Statement of Professor Jim Al-Khalili in the Opening Session

by Jim Al-Khalili Published on: 15th July 2010

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[Proceedings of the conference 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World organised by FSTC, London, 25-26 May 2010]. In this brief statement, Professor Jim Al-Khalili outlines some ideas about intercultural dialogue from the standpoint of science exchange between the West and the Islamic world. Departing from his experience as expert in science communication, he presents a short history of the British Science Association and highlights the tight links of collaboration this institution holds with the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC).

Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Abstract | Short biography

Figure 1-2: Professor Jim Al-Khalili presenting his lecture in the “1001 Inventions” conference. © FSTC 2010.

Statement of Professor Jim Al-Khalili (the University of Surrey and the British Science Association, UK) in the opening session of the conference, on 25 May 2010.

There is much talk these days of intercultural dialogue, usually taken to mean a dialogue between East and West, or between, say, Muslims and non-Muslims in the UK. But 51 years ago, the English physicist CP Snow delivered a lecture on The Two Cultures by which he meant something quite different, namely the division between science and the arts, particularly with reference to the fact that science was not seen as part of popular culture. So another form of intercultural dialogue is an engagement of scientists with the rest of society on what they do. This has yet to happen in the Islamic world, as it finally awakens from its centuries-long slumber.

What is so important to understand is that science, as an intellectual pursuit, cannot and should not be culture-dependent. The language of science, the language of Nature, is a common one across the world. And so, just as engaging with the public on scientific issues – from evolution to genetics, to nanoscience – is a form of intercultural dialogue. What is fascinating is that the universality of science can also be used as a means of unifying different socio-religious cultures.

The mission of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization (FSTC) is to use the cultural routes of science as a means of enhancing community cohesion and cultural inter-appreciation. The importance of science in enhancing cultural convergence brings a new dimension to the role of science as a uniting force in today’s world. More important is that this work, not only brings identity to the millions of young Muslims, but it also inspires them to take up science.

I was born in Baghdad, a city with one or two stories to tell. And like my good friend and fellow Iraqi ex-pat and chair of FSTC, Professor Salim al-Hassani, I am also an academic scientist; a quantum physicist to be specific. And so it is natural for me to have a keen interest in the scientific achievements of scholars in the city of my birth over one thousand years ago. Ninth-century Baghdad was a vibrant centre of intellectual enquiry in which Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sabeans and Zoroastrians debated and studied the philosophy of Aristotle, the medicine of Galen, the astronomy of Ptolemy and the mathematics of Euclid and Brahmagupta. The seeking of rational enlightenment was something common to all in multicultural medieval Baghdad and, in particular, in the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma).

But I would like to say a few words in my capacity as a trustee and vice president of the British Science Association. Formerly known as The British Association for the Advancement of Science (or the BA), this organisation was founded in York on 27 September 1831, envisaging a society in which people from all walks of life are able to access science, engage with it and feel a sense of ownership about its direction.

Britain’s success in the Peninsular War, culminating in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon, had left her in a state of exhaustion. Not only did post-war reconstruction in England lag behind that in other European countries, but neither the circumstances nor the ethos of the country were conducive to the promotion of science. Indeed, in 1830, Charles Babbage, the father of the computer, wrote about the decline of science in England. It was to redress this balance that the British Association was founded.

The original purpose of the organisation, expressed through its annual meetings held in different towns and cities throughout the UK, was:

‘To give a stronger impulse and a more systematic direction to scientific inquiry; to promote the intercourse of those who cultivate Science in different parts of the British Empire with one another and with foreign philosophers; to obtain more general attention for the objects of Science and the removal of any disadvantages of a public kind that may impede its progress.’

Today, the British Science Association continues to work at connecting science with people: promoting openness about science in society and affirming science as a prime cultural force through engaging and inspiring adults and young people directly with science and technology, and their implications.

We find that science is in the news now more than ever; with the exciting announcement of the creation of artificial life, speculation over the discovery of new subatomic particles at the Large Hadron Collider, or the debates over energy production and geo-engineering projects to tackle climate change, it would seem science is everywhere. To address these issues and as part of this national interest in science, the British Science Association brings people of all ages together at its week long Autumn festival to hear about and discuss science and its related issues, and the event generates enormous media coverage in a media-aware age.

We have an excellent relationship between our two organisations: the British Science Association and FSTC. From the very start of the 1001 Inventions project, there has been strong support from the Association. Its chief executive, Sir Roland Jackson, even wrote a forward to the 1001 Inventions book, and last September, Professor Al-Hassani was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Association. Such collaboration is a good model for many other countries to follow.

Increasing awareness of the Islamic world’s scientific heritage, both in the West and the East, is a vision I share with FSTC. After all, I have just written a book on the subject. And engaging with the public through dialogue on current scientific issues to achieve a better scientifically informed society in the Muslim world –the ethos of the British Science Association for nearly two centuries– ,is certainly the next step.

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