06 October 2011

A Day of Thoughts about a Nobel Prize

Written by 
Portion of arabesque in the Alhambra Palace Portion of arabesque in the Alhambra Palace http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15181187

It’s funny how thoughts run around in our heads, bouncing off a particular memory, a conversation, or an article just seen on the web. Here’s my story about today. I think you’ll find it just as fascinating as I did.

 This morning in my Introduction to Islam class I was lecturing on Islamic art and architecture. I asked the students why they thought that Muslims turned to calligraphy and arabesque (which depicts either floral or geometrical designs) as their privileged art forms. One student answered, “Because the abstract arabesque points to the infinity of God.” “Ah,” I replied, “You obviously did your reading for today!” Whether it’s the tiles of the famous mosques in Cordova or Granada, or some of the decorations of the Taj Mahal in India, these abstract forms draw our eyes beyond the diversity of the created world around us to the divine unity that gave birth to it in the first place.

 Then while eating lunch in my office, I read an article on the BBC website, “Nobel Win for a Crystal Discovery.” Israeli Daniel Shechtman, from the Haifa Technion (their equivalent of our MIT) was just awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, as a single researcher for his discovery of the structure of quasicrystals . . . a great story about a scientist whose research peers and superiors fiercely resisted, calling him an oddball, or worse, a deluded scientist going down a bunny trail.

 In 1982 he discovered a way to create quasicrystals in his lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington. First he heated up a combination of metals like manganese or aluminum and then squirted the molten mixture onto a cool surface. Then he sent an electron wave through this “grate”-like structure and observed how the metals' atoms refracted the wave.

 What he observed in his microscope dumbfounded him. The new elements looked like crystals, yet their structure was totally different. Crystals, as they multiply, repeat precisely their original form. These “quasicrystals,” however, were “made up of perfectly ordered, but never repeating, units.”

 Jennifer Carpenter, the author of the BBC article, had affixed the above picture to her piece –an arabesque from Islamic Spain. Further down she wrote,


“Irregular shapes, similar to what Dr Shechtman was seeing, are found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain. The tiles that line the walls and floors of the palace are regular, and follow mathematical rules, but also never repeat themselves.”


 Bingo, I thought. We humans, as the apex of God’s marvelous creation, explore his universe in all directions. As God’s trustees on this earth we occasionally make astounding discoveries, just as Shechtman did, but we also create. Islamic art was a form of worship, as were those fabulous cathedrals at about the same time, or eastern icons after prayer and fasting.

 Then I thought about Islam and mathematics, and began to browse. I found an article by Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin, who also writes a column on the Mathematical Association of America website. It was entitled, “The Mathematical legacy of Islam.”

 Beginning to read it, I was arrested by this bold statement: “As mathematicians, we are all children of Islam.”

 Much of what he said I had run across before. It’s true, the 9th-century Baghdad academy of science (“House of Wisdom,” directed, I should add, by a Nestorian Christian!) translated documents from the ancient Greeks, from the Indians, and from the Syriac scholars that preceded them.

 Then Devlin focuses on Al-Khwarizmi, astronomer to the Baghdad caliph, who was also a philosopher, scientist, theologian, and mathematician of note. Scholars at that time were “Renaissance men” long before the day! In any case, he wrote at least two books that set the course of mathematics later in Europe.

 About Al-Khwarizmi's first book Devlin comments:


“In particular, his book describing how to write numbers and compute with them using the place-value decimal system that came out of India would, when translated into Latin three hundred years later, prove to be a major source for Europeans who wanted to learn the new system.”

 The second one is entitled, “Kitab al-jabr w’al-muqabal” (“Book of restoration and compensation”). It was all about algebra – in fact algebra takes its name from this book title: al-jabr. Even more amazing is the origin of the word “algorithm” we use in math today. The Latin translations of al-Khwarizmi’s books began with “dixit Algorismi.” The name stuck, and was later used to refer to one kind of mathematical operation.

 Yes, I can see how we have all been impacted for good by the interfaith collegiality of Abbasid Baghdad or Islamic Spain (al-Andalus).

 So at the end of this tiring day, I still feel inspired by all these converging thoughts. Congratulations to Daniel Shechtman for his perseverance in the face of much opposition and ridicule! His discovery has made possible all kinds of wonderful applications in our daily lives. And God bless this year’s president elect of the American Chemical Society, Bassam Shakhashiri, who in the following comments given to the BBC on this Nobel Prize, would have made his Arab ancestor al-Khwarizmi proud:


"This is how we make progress in science. [If] someone comes up with a discovery that we are skeptical about…we [have to] take time to verify the observations and discuss the conclusions among ourselves. This is a really great example of the triumph of science. And an opportunity for all of us... who are curious about nature, to be vigilant, to be careful, and to engage in respectful debate about the interpretation of results."

 Let that “respectful debate” swell evermore from the far corners of the globe, and let human creativity flourish – under many religious labels – to the glory of the One Creator!