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
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.”
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.
Comet 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 portends.
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