Zorba the Geek

I crammed in as many lectures on the History of Science as I could yesterday before the DVDs were due back to the library.

“Nerd!” the Big M would shout in his best Homer Simpson voice when he’d bust me watching these. And yes, the good doctor of philosophy on TV was sporting a classically nerdy v-necked sweater over chambray shirt and red tie combo, plus glasses and mustache while talking about a nerdy subject.

But I secretly suspect the Big M meant me.


That’s okay. I own my nerdiness. I revel in it. And he married me. So there.

Fun factoid I learned from these lectures: many words in the English language that start with the letters “al” are derived from Arabic. Al- is Arabic for “the.” So words like alkali, aluminum, alchemy, and alcohol were all originally Arabic.

I blame the last of these in part for al-spare tire around al-middle of my waist. *Boo! Hiss!*

Moving on, I also learned that the reason we have so many scientific words that come from Arabic (including tons in astronomy, such as stars named Betelgeuse, Vega and Rigel) has to do with the spread of Plato and Aristotle’s teachings in the ancient world. Both were the forefathers of modern science through what they called “natural philosophy.”

After the fall of Greek civilization, the Romans continued to study the Greek masters. They didn’t really expand things on the scientific front, however, and they never bothered to translate Plato or Aristotle into Latin because the leisured class that studied those works knew Greek. But later, after the Roman civilization fell, the citizens of the former Roman Empire got split into various new regimes, and the area we know today as Western Europe had mostly forgotten Greek and now spoke only Latin. By the early 700’s, the eastern part of the old Roman Empire, as well as north Africa and most of Spain, had been taken over by Islamic forces. These citizens learned the Arabic of their new government.

For the next 250 years, a great translation movement occurred in the Islamic world, predicated on the command of the Prophet Muhammad to, “Seek knowledge, even if it is in China.” Translators put Greek, Hindi, and Persian texts into Arabic. Plato and Aristotle became very influential in the Muslim world, and Islamic scholars used their texts as a jumping-off point for their own new discoveries.

It wasn’t until the 1100’s, after Jerusalem was re-captured by Christian crusaders, that the texts of Plato and Aristotle became accessible to most of Western Europe. Interestingly, most of the early translations into Latin were done from Arabic translations stored in libraries in Spain.

And once again I am reminded of how little I bothered to learn while living in that country. Sigh.

Categories: Brain Workouts

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2 replies

  1. Nonsense! You learned a heck of a lot about “fine beverages” in Salamanca.

  2. True that. And I was introduced to the national drink of Spain, sangria. That was a beautiful thing.

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