Did A Medieval Mathematician Predict The Discovery Of America?

Illustration for article titled Did A Medieval Mathematician Predict The Discovery Of America?

One thousand years ago, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a Central Asian scholar, conceived the concept of specific gravity, rejected creationism and argued that the Earth revolved around the sun. And now, according to one prominent academic, he also deserves to be remembered for discovering America.


At a recent conference held in Washington, DC, Professor S. Frederick Starr—the chair of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies—said that Biruni's tools "were not wooden boats powered by sail and muscular oarsmen, but an adroit combination of carefully controlled observation, meticulously assembled quantitative data and rigorous logic."

As reported in Science:

For the purpose of precisely determining the qiblah—the direction of Mecca during Islamic prayers—Biruni meticulously recorded coordinates of the places he visited, and compiled data on thousands of other Eurasian settlements from other sources. After plotting out the known world—possibly on a 5-meter-tall globe he is said to have constructed—he found that three-fifths of Earth's surface was unaccounted for.

"The most obvious way to account for this enormous gap was to invoke the explanation that all geographers from antiquity down to Biruni's day had accepted, namely, that the Eurasian land mass was surrounded by a 'world ocean,'" Starr relates …. Biruni rejected that notion in a passage flagged by the Indian scholar Sayyid Hasan Barani in the mid-1950s but overlooked in the decades since, Starr says. Biruni argued that the same forces that gave rise to land on two-fifths of our planet must have been at work in the other three-fifths. He concluded that one or more landmasses must lie between Europe and Asia, writing, "There is nothing to prohibit the existence of inhabited lands."

Illustration for article titled Did A Medieval Mathematician Predict The Discovery Of America?

Not everyone agrees with Starr's interpretation. "We don't say that Copernicus 'discovered' that the Earth moves around the sun simply based on the fact that he hypothesized that it does," says Nathan Sidoli, a science historian at Waseda University in Tokyo, "so I don't see why we should say that al-Biruni 'discovered' the American continent."

But Robert van Gent, a specialist on the history of astronomy at Utrecht University, says, "Assuming that the key passages in Biruni's texts have been correctly read, I see no reason to exclude al-Biruni from the list of early 'discoverers' of America."

[Source: Science magazine]


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sip the juice

I don't get how the Middle East and Central Asia were so thoroughly disconnected from Europe with regard to knowledge and thought. I understand Europe endured the Dark Ages, but not how that wholesale prevented information from seeping in from other lands. Perhaps I'm underestimating the stranglehold the Church had, but knowledge must have spread even by proximity, right?