Facing the future — science in the Muslim world

Scientists in Islamic countries are often thought by those in the West to be languishing behind the rest of the world. Jim Al-Khalili tells Physics World readers what has been impeding scientific progress in the Islamic world — where historically science was once so strong — and examines some projects that could herald a brighter future.

Professor Al-Khalili, a theoretical nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey, science communicator and author, talks about the current state of basic scientific research in Muslim countries, the rich history of Islamic discovery and what needs to be done to bring about a scientific renaissance.

As Al-Khalili writes, “It is crucial that both Muslims and non-Muslims are reminded of a time when Islam and science were not at odds, albeit in a very different world.

“This is important not only for science to flourish once again in the Islamic world, but also as one of the many routes towards a future in which Muslims see the value of curiosity-driven scientific research, just as they did 1000 years ago.”

Looking at the relative citation index (RCI) — the number of cited papers by a nation’s scientists as a fraction of all cited papers divided by its own share of that total — Al-Khalili reveals the lack of quality in current scientific research in some Muslim nations, which seems in stark contrast to “the free-thinking, curiosity-driven quest for knowledge during the Islamic Middle Ages”.

Initially weakened by political fragmentation and the later effects of colonialism, today’s Islamic scientific research suffers, in Al-Khalili’s eyes, from a lack of political will to reform, to tackle corruption, and to overhaul failing educational systems, institutions and attitudes.

However, looking at new projects such as the pioneering King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia and SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), which will be the region’s first major international research centre, he asks whether attitudes towards science are changing.

Also in the April edition:

  • In search of no neutrinos — why physicists are on the lookout for an exceedingly rare variation of neutrino decay in which none of these tiny particles are created.

  • Dealing with Doomsday — particle physicists may think it obvious that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is safe and will not create Earth-devouring black holes, but historian and philosopher Robert P Crease examines why the public do not often feel the same way

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