As regular readers will recall, I’ve had a disagreement with the authors of a Skeptical Inquirer article criticizing the traveling exhibit 1001 Inventions, which aimed to present the medieval contributions to modern science and technology from the Islamic world. The essence of my complaint was that the authors, Taner Edis and Sonja Brentjes, overstepped skepticism by attacking the philosophical grounding of the exhibit based on interpretive questions about the contributions of medieval scholarship and philosophy to modern science, as well as interpretive questions about the value of using such connections to promote a specific vision of Islamic culture, before examining in detail the specific claims on which those interpretations rest.
Edward Rothstein criticized the exhibit, appropriately (though with obvious resentment at a lack of a parallel celebration of non-Muslim achievements, as he explicitly writes), in the New York Times back in 2010. He specifically criticized the exhibit’s explicitly polemical purpose:
Rothstein specifically notes that the agenda of the exhibit is manifestly political. As I said before, the polemical issues with the exhibit are political, and therefore best adjudicated in the realm of politics and culture, not science. Science ought to be concerned with the facts; their impact and their value are cultural questions of a different order.
I bring this up today for what I hope is the last time because Aaron Adair has written an excellent blog post comparing the material given in the exhibit and its companion book to the actual facts known from history to demonstrate that many of the astronomical achievements ascribed to Arabs by the exhibit were actually known to the Greeks and Romans a thousand years earlier, though in many cases later refined by the Arabs, drawing on these Greek and Roman works. I very strongly encourage everyone to check this out. Rothstein’s review also critiques the exhibit based on its flawed facts, though more briefly.
I framed my discussion around the case of Ibn Firnas, a ninth-century Andalucian Berber who is alleged to have strapped on wings and glided. Brentjes recently commented that my discussion of her analysis of Ibn Firnas’ alleged flight was flawed because this flight was impossible based on the laws of physics, and therefore any literary discussion was necessarily wrong. According to Brentjes, Ibn Firnas could not have used any combination of wood, cloth, and feathers to glide because “eagle feathers and wings do not suffice for a glider, which needs a structure. The human body is too heavy for such a contraption.”
As I repeatedly said, the Arabic text Brentjes and Edis cited did not describe the wings, and we cannot deduce their design from the description given. But neither this does not mean that we must consign Ibn Firnas’ flight to fiction based on physics.
In 1891, a German named Otto Lilienthal constructed two wings on the model of bat wings, strapped them to himself, and jumped off a hill, thus inventing hang gliding. Photographic evidence exists showing his flight, and several of his gliders are still in existence. They did not have the kind of structure Brentjes requires; instead, they pretty much looked like wings strapped to a guy. Although there was a structure, it was not observable to those watching from a distance.
Additionally, the text from al-Maqqari’s Breath of Perfume is not the only reference to Ibn Firnas’ flight in medieval literature. An older (and apparently independent) reference exists in Ibn Hayyan’s Al-Muqtabis, from the early eleventh century, which was believed lost but recovered in the twentieth century.
As I said before, there is no way to prove the story true short of turning up the glider, and 1001 Inventions wildly exaggerates any claim that could be made based on these texts. That said, there seems to be nothing so improbable as to suggest the story cannot be true. Fortunately, as it happens, we don’t need to really care much about this since, as Rothstein points out, this wasn't the first flight. The Chinese had been jumping from towers with wings strapped to themselves since the first century CE trying to fly. According to an eleventh century text drawing on earlier imperial records, in 559 CE, one finally succeeded under the wicked emperor Gao Yang:
These kites were commonplace by the time of Marco Polo, so we know these must have existed, that they worked, and therefore the idea wasn’t unique to Ibn Firnas, who can now safely return to obscurity as just another guy who jumped off a high place and tried to glide.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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