the Ottoman Empire the observatory in Constantinople/Istanbul created by Taqi al-Din (1526-1585) “was razed to the ground by a squad of Janissaries, by order of the sultan, on the recommendation of the Chief Mufti.”

Among major regions or civilizations, the two with the most similar medieval starting points were the Middle East and Europe. Greek geometry was virtually unknown in East and Southeast Asia. This constituted a major disadvantage for Chinese, Japanese and Korean scholars in optics and astronomy. The only regions where clear glass was extensively made were the Middle East and Europe. Clear glass was used by Europeans to create eyeglasses for the correction of eyesight and later for the creation of microscopes and telescopes, facilitating the birth of modern medicine and astronomy. The Maya in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica did not know how to make glass and could consequently not have made glass lenses for microscopes or telescopes. Muslims could have done so, but they didn’t. Likewise, medieval Europeans invented mechanical clocks while Muslims did not, despite a similar starting point.

The best Muslim scholars could be capable observational astronomers and a few made minor adjustments to Ptolemaic theory, but none of them ever made a huge conceptual breakthrough comparable to that provided by Copernicus when he put the Sun, not the Earth, at the center of our Solar System. Combined with the pre-telescopic work of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, Ptolemaic astronomy was in reality outdated in Europe even before Galileo had introduced telescopic astronomy by 1610. In contrast, Muslims resisted Copernican heliocentrism in some cases into the twentieth century. One of those who rejected it was the influential late nineteenth century pan-Islamic alleged reformist Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani.

As Toby E. Huff says in his fine work The Rise of Early Modern Science, “Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) was at the forefront of intellectual reform in India, encouraging India to adopt Western educational standards. In his early career of the 1840s, he had defended the Ptolemaic view against Copernicanism, believing that this was incumbent upon the devout Muslim. As he studied the matter more, he realized the need to adopt heliocentric view and to reconcile its metaphysics with traditional interpretations of the Quran. Soon after he moved to adopt the heliocentric position, he ran into overwhelming opposition, especially Jamil al-Din al-Afghani’s (d. 1897) attack of the early 1880s.”

Read the rest at Jihad Watch.