William Gibson is a science fiction writer whose works increasingly take place in a realistic present. His latest book, Zero History, is about fashion, authenticity and identity. It’s a freestanding third work in an informal trilogy, which also includes Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.
Tagged with “history” (6)
‘I don’t get the feeling that nothing is happening,’ replied the father of Cyberpunk. ‘I just get the feeling that more and more of it is happening on a different field.’
This Intelligence Squared event at Cadogan Hall in London saw the coming-together of two great believers in the vibrancy and power of the present: William Gibson and Cory Doctorow. Despite the discussion covering topics unrestrained by time - reaching back to the age of the Victorians and stretching, via 1940 and our ‘increasingly interesting’ present, to 2060 - or location (we were taken from the Far East to western Canada, with stop-overs in Shoreditch and Brooklyn), Gibson repeatedly underlined the centrality of the present in his work. He stressed that good science fiction writing is based on looking at ‘all the things around you’ and finding ‘the ones with the most obvious legs to carry you into the future.’
What sort of a future that will be, however, remains a mystery to Gibson. There are simply ‘too many wild cards in play,’ he said, for us to casually erect accurate futures. One thing that seemed certain was the sustained threat to any genuine subculture. We are now left, he lamented, with only ‘splinters of Bohemia,’ the violation of which seems almost complete in a world where ‘the way D. H. Lawrence looked is … much more important than what D.H. Lawrence wrote.’
On July 28, 1945, residents of New York City were horrified when an airplane crashed into the Empire State Building, leaving 14 dead. Though the events of that day have largely faded from public memory, they remain etched in the minds of those who experienced them.
In part three Professor Jim Al-Khalili looks at the work of Abu Rayhan Biruni, whose work on astronomy led to the calculation of the Earth’s circumference with an incredible degree of accuracy.
Jim also explores how the Christian Crusades, the invasion of the Mongols, the fall of the Abbasid dynasty and the discovery of the New World may have contributed to the slow-down of great scholarship during the 13th century.
Finally he explores the status of science in the modern Muslim world and investigates recent developments in funding, research and efforts to promote awareness of the scientific glories of the past.
In part two Dr Jackie Stedall and Professor Ian Stewart tell us the story of Al-Khwarismi, the mathematician who introduced the world to the radical system of Hindu numerals - the numbers zero to nine - and how the word algebra comes from the Arabic title of one of his books.
In his book he revolutionised maths by focussing on the relationships between numbers rather than simply using maths to find the answer to particular problems. For mathematicians today, this was a vital development in our understanding. Another legacy was his name which gives us the modern word algorithm, a process that lies at the heart of how all computers work.
Professor Nader el-Bizri tells also of the great Ibn al-Haytham, who first realised how it is that vision works.
His work with light and optics was so revolutionary that he could be seen as the father of physics, rivaling Isaac Newton for the title.
Perhaps more importantly, he was also the instigator of what we now call the scientific method. Some people have thought that such a precise approach to scientific study began in Europe, hundreds of years later.
According to the popular notion of science history, the period between the ninth and thirteenth centuries was what has come to be called the Dark Ages.
Scientific advances ground to a halt and the world languished in an intellectual backwater and then the Renaissance happened. The world woke up and great science got going again, picking up where the ancient Greeks and Romans had left off.
But, as Professor Jim Al-Khalili will show in this series, that simply is not true.
While Europe may have been less productive during this period, elsewhere in the world a vast Islamic empire was buzzing with intellectual activity.
A massive movement to translate the work of other cultures allowed scholars working in Arabic to understand, build on and then surpass the scientific achievements of the past, leaving a valuable legacy to the scientists of the European Renaissance.
In part one Jim meets Professor Peter Pormann, a specialist in the history of medicine at the great library of the medical charity the Wellcome Trust in London. He introduces us to the great physician Mohammed Ibn Zakariya ar-Razi, whose groundbreaking work on differential diagnosis, specifically with measles and smallpox, was still being quoted in English and French texts hundreds of years after his death.
Jim also goes to the chemistry laboratory of Dr Andrea Sella, who tells us about Jabir Ibn Hayyan. Jim believes that Jabir was the true father of chemistry, responsible for elevating previous work to the status of a science.