Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
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A Diwan of contemporary life (333)

In the early 1920s, and after having established itself as Egypt's leading newspaper, Al-Ahram launched a regular science column which appeared two or three times a week. The project was intended to get the public to treat science as a serious and enlightening endeavour rather than just "oddities" and "anecdotes" as the general view was at the time. The science column was unsigned, indicating that it was authored by a staff writer. It dealt with a wide range of subjects, taking readers up high into the skies and other celestial bodies. The topics also included earthly concerns like earthquakes and new ventures like Madame Curie's discovery of radium. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* flips through the columns and tells us about some of their contents

Peering at the heavens

When Al-Ahram began publishing in the mid-1870s, it tended to view the products advancement in the natural sciences as "oddities" and "anecdotes." This attitude continued for quite some time. However, towards the end of the 19th century this sense of detached, bewildered amazement evolved into an admiration combined with a thirst for knowledge.

And, how radically different the two approaches. The first can be described as a product of the era of metaphysics -- a mystical acceptance of phenomena, which are taken for granted but, when perceived to exceed natural bounds, are beheld as miracles. This attitude, which prevailed in medieval Europe, was embraced and fostered by the religious establishment as embodied in the Catholic church and was one of the foremost causes of the backwardness that inspired later historians to label this period the Dark Ages.

It was not until the Renaissance that Europe emerged from centuries of darkness, having been set on the course to enlightenment by the scientific and academic works of Arab scholars who had acquired widespread repute at the time. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Al-Haitham and Ibn Al-Nafees are but a few of the illustrious names that epitomise the intensive intellectual activity that was taking place in the Arab and Islamic world while Europe was in its deep slumber. These scholars incorporated into Arab thought the Hellenic and Roman scientific and philosophical heritage, and added new and original contributions of their own. Much of the fruits of this fertile activity were eventually transmitted to Europe, the result of which was that by the 16th century, European scholars began to rebel against the benighted metaphysical beliefs. Thus the likes of Copernicus, Galileo and Bacon began to prod a reluctant world into scientific consciousness through their revolutionary observations on astronomy, altering the way man looked at himself and his world in relationship to the universe.

But this transition did not come easily. Numerous confrontations took place between advocates of the metaphysical and the scientific approaches, perhaps the most notorious occurring in 1632 when the famous Italian mathematician and astronomer Galileo was brought before a church court and forced, at the pain of death, to retract his findings concerning the revolution of the earth around the sun.

Egypt under Ottoman rule experienced an intellectual climate not dissimilar to that of medieval Europe. Perhaps that conversation that took place in 1750 between the Turkish Wali (ruler) Ahmed Pasha and the Al-Azhar scholar Sheikh Abdallah El-Shabrawi, and recorded by the famous late 18th century Egyptian historian Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti best epitomises this climate.

A multiple exposure of a solar eclipse taken at five-minute intervals
In this dialogue, Ahmed Pasha said he was disappointed after coming to Egypt at the absence of mathematical sciences and the prevalence of Islamic jurisprudence only. El-Shabrawi replied that the scholars of Al-Azhar were mostly poor and lacked the proper material requisites for scientific research.

Fortunately, following this conversation, Sheikh El-Shabrawi was able to tell the ruler about one of the few Al-Azhar scholars who did meet the conditions he outlined. This was none other than Sheikh Hassan El-Gabarti, who at the time was a student of astronomy and mathematics. Sheikh Hassan was the father of our famous historian. From Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti's account we can discern that the study of the natural sciences was the rare exception, available only to those able to afford private tutelage. Otherwise, Al-Azhar students were left to the traditional study of Islamic jurisprudence and philology.

The transition to the systematic study of the natural sciences began in the era of Mohamed Ali, but only within the very narrow framework of the educational system that was instituted to form the cadres for the incipient modern state. Even with the emergence of the press under the Khedive Ismail, newspapers were loath to broach such a specialised subject. While it is true that certain periodicals, such as Al-Muqtataf, which appeared in 1885, showed an interest in developments in the natural sciences, their circulation was very limited. As a result, by the turn of the century, there had not yet evolved a popular scientific culture in Egypt capable of embracing the products of science and technology other than as "oddities" and "anecdotes." Thus, when a daily newspaper with a circulation as large as that of Al-Ahram introduces, in the last quarter of 1923, a permanent column entitled "Scientific research," this indicates a qualitative shift worthy of note.

"Scientific research" was not a daily column, but it did appear twice and sometimes three times a week. The column was not signed, which in the Al-Ahram tradition generally indicated that it was produced by a staff writer, from which it is possible to say that even at that early time the newspaper had a "science editor." From the considerable public response to the columns, it is clear that it was followed closely by a broad sector of intellectuals. Many of these were teachers, like "Misiha Girgawi -- science teacher at the secondary school level in Al-Nahda Al-Haditha School in Alexandria" and "Ahmed Ali Ibrahim -- geography teacher in the Helwan School," as they signed their letters. Not infrequently, too, Al-Azhar graduates would contribute their comments, particularly when the substance of the columns conflicted with their convictions.

Astronomy, the science, sometimes referred to as "the geometry of the universe," which Europeans pioneered in the 16th century through a combination of mathematical and technological breakthroughs, seems to have occupied the greatest space in the "Scientific research" column. Perhaps this is because the Egyptians, like the Europeans before them, had become riveted to the skies as the repository for the secrets of science, secrets that began to unfold regularly on the pages of Al-Ahram.

Under the headline, "The magnitude of the infinite universe," appearing in Al-Ahram on 16 September 1923, the science editor attempted to offer readers a simplified picture of the universe, "with all its innumerable suns, stars and planets that move at astounding speed through a space that has no beginning and no end." He goes on to say that were man to create a means of transport that could move at the speed of light, it would reach the moon, which is located at a distance of 89,000 kilometres from earth, in 1.33 seconds. And, "from there we would see the earth as a planet some four times as big as the full moon that we view from earth."

The writer moves on to Mars, the closest planet to the earth and located "only" 60 million kilometres away. "This planet is smaller than the earth, with a diameter just over half of that of the earth's, less than a tenth of the mass of the earth and with a much thinner atmosphere." In an imaginary interview with one of the creatures that inhabit that planet, the writer has that being express its belief that there could be no life on earth. It argues that a person weighing 75 kilogrammes on Mars would weigh more than 200 kilogrammes on earth. Moreover, the earth is too close to the sun, making life impossible, whereas "Mars is fit for life, neither too hot nor too cold."

Saturn, writes the science editor, is 745 times the size of the earth, with a year that lasts 165 earth years and has nine moons. Then, as though to put the vast distances and sizes within our solar system into context, he turns to the stars, notably the "Alpha" star, which is the closest star to the sun. In order to drive home the distance between this star and the earth, he observes that "were that star to witness an explosion it would take three million years for us to hear its reverberation."

The author concludes, "The more we probe into infinite space the more we come across new worlds, each consisting of thousands of stars billions and billions of miles from one another, until we reach the limits of the galaxy which to the inhabitants of the earth appears as though it is made of grains of sand, although each grain is a blazing sun."

Having taken kindly to the subject of "infinite space," Al-Ahram's science writer follows with another article entitled "The geography of the heavens," in which he describes the discoveries that enabled astronomers to draw a map of the skies as can be seen in a planetarium. These skies, he writes, are made up of "fiery orbs, like the sun, each of which is orbited by a number of planets similar to those in the solar system." He continues, "Since antiquity mankind has been amazed by the fact that one could see over 3,000 stars with the naked eye on a clear night. Since, at night, we only see half the sky, we should double this figure, resulting in the conclusion that the total number of stars that it is possible to see with the naked eye exceeds 6,000."

He then proceeds to give a brief history of man's efforts to count the stars. By the end of the 17th century, he writes, scientists had enumerated more than 1,500 stars, a figure which rose to approximately 48,000 by the end of the following century and to more than 450,000 by the end of the 19th century. Then, in the early part of the 20th century, astronomers took advantage of developments in photography and, dividing outer space into quadrants, they photographed each quadrant 1,200 times from 18 observatories stationed around the globe. Using this method, by the early 1920s, their calculations resulted in a universe filled with more than 30 million stars.

If readers were flabbergasted by the vastness of outer space, they would certainly be intrigued by the notion of the possibility of life on other planets. Evidently, Al-Ahram's science editor felt this, too, for his speculation on the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe led to four instalments of "Scientific research."

The first of these installments opens by rebuking the inhabitants of the earth for their egoism in wanting to restrict life in the universe to their planet alone and for "believing that nowhere else in the universe can there be life similar to that which exists on earth." He contends that the likelihood of life existing elsewhere in the universe is very strong. Taking Mars as an example, he points out that the Martian day is 24 hours, 37 minutes and 23.5 seconds long and the length of the year is 686 days, 23 hours, 29 minutes and 41 seconds. More importantly, the evidence of canals on the surface of that planet, canals that appear to be artificially made, gives preponderance to the likelihood of intelligent life forms.

He goes on to say that Western scientists speculate that if there are intelligent beings on Mars then "they must be more advanced than we are, in keeping with the law of evolution, because Mars is thousands of centuries older than the earth and because its climate is more conducive to evolutionary development than the earth's." He adds that some believe that Martians tried to contact earthlings millions of years ago, but "when no response was forthcoming they came to the conclusion that the earth was uninhabited, a conclusion which they further justified on the grounds of its proximity to the sun and excess heat, its speed of orbit around the sun and the greater weight of objects on earth relative to their weight on Mars." Such thoughts remain alive today, and they have inspired science fiction literature and movies, not to mention beliefs that such colossal monuments as the pyramids were the work of creatures from outer space.

His subsequent article was devoted to "planets capable of sustaining life." He explains that life on earth could only have come about in one of three ways. The first is an act of divine creation. The second is that "molecules amassed and merged to generate rudimentary life forms which then evolved over time until they attained their present appearance." The third is "through the growth of substances present in the ether that are capable of development."

Marie Curie
El-Gabarti Top to bottom: Madame Curie (R) and her daughter Irène; Historian Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti
Taking these alternatives by turn, he argues that the first, founded upon religious conviction, does not refute the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, "for there is no reason why our Lord, the Creator, should single out the earth alone to demonstrate his power and glory." Similarly, were one to accept the principle of molecular evolution on earth, "why should a similar process not occur on another planet?" Finally, if life did emerge from substances in the universal ether then other planets, too, should be able to generate life derived from their surrounding ether.

This, of course, does not mean that other conditions are not essential. The moon and Mercury, for example, cannot sustain life, "because their temperatures are seven times those on earth and water, if it exists, could only exist as vapour." Venus, on the other hand, "is enveloped by a dense atmosphere that alleviates the excessive heat of the sun," while Mars, the closest planet to earth, "has water, oxygen, nitrogen and all the other elements that exist on earth, as well as snow-covered areas that shrink in the summer and expand in winter, not to mention canals that are possibly man-made."

Returning to earth, and bringing his readers a little closer to terra firma, the "Scientific research" column discusses the solar eclipse that occurred on 10 September 1923. Although this eclipse was not visible from Egypt, "scientists flocked to California and Mexico to photograph the sun during its full eclipse, enabling them to better study its characteristics in the service of science."

A solar eclipse, he explained to his readers, occurred when the moon interposed itself between the earth and the sun, "causing the shadow of the moon to be cast on the earth, thereby prescribing a dark disk that can be seen from those parts of the earth facing the sun." He adds that eclipses, depending upon the portion of the globe they are seen from, can either be full, circular or partial. He says that through their research into solar eclipses, "scientists have been able to learn the substances that make up the corona of the sun, which can only be seen in an eclipse."

Well, not quite terra firma, for the writer in another article discusses the earthquake that hit Japan on 1 September 1923, an event reported elsewhere in Al-Ahram under the headline, "Japan and its great catastrophe." This earthquake wreaked massive destruction in the area between Tokyo and Osaka. The quake also extended into the ocean, triggering "tidal waves that sank many ships and caused considerable devastation on the shores." The newspaper's account continues, "It has been impossible to send in relief to the disaster-struck areas, for transportation in Japan has come to a halt."

Because of the scale of this disaster, in which approximately 260,000 people lost their lives, Al-Ahram's science editor attempts to convey to his readers the appalling experience: "People cried out in terror as the ground which we think is so stable began to shake beneath their feet, as violently as the spastic convulsions brought on by heavy fever, while the pores of the earth spewed gasses and ash high into the air and its crust opened to swallow every living thing on it."

The author goes on to explain the cause of earthquakes. The interior of the earth, he relates, is extremely hot, a fact mankind has learned from the fiery lava that emerges from inside the earth when volcanoes erupt. The molten substances inside the earth build up intensive heat in the course of their fusion, generating enormous pressure that seeks an outlet through the earth's crust, which "relative to the earth is thinner than an eggshell." This process leads to the fissuring of the surface of the earth or to volcanic eruptions.

"Scientific research" then turns to the equally mind-boggling world of radioactive physics. Not surprisingly, the first to receive mention was Madame Curie and her discovery, in 1898, of radium, which later proved so valuable to medicine. Under the headline, "The most expensive thing in the world," our science writer relates that "it takes tons of rock to extract even the most minuscule amounts of this valuable mineral. In all of Europe, at present, no more than 40 grams have been extracted, while in the US no more than 170 grams have been extracted. These 210 grams of radium combined are worth between LE3.5 and LE5 million" -- certainly an astronomical sum at the time.

Another article, "Electricity is the key to life," focuses on the various medical uses of electricity. Some scientists, he writes, believe that electricity is the "primary substance of matter, due to the positively and negatively electrically charged particles it contains." Amplifying on this notion, he explains that every cell of the human body is made up of millions of electrically charged particles and that the aging of these cells is brought on by imbalances in the movement of these particles. He adds, "If science succeeds in remedying these imbalances, it will have enabled mankind to conquer illness and old age and prolong his life."

Al-Ahram's science writer may, on occasion, have been guilty of that journalistic foible of selecting his subject matter for its sensationalist value. One strongly suspects this was the case with the "Scientific research" instalment entitled, "The unknown -- two French scientists assert that it is possible to predict the future -- fact or fancy?" But, perhaps it is to his credit that, although he dwelt at length on elucidating the two scientists' opinion "that man can develop the ability to foresee the incidents that will befall him as clearly as he has seen the incidents that befell him," he concludes that life with such clairvoyance would be "nothing but misery and bitterness." We agree with him.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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