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Science & Technology: Historic Innovation, Modern Solutions

Cutting-edge science in the Middle East

Following the rise of Islam in the seventh century C.E., science and technology flourished in the Islamic world to a far greater extent than they did in the West. Muslim rulers promoted the translation of Greek philosophy and science texts, and then encouraged further scientific exploration in numerous fields, among them mathematics, astronomy, medicine, pharmacology, optics, chemistry, botany, philosophy, and physics.

In mathematics, Muslim scholars introduced the use of zero, solutions to quadratic equations -- even the Arabic word "algebra."

Muslim astronomers knew the Earth was round and calculated its diameter. Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040) explored momentum, gravity, and optics 600 years before Galileo was accused of heresy for arguing that the Earth orbited the Sun.

Medicine was one of the most important fields of endeavor. Muslim doctors were surgically removing cataracts and treating kidney and gallstones while Europeans were still using leeches on their patients. Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna, 980-1037) wrote al-Qanun fi al-Tibb, or the Canons of Medicine, a seminal volume that was the first to recognize the contagious nature of tuberculosis, identify meningitis, and describe all the minute parts of the eye. By the 12th century, the Canons had been translated into Latin, and European medicine relied on this text until well into the 1700s.

An engraving of Muslim pioneer astronomer Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040) [ enlarge ]

Much of the knowledge developed by the Muslims and transmitted to the Europeans enabled Europe to emerge from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance.

The technological advance of the West

A page from Avicenna's seminal tome of medical learning, Canons of Medicineenlarge ]

During the 16th century, the Ottoman astronomer Taqi al-Din made astronomical tables that were considered at least as accurate as those of fellow 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe of Denmark, whose observations of the planets served as the basis for Kepler's Laws of planetary motion. Only a century later, though, the Ottomans and their Muslim contemporaries in Mughal India and the Persian Safavid Empire ceased to support scientific research and innovations.

This change was due in part to the shifting priorities and educational systems of these empires. Not unlike Europe in previous centuries, groups wanting to protect the status quo became more powerful than those advocating growth and experimentation. Meanwhile, building on the earlier accomplishments of Muslim scientists, Europe's scientific and industrial revolutions began to give the West a military and economic advantage over the Islamic world.

By the 19th century, when Middle Eastern states like Egypt, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire decided to develop modern infrastructure, including railroads and telegraph lines, the work had to be contracted to foreign firms. The cash-strapped Middle Eastern governments sold concessions -- the right to develop and then profit from these infrastructure development projects -- to European companies. These opportunities gave European governments an interest in influencing Middle Eastern regimes, in order to both win the contracts and then protect their investments. In this way, the technological and industrial capabilities of the West reinforced its political and economic power in the region. Technological dependence on the West, however, was seen as a threat to the independence of the Islamic world, and resentment against Western power began to rise.

Technological advances in the modern Middle East

Historically, some of the most important technological achievements in the Middle East were related to the use of water, from the ancient Iranian qanats (underground canals that brought water from the mountains to the arid plain) to the modern dam systems on the Nile and Euphrates Rivers.

Begun in 1898, Egypt's Aswan Dam was expanded with Soviet support in the 1960s. [ enlarge ]

In 1898, the Aswan Dam became the first major modern dam project, resulting in the successful damming of the Nile. In the 1960s, an expansion of the Aswan Dam was built with Soviet support.

Unfortunately, while these Nile dams regulated the water flow to cropland, generated vital electricity, and shielded Egypt from years of drought, they also introduced environmental problems that have cast a shadow on their overall success. Since the Nile no longer floods, the rich silt that used to fertilize Egyptian fields is instead accumulating in Lake Nasser behind the Aswan Dam. As a result, farmers downstream are forced to use massive amounts of artificial fertilizers, which in turn run off into, and pollute, the Nile.

Workmen in this undated photo use a water screw to help in irrigating fields in Egypt's Nile Delta. [ enlarge ]

The overall aridity of the region has motivated some of the richer countries to search for technological solutions to their water requirements. Through sustained investment in research, they have become experts in water desalination, water recycling, and solar energy. The region's oil-poor countries, however, Egypt among them, cannot afford such advanced technologies and remain dependent on more traditional water resources.

Scientific discovery and technological implementation varies widely in the Middle East today. Israel's current position as a technological leader and its close economic relationship with the West stand in sharp contrast to its Arab neighbors. Israel, for example, is a world leader in the development of voice-recognition software for computers.

Access to technology

As in other regions of the world, access to technology parallels the disparity in lifestyles throughout the region. Some people are scarcely aware of the Internet, while others make their living from it. Even so, cheap, portable technologies are transforming the Middle East.

A young woman pauses from shopping to talk on a cellular telephone in a Kuwaiti shop, c. 2000. [ enlarge ]

Cellular phones, for example, are increasingly popular in the Middle East, providing telephone access in more remote communities as well as in crowded urban areas. Wireless service bypasses the difficult and expensive requirements for laying out and maintaining telephone cables.

Satellite television news stations like Al-Jazeera provide new and varied sources of information to people in the Middle East who once had access only to government-controlled media. The Internet may have a similar effect.

Internet cafes have sprung up in major cities and in regional centers throughout the Middle East, providing access to news and information for people who cannot afford to buy a computer themselves. In some nations, however, the government is the only Internet provider and may censor the available content.

Oil-poor countries do not have the economic resources to take advantage of these new technologies. The ability to access new technology is related to both economic resources and political openness.

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Technological advances in the modern Middle East

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