Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Iran nukes issue as an intro to "The Moon Landing"

These days its easy to find images of the ugly crowd in Iran chanting slogans. But I had to browse the Google image finder for quite a while before I found one that had the right geometric property for a discussion of Iran’s nuclear technology issue.

One placard the crowd is holding says, “Death to America,” as expected. The other two say “nuclear development is Iran’s right,” and “We want our legal rights in NPT (the nuclear non-proliferation treaty).” You’ll notice that I have been able to draw a straight line across the picture separating the two sentiments cleanly. In most other pictures this geometric property is absent. The two issues are mingled in a not-so-easily-drawn demarcation. And if they are separable, the proportion isn’t right. Notice the “Death to America” portion is smaller than the side which says “nuclear development is Iran’s right.”

After I am done painting Iran as a nation of mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, you will see that even these proportions are unfair. The history of Persian civilization is much more about higher intellect than it is about radicalism, and superstitious religiosity. I will then give an emotional dimension to this point of view by presenting one of my short stories, “The Moon Landing.” An autobiographical account of what went on in my own family the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

The moon is a good place to start this extremely brief overview of Iran’s scientific history because there is a crater on the far side of the moon named after the tenth century Persian mathematician Al Khawrazmi. Why is he so honored? In small part because his influential book on arithmetic taught Europe how to write numbers and do arithmetic in the efficient way we do now. It was extremely cumbersome to do multiplication, division and fractions and advanced mathematics in Roman numerals, and the absence of the number zero was a huge impediment in the development of European science and mathematics. In his book, Khawrazmi compiled the methods of Indian mathematics which Europe then adopted wholesale. This includes our “Arabic” numeral system which is really the Indian numeral system introduced to Europe through Khawrazmi’s scholarly work.

In larger part Khawrazmi is honored today because he is known as the father of algebra-- which is a shortened version of the title of another of his books Al jabr va moghabelat. Today this first of the “difficult math subjects” is a prerequisite to taking calculus, differential equations and beyond. Why? because it was historically the prerequisite to the development of these mathematical tools of science.

Khawrazmi and other Iranian mathematicians like Al-Karaji (10th century), born in a town a few miles west of where I grew up in Tehran, helped develop the easy way in which engineers and scientists set up equations and go about solving them in the algorithmic way that they do now. In fact our word “algorithm” is probably a Medieval mis-pronunciation of the name of the author Al-khawrazmi.

The emphasis of Persian algebra on the use of algorithms is a leap of the intellect roughly analogous to the invention of the computer, because algebra is a machine that lifts a huge burden of thinking from us by reducing analysis to mindless operations—the way we let software do most of the work these days. Prior to algebra, problems had to be reasoned through every step of the way. Using Algebra as a lever, mathematics could now bite off much bigger problems than it could chew in the past. This machine of the mind began what I privately call “the industrial revolution of mathematics.” Because it triggered the invention of many later mathematical machines such as calculus, without which modern science would be impossible.

But mathematics isn’t the whole of science. Let’s see what the Iranian scholar Tusi was thinking in the 13th century. He says, "Look at the world of animals and birds. They have all that is necessary for defense, protection and daily life, including strengths, courage and appropriate tools [organs].” From these observations Tusi went on to describe a theory of evolution where hereditary variability was the leading force of evolution. In words that sound like Tusi is teaching a biology class on mutation he says, “The organisms that can gain the new features faster are more variable, as a result they gain advantages over other creatures.” 600 years before Darwin Tusi did not spark a Scopes trial, though this Muslim scholar believed that humans are not only related to apes, but that apes are in fact a kind of human. Iran’s 13th century Darwin.

Here’s is another` Persian scientist, Biruni, being a geologist in the 11th century: “But if you see the soil of India with your own eyes and meditate on its nature, if you consider the rounded stones found in the earth however deeply you dig. Stones that are huge near the mountains and where the rivers have a violent current. Stones that are of smaller size at a greater distance from the mountain. And where the streams flow more slowly stones that appear pulverized in the shape of sand. Or Where the streams begin to stagnate near their mouths and near the sea. If you consider all this you can scarcely help thinking that India was once a sea, which by degrees has been filled up by the alluvium of the streams. Iran’s11th century Charles Lyell.

Let’s move on to the astounding genius of the scientist/philosopher Ibn-Sina who lived in Hamedan, the same city my father was born. He proposed that a body stays in the same place or continues moving at the same speed in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force. This law of physics --rediscovered by Galileo 400 years later—is known as Newton’s first law of motion. And Ibn-Sina doesn’t stop with Newton, he says “If every single thing throughout the world was motionless, time would have no meaning.” Iran’s 11th century Einstein.

These scientists aren’t unknowns of history among Iranians. Our affection for these men of science is encoded in the myths and legends I grew up with. In a story reminiscent of some we tell today about the antics of the brilliant American physicist Richard Feynman, Ibn-Sina is said to have been such a wonderous physician that he could no longer stand being mobbed by his patients. Instead he had a rope one end of which was in the waiting room and the other in his office. The patient held on to one end of the rope and ibn-Sina, holding on to the other end, would diagnose him. One day, just to test him, a man brought in his cat and put the cat’s paw on the rope. When he opened his perscription on the way out, it said, “There’s nothing wrong with your cat that a less stingy feeding wouldn’t remedy.”

Ibn-Sina, who did not believe in alchemy, studied and severely criticized the works of another great 10th century Persian scientist, Al Razi who was born in a city just a few miles south of Tehran, where I was born. This alchemist is credited with the discovery of alcohol and its use as an antiseptic in medicine. He is also believed to have discovered sulphuric acid. Razi was a genius of classification. For instance he compiled a description of all the glassware and instruments used in standard chemsitry until recent times. The Hollywood image of the mad scientist cackling over beakers, tubes and alembics goes back to Razi. And whenever you say, “animal vegetable or mineral,” remember Razi, because he was the first to classify objects as such.

Then there’s the great Al-Haytham (11th century) , the father of optics. Persians and Arabs fight over Al-Haytham because he was born in Basra, a town that now sits just inside the border with Iraq not very far from Bushehr where Iran is building a nuclear reactor. Basra went in an out of the Persian empire as the empire expanded and shrank throughout history. When Al-Haytham was born, Basra was in Southern Persia, so Iranians claim him. It is highly likely that the ethnicity of this great physicist was Arabic-- unlike the other scholars I have mentioned, who were ethnically Persian. But the very fact that Persians fight to claim Al-Haytham suggests the zeal with which the Iranian civilization collects and protects scientific heritage.

Putting my nationalist hat back on, the great Persian Empire scientist Al Haytham studied the reflection of light by curved mirrors, and refraction by water and the atmosphere. He investigated the magnifying power of lenses, discussed rainbows, binocular vision and so on. He also corrected Ptolemy and Euclid’s idea that vision results from the eye sending out rays to the object. In a thought experiment very Einsteinian in texture he argued that if the eye sends out rays to the object, then nearer objects should become visible earlier than distant objects. Then using the scientific method he simply did the experiment when he closed his eyes and opened them again to the stars. The distant stars of course became immediately visible, disproving earlier theories of vision.

And on and on and on… to show that Iran’s desire for advanced technologies is much less a quest for political power than a desire to preserve an important chunk her national soul.

I hope at this point I have been able to show that the demarcation in the above photograph is not only qualitatively correct—one side is bigger than the other-- but that it is quantitatively unfair. Iranian's legal rights under the NPT are of hugely greater concern for Iran than her beef with the United States or Israel.

So what happened to the iranians? With this tremendous amount of science and mathematics, why didn’t Iran start the rennaisance instead of Europe. I’m broaching the topic even though it is outside the scope of this discussion because the question is such an obvious one it deserves to be mentioned. Too bad it can’t be explored here. Enough to say that Iranians believe the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century which decimated Iran’s population had something to do with it. It’s not the whole story by any means—Iran’s social and political structure , and also its geography were major factors--but whatever the reasons, in July of 1969 when the Americans landed on the moon all of this history caught up with us in a very personal way.

My short story “The Moonlanding,” was written against this backdrop of national soul searching

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