Science: Of Islam and Inventions
- Of Islam and Inventions
By ANAHAD OCONNOR
Published: August 12, 2007
THE story of aviation often begins with Leonardo da
Vincis designs for flying machines, which would later
inspire the Wright brothers and their famous sustained
flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
Yet centuries before Leonardo, in A.D. 875, Abbas bin
Firnas, a Muslim inventor in Spain, cloaked himself in
bird feathers, strapped himself to a glider made of
wood and silk, then jumped into the air and stayed
aloft for some time making him the first person in
recorded history to fly.
This tidbit and many others like it can be gleaned
from Islamic Science Rediscovered, an intriguing new
exhibition at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey
City that explores the vast spectrum of
accomplishments by Muslim scientists from A.D. 700 to
1700. It is a copy of a show that has been at the Ibn
Battuta Mall in Dubai since last year; it may make
other stops in the United States after it ends its run
in Jersey City.
Through interactive models and vivid displays and
artifacts, the exhibition illustrates how Muslim
scholars helped advance nine different scientific
disciplines, including medicine, engineering and
On display are 13th-century surgical tools that
influenced many of todays medical instruments,
ancient precursors of the internal combustion engine,
and astronomical equipment that traced the movements
of celestial bodies hundreds of years ago.
The show, designed by MTE Studios in South Africa, is
one of several new exhibitions that await visitors to
the Liberty Science Center, which reopened last month
after a two-year, $109 million transformation. The new
center contains high-tech, hands-on exhibitions like
one on skyscrapers and another on the Hudson River
that replace the simpler exhibits on subjects like
static electricity that visitors to the old center may
Simply put, this is science for big kids.
With Islamic Science Rediscovered, a primary goal is
to showcase the work of early Muslim scientists and
their influence on Western society an effort to
offer a balanced perspective on Islam.
This show is basically about science and technology,
said Wayne LaBar, the centers vice president for
exhibitions and theaters. But at the same time it is
also a show that allows us to create an understanding
of a different culture that in some ways is demonized
Where we are today is based on a lot of different
people and a lot of different cultures, he added,
and the show offers a way of connecting our modern
The exhibition begins with a visit to a re-created
souk, or Arab market, that includes a large and
colorful timeline showing the dates of scientific
achievements in the Muslim world juxtaposed with the
dates of momentous events in other societies.
Rather than overwhelm viewers with wall text and
complicated descriptions as scientific exhibitions
sometimes do this one engages with interactivity.
Visitors can play with engineering models, grip pulse
sensors to see their own heartbeats, examine a
four-foot-tall elephant clock, and experiment with
Another compelling element of the exhibition is its
attempt to bring to life the personalities behind the
brilliant inventions. Many of the displays revolve
around individual scientists and explorers, and
visitors can see their portraits and learn about the
quirks and convictions that guided them.
There is Ibn al-Jazari, the 12th-century scholar and
engineer whose myriad inventions and mechanical
contraptions make him seem a kindred spirit to Thomas
Edison. There is Al-Kwharizmi, the Persian astronomer
and mathematician whose name gave rise to the word
algorithm. And, of course, there is the
aviation-obsessed bin Firnas, who made his historic
first flight at the age of 70 and, just before leaping
into the air, is said to have told friends, If all
goes well, after soaring for a time, I should be able
to return safely to your side.
He did, and Islamic Science Rediscovered celebrates
The Liberty Science Center is at 251 Phillip Street in
Liberty State Park in Jersey City. Open daily this
summer, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Starting in September: closed
Mondays; open Tuesdays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5
p.m., and weekends and holidays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Information: (201) 200-1000 or lsc.org.
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