Ath Speaker Explores Arabic Traditions in History of Natural Sciences


British-Lebanese scholar Nader El-Bizri speaks at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on Feb. 27. (Austin Huang • The Student Life)

British-Lebanese scholar Nader El-Bizri ended his teaching tour at the Claremont Colleges with a lecture, “Arabic Classical Traditions in the History of the Exact Sciences,” at the Marion Miner Cook Athenaeum the night of Tuesday, Feb. 28. El-Bizri is an architect, historian, philosopher, and mathematician teaching at the American University in Beirut. El-Bizri was brought to the Claremont colleges with a Mellon Global Fellowship grant and gave guest lectures and talks at Pomona College this past week. 

“I felt such a warm, welcoming environment when I came here,” he said. “Almost over the past 12 days I felt like I was a member of the faculty on campus. It was a lovely occasion for me to connect with at least five colleagues that I know … they are teaching in the various colleges here. I felt at home!”

In his talk, El-Bizri spoke about the Arabic classical traditions in the history of the exact sciences (often referred to as the physical sciences), with a focus in optics. He spoke mostly about the work of Ibn al-Haytham, a tenth century Iraqi mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer.

El-Bizri went into specifics on al-Haytham’s methods and research, and how his writings were used to come to major scientific discoveries in optics and a variety of different fields in the exact sciences. According to El-Bizri, al-Haytham’s work with camera obscuras to understand how pictures were projected helped early physicians understand vision and optic nerves.

His research on the phenomena of how the moon appears larger at certain angles was also helpful to astronomers perplexed by these type of visual problems. Al-Haytham also made significant discoveries in geometrical mathematics, specifically pertaining to volume.

El-Bizri, who received a degree in architecture at Harvard University’s graduate school of design and a PhD in Philosophy from the graduate faculty of the New School of Social Reseach in New York, mainly stuck to the technical subject matter during his talk. He responded easily to convoluted questions during the Q&A portion of the event.

However, some audience members felt that the lecture was difficult to understand.

Mohammad Batal CM ‘18 and Thomas Schalke CM ‘18, two philosophy, politics, and economics majors, were impressed with El-Bizri, but struggled to understand the lecture.

“It was very interesting, he was clearly an expert,” Schalke said. “I don’t think he tailored it well to the audience of the Athanaeum. You need to be more generalist and expand on what you’re talking about. Put it in a political frame of reference or contemporary connection, something along those lines.”

Batal agreed that the lecture was heavy, but as a Middle Eastern American student he was happy to see representation from the Middle East.

“The subject matter was very compelling and there was a lot of material to choose from,” Batal said. “He went very in depth on one case. I would love to learn about Arabs in the exact sciences more generally.”

Marie-Claude Thomas, a visiting professor who teaches Modern Arab Culture and Thought at CMC, was impressed with El-Bizri and said that she would like to see more Arabic speakers at the Athanaeum.

“It is good for the students to get to know the Arab contribution to societies, and for people to know that they are not villains. Also it is good for the Arabic community to not feel like they are left behind. Because many Arabic people are upset that institutions do not remember the Arabic contribution,” said Thomas.

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