Friday, February 23, 2007

Muslims and Math

Given the sorry state of the Muslim world today, it's hard to believe that at one time it was a world leader in science, medicine, art, architecture, and tolerance. When my European ancestors were living in mud huts, eating gruel, and living their entire lives in superstition and squalor, the Muslims were building universities, trading with distant lands, and inventing algebra. In fact, so important are the contributions (indeed, the inventions) of Muslims to math that the words algebra and algorithm, as well as the use of x to represent an unknown quantity, have a direct lineage to the Muslim world of over a thousand years ago.

However, let's not go farther than is deserved in claiming mathematical breakthroughs to the medieval Muslims.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Magnificently sophisticated geometric patterns in medieval Islamic architecture indicate their designers achieved a mathematical breakthrough 500 years earlier than Western scholars, scientists said on Thursday.

By the 15th century, decorative tile patterns on these masterpieces of Islamic architecture reached such complexity that a small number boasted what seem to be "quasicrystalline" designs, Harvard University's Peter Lu and Princeton University's Paul Steinhardt wrote in the journal Science.

Only in the 1970s did British mathematician and cosmologist Roger Penrose become the first to describe these geometric designs in the West. Quasicrystalline patterns comprise a set of interlocking units whose pattern never repeats, even when extended infinitely in all directions, and possess a special form of symmetry.

"Oh, it's absolutely stunning," Lu said in an interview. "They made tilings that reflect mathematics that were so sophisticated that we didn't figure it out until the last 20 or 30 years."

Forgive me for dipping into the political, but among those of us who claim to be right of the American center, the source for the above news story is called al-Reuters. They support terrorists rather than our American fighting men and women, and seem to have some sort of stake in being pro-Arab and anti-American and anti-Israel.

But how does the story above, which has nothing to do with terrorism today, fit into that mold?

Joshua Socolar, a Duke university physicist, said it is unclear whether the medieval Islamic artisans fully understood the mathematical properties of the patterns they were making.

"It leads you to wonder whether they kind of got lucky," Socolar said in an interview. "But the fact remains that the patterns are tantalizingly close to having the structure that Penrose discovered in the mid-70s."

In other words, it's not at all clear that Muslim architects or artists of centuries ago knew anything about the mathematics that we (white Christians--that's the implication) didn't figure out until the 1970s. It seems far more likely that the tile patterns in question are just creative, beautiful examples of Islamic art dating from a time when artists in the West didn't even understand perspective drawing. Instead, al-Reuters has to create the headline "Medieval Muslims made stunning math breakthrough", even though there's no indication at all that any so-called breakthrough ever took place. The Arab world made enough contributions to Western math that it doesn't need a cheerleader to hype something that didn't take place.

It's difficult not to see this type of reporting as more of al-Reuters' support for all things Islamic. Shame.


Anonymous said...

That seems like how roller coasters have a clothoid loop. The circular loop caused lots of pain, but then some designers just "discovered" that the clothoid shape "worked". Just like how a chambered nautalis doesn't care that it has a geometric mean, even though the math books always use it as a real world application.

Anonymous said...

They invented Algebra. A lot are still smarter than everyone else today. By the way, generalizations like the ones you made indicate arrogance.

Darren said...

Here we go. I knew it would happen.

Care to identify which generalizations indicate arrogance? Or is it easier to hide behind anonymity and toss out bogus arguments?

Anonymous said...

Why'd you know it would happen?

Darren said...

Because there are plenty of people out there--even my fellow Americans, unfortunately--who like to follow al-Reuters' lead.

So again, which generalizations are arrogant? Might they be like this one: "A lot (Arabs/Moslems?) are still smarter than everyone else today"?

Anonymous said...

Just to let you know, I'm another anonymous person (I'm the one who made the first comment).