Sunday, 11 March 2012

Humour and (More) History

If Sunday was all about history, on Monday I was expecting to be entertained, more than informed. I had a ticket to see Sandi Toksvig. I love her dry humour, and thoroughly enjoy her as host of ' Radio 4's News Quiz. I also missed seeing her when she was due to appear in Bath a couple of years ago, as she was ill and had to cancel, so was particularly pleased to see she was going to be at the Lit. Fest. this year.

Sandi is possibly Denmark's best known import to this country, (after bacon) - I am most familiar with her radio work, but she's also a regular columnist and has written a number of books.  She admitted, when asked, that her upcoming book, Valentine Grey, has communalities with her other books "I used a lot of the same words. But in a different order". It's a novel set during the 2nd Boer War (1899). The eponymous heroine disguises herself as a man and joins a bicycle regiment and goes to war. Toksvig explained that she got the original idea to set a book in a bicycle regiment in the Boer War after seeing a memorial in (I think) Canterbury Cathedral. It fired her imagination, she wrote the novel, and then went back and found that the memorial which started the whole thing was, in fact, in remembrance of members of a bicycle regiment in a different war, and a diferent country....

She read a short extract from the book, about the first occasion Valentine tries on male clothes, and talked a little about the way clothes change the world - Pockets! Trousers!

the conversation wasn't limited to the book (which isn't out yet) but also encompassed comedy (and the terrible scandal of the 'cuts' joke she made on R4 last year.."It's the Tories who have put the "n" into cuts" which led on to talking about politics and politicians more generally, to Sandi’s childhood and her family.

When we got to the Q&A section she was asked about the Great Marmite Scandal (last year there were a lot of news headlines about marmite being banned in Denmark) Sandi explained that the Danes are not interested in Marmite because they have real food, like herring…

More than any of the other events I’ve attended this one felt like a conversation we were lucky enough to have joined, rather than a scripted ‘talk’.

After the event, I got Sandi to sign my copy of ‘Hitler’s Canary’, and she definitely wins the ‘friendliest author of the festival’ prize, too!

Two days later I was back at the Guildhall to listen to physicist  Professor Jim Al-Khalili, talking about the “Golden Age of Arabic Science”.

He started by explaining that the “Dark Ages” between the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance, were really only ‘Dark’ in western Europe, and that during this time, and in particular during the period from the 8th to 10th Centuries, Arabic was the language of Science, and Baghdad was the centre of the scientific world. Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph, was tolerant and encouraged scholars within his empire.

This wasn’t a solely Islamic phenomenon; although Islam did feed into a great deal of the science; for instance, the need to be able to accurately locate Mecca was one of the motives for work on astronomy, cartography and geometry, but the Caliphate welcomed scholars from other countries and religions, and extensive work was done to translate earlier scientific writings such as those of Aristotle, Euclid and Galen. 

I think it’s fairly well known that  the word algebra comes from the Arabic. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi wrote a book ; Kitab al-jebra, which set out the principals of solving algebraic equations, and which ultimately became Latinised to ‘algebra’, but what we learned was that the word ‘algorithm’ comes from the latinisation of al – Khwarizmi’s name – he was known as Algorithmus!

 There was also Ibn Sina (980-1037) whose name was Latinised as Avicenna, and whose ‘Canon of Medicine’ and ‘Book of Healing’ became the standard medical texts for the next 700 years, and, like other Arabic texts, spread into the west as Arabic texts were translated into Latin.

Al-Khalili is clearly enthusiastic about the subject, and his interest comes over very clearly, and he managed to make what could be a dry subject accessible and interesting even to a non-physicist such as myself.

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