Editor’s Note: This
article was inspired by a lecture I heard by Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an
astrophysicist and curator of the Hayden Planetarium (which is part of the
American Museum of Natural History in New York City). In a talk he gave
at Fairfield University, Dr. Tyson expressed concern that America’s tendency
toward religious fanaticism is having a deleterious effect on our country’s
efforts to compete with some of the less fundamentalist nations in the world.
All Things Must Pass
has seen Comet ISON illuminate the night sky. Our ancient ancestors viewed such
displays as harbingers of calamity, because they didn’t understand astronomy.
of us still don’t. A recent Gallup poll revealed that one in five Americans
thinks the sun revolves around the Earth. Many of our citizens either don’t
understand or don’t accept modern science. This is a depressing fact in a
globalized, technological world where scientific innovation forms the
cornerstone of economic security.
great nations and empires eventually sputter out. Hundreds of years B.C., my
Greek ancestors invented science, democracy, geometry, philosophy and drama.
Although a tiny nation, Greece conquered the mighty Persian Empire and
controlled an area stretching from Egypt to India. However, since that time,
what have we Greeks contributed besides souvlakis and that annoying bouzouki
Roman, Spanish and British Empires have passed away. Yet we naively and
arrogantly boast about American Exceptionalism, as if the U.S. had somehow been
divinely ordained as a perpetual superpower.
the Middle Ages, the greatest city in Europe was Cordoba in Moorish Spain, which
had public lighting in the streets and the world’s largest library when Paris
and London were mud hut villages. The Muslim Empire bestrode Europe and Asia,
and, from 800 to 1100 A.D., the intellectual center of Western culture was
Baghdad, where Christians, Jews, Muslims and unbelievers studied together in its
Catholics burned pagan Greek texts as heretical, the Muslims were busy
translating them. They developed the concept of the zero and our (Arabic)
numeral system, enabling them to derive algebra and algorithms (both Arabic
words). They advanced medicine, optics and chemistry, and, as astrophysicist
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, curator of the Museum of Natural History’s Hayden
Planetarium, points out, they named the stars: Two-thirds of the visible
stars’ names — from Aldebaran to Zavijava — are Arabic.
this Islamic Golden Age passed quickly. As early as the 12th century,
anti-rationalistic Ash’arite scholars such as Imam Hamid al-Ghazali began to
characterize mathematics and science as affronts to Allah. Like today’s
Christian fundamentalists, they promulgated a medieval form of intelligent
design that rejected mechanistic cause and effect in favor of the belief that
all things are predestined by god. It wasn’t long before the Muslims joined
their Christian brethren in book burning.
attitudes have always been an element of Islam. When Caliph Omar conquered
Egypt, he was reputedly asked what to do with the books in the Library of
Alexandria. His answer, which is probably apocryphal: “If the books agree with
the Koran, they’re unnecessary. If they disagree, they are not desired.
Therefore, destroy them.” The end of the Islamic Golden Age became inevitable,
according to Dr. Tyson, “when revelation replaced investigation.”
the Muslim world has nine scientists/engineers/technicians per thousand people,
compared with the worldwide average of 41. Of the 1,800 Islamic universities,
only 312 publish journal articles, and the 46 Muslim countries contribute only
1% of the world’s scientific literature. Spain, not known as a publishing
heavyweight, translates more books each year than the entire Arab world has
during the past millennium.
are 20% of the world’s population, but Islamic researchers have garnered only
one and a half Nobel Prizes in science (Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam shared
one with Dr. Steven Weinberg). Jews, at 0.2% of the world’s population,
represent 25% of the Nobel laureates in science. Dr. Weinberg stated that, in 40
years, he hadn’t seen one paper “by a physicist or an astronomer working in
a Muslim country worth reading.”
Muslim madrassas that offer little more than rote memorization of the Koran, our
country’s fundamentalist Christian colleges impart science from the Middle
Ages. They reject Freud, Darwin and Einstein in favor of text books that teach
about demon spirits, creationism and a nonsensical 6,000-year-old universe,
Such medievalism has caused
California to deny accreditation for master’s degrees in biology to
Christian universities that teach so-called “creation
science.” And hostility toward physics has caused billboards to
sprout up across the South that proclaim, “‘Big Bang Theory. You’ve
Got to Be Kidding’ — God.”
tendency toward sectarian anti-rationalism has been exacerbated by the GOP’s
courtship of evangelicals. Conservative candidates brag about their disbelief in
evolution and global warming, even though 97% of scientists in the nonpartisan
Pew Poll accept both. Although 67% of Americans now believe in climate change,
75% of Tea Party Republicans don’t.
many Christian conservatives reject the idea that mankind has the godlike power
to destroy the earth’s climate. We’ve had this power since atomic weaponry
made nuclear winter (and the destruction of all life on Earth) a distinct
inevitable nuclear proliferation and global warming make the world a more
dangerous place, I have just enough faith in American Exceptionalism to believe
that a world which we lead would be preferable to one dominated by some of our
more unsavory competitors. Hence, I favor an America whose citizens believe in
21st century science.
ISON failed to survive its transit of the sun, and I’ll be long gone when
Halley’s Comet returns in 2061. However, one can only wonder what sort of
people will be here on Earth to observe its passing, and what they’ll think it
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