A Story of Knowledge Diffusion
Editor's Note - Bob commented that he first used this story in 1992 when
he was the after dinner speaker at an IC2 - Institute of Creativity and
Capital, University of Texas, Austin - conference in San Fransisco. It has
been widely told many times, and by Bob at a recent conference in Bilbao.
This story relates to how the 'rediscovery' of ancient Greek learning
contributed to the revolutionary period known in Europe as the Renaissance.
Greek mathematics - including Pythagorean and Euclidean - was lost to
Europe when Greece was overrun by the expanding Byzantine Empire.
Fortunately, a group of Nestorian Christian scholars migrated to Gondisapur
close to Baghdad, which at that time (eighth century) was a thriving centre
of Islamic learning. The Greek texts were translated into Arabic and the
ideas were nurtured and developed through the centuries by Islamic scholars
who followed the best open and inquisitive academic traditions.
In time this knowledge passed to the Arabic academic centres of southern
Spain - Toledo and Cordova - where in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
radical (heretic) north European scholars such as Adelard of Bath and
Robert the Scot came to study and translated the Arabic into Latin.
Gradually these Latin texts found their way into north European
universities and became the foundation for a renaissance of scientific
inquiry that has led to many of the advances that underpin modern
Several reflections on this tale are worthwhile:
- None of these historic cities, nor the cultures in which they were
based, are currently world leaders as modern centres of learning or of
technology-led growth. But a science park is being established in Athens,
and science and technology parks do exist in southern Spain.
- Sophisticated and culturally rich civilisations coexisted concurrently
but independently during the period of the journey of Greek mathematics.
These included China, India, and some of the civilizations of South
America, but no equivalents existed in northern Europe or North America. A
major difference today is the power and immediacy of international
telecommunications, which can potentially merge cultures of the world into
one accessible whole.
- The role of population movements in spreading ideas is crucial and the
stimulus that can be gained from the transfer of people can have long term
effects. It is worth comparing the role and effect of higher education in
the United States and the large proportion of non-American participants,
some of whom stay, whereas others return home with their new knowledge.
- The role of culture is dominant in nurturing or repressing academic
inquiry. The shifting nature of culture can change from supportive of open
inquiry to repressive, and back again over centuries.
- International language plays a key role in storing and disseminating
knowledge, as it did in the early days of Greek, Arabic, and Latin and does
now principally with English. The task of scholars is to facilitate
communications between nations.
Email: Bob Hedgeson, Zernike UK
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