Friday, December 25, 2009

Back to the Past: S.F. Starr and Central Asia

When I was at Oberlin, a musician/Soviet scholar was President--S. Frederick Starr.  Like any establishment figure, he was widely reviled at Oberlin, feared that he would deliberately change Oberlin to make it less liberal.  I always thought this is overwrought.  I did wonder how well he fit,* despite his combination of interests and the reality that he was far more of a renaissance man than the average Obie.  So, when he shows up again and again, I wonder whether Oberlin did him wrong. 

Well, he has done just fine since Oberlin, and now has a very interesting essay in the Wilson Quarterly on Central Asia, cited as one of the best of the year by David Brooks.

Between 800 and 1100 this pleiad of Central Asian scientists, artists, and thinkers made their region the intellectual epicenter of the world. Their influence was felt from East Asia and India to Europe and the Middle ­East.
And glorious it was. It is hard to know where to begin in enumerating the intellectual achievements of Central Asians a millennium ago. In mathematics, it was Central Asians who first accepted irrational numbers, identified the different forms of cubic equations, invented trigonometry, and adapted and disseminated the decimal system and Hindu numerals (called “Arabic” numbers in the West). In astronomy, they estimated the earth’s diameter to a degree of precision unmatched until recent centuries and built several of the largest observatories before modern times, using them to prepare remarkably precise astronomical tables.

In chemistry, Central Asians were the first to reverse reactions, to use crystallization as a means of purification, and to measure specific gravity and use it to group elements in a manner anticipating Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of 1871. They compiled and added to ancient medical knowledge, hugely broadened pharmacology, and passed it all to the West and to India. And in technology, they invented windmills and hydraulic machinery for lifting water that subsequently spread westward to the Middle East and Europe and eastward to China.
Anyway, interesting stuff.

*  Of course, I might have always been suspicious of Starr less for the peer pressure at Oberlin and more for his denial of his first name--Stephen.  He goes by S. Fred and not Stephen F.

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