Astronomy: The Science of the Stars


13 Oct 2015

History of Science, Astronomy

Jim al-Khalili

Jim al-Khalili presents both modern and historical astronomy in this short documentary, the second of six parts in this series.

The presentation includes discussions of the use of astronomy for both navigation and understanding the cosmos.  The use of stars for desert navigation by Bedouins is presented.  The development of astrolabes from their Greek origins is discussed with the assistance of Dr. Nur Sobers-Khan at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.  He also discusses the development of map-making with Dr. Detlev Quintern at the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam in Istanbul, Turkey.

Al-Khalili returns to Britain to discuss radio telescopes and the collaboration of astronomers at the Lovell radio telescope in Jodrell Bank.  He emphasizes that astronomers in the Golden Age as well as today worked collaboratively.  Dr. Tim O’Brien hosts his visit at the telescope.  This collaboration is linked to the Marāgha (Marāgheh) observatory in contemporary Iran.  Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (1201-1274) convinced Hülegü Khān to build him a new observatory.  Al-Khalili suggests that the observatory became “a great hub for international scientific collaboration.”  These collaborations were based on “mathematical tricks”, including the “Tusi couple”, which has been linked to Copernicus’ development of a heliocentric model for the solar system in the fifteenth century.

The last segment in this episode addresses the development of spherical geometry to determine the direction of prayer, which itself required better measurements of the circumference of the Earth.  Earlier estimates had been done by Greek scholars, which Islamicate scholars during the reign of al-Maʿmūn (r. 813-833 CE) tried to recreate.  Later, Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad al-Bīrūnī (973-1052 CE) used a different method, which al-Khalili describes in detail, to produce a more accurate measurement.

This series, first broadcast in the fall of 2015, focuses on topics that have both historical and contemporary components.  Many of the contemporary segments were filmed in Doha, Qatar, home for the al-Jazeera network.


Islam:  The material on Islam is within the bounds of what Muslims have historically understood as acceptable.

Science: Although al-Khalili’s Bedouin collaborator is more enthusiastic than scientifically accurate, otherwise the presentation is consistent with a consensus of contemporary scientists.

History: Al-Khalili does an excellent job of presenting scientific advancements as steps along a continuum of knowledge.  He presents it as a sort of collaboration across time.  Al-Maʿmūn’s personal role in gathering and pushing groups of scholars to perform tasks may be overstated, however.

About Jim al-Khalili

Born September 20, 1962 in Baghdad, Iraq, Jim Al Khalili is a renowned theoretical physicist, writer, lecturer, and broadcaster. Growing up with a devout Christian mother and a slightly agnostic Muslim father, Al-Khalili now describes himself as a “cuddly atheist.” He immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1979, and completed both a bachelors of science and a Ph.D. in nuclear reaction theory at the University of Surrey. Khalili remained at the University of Surrey, and as of 2015 is still a professor of physics there. In addition, he holds a chair in Public Engagement in Science Department.

Khalili conducts research into quantum physics and quantum biology, but is most well known for his accessibly written, popular science books and his regular appearances as a TV presenter for science documentaries. Khalili is also a radio broadcaster for BBC4, presenting ‘The Life Scientific’ weekly. His list of accomplishments and awards are long, though most notably he was the youngest person to ever receive the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday prize for science communication in 2008 and also received the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal in 2011. Khalili also became President of the British Humanist Association in 2013.

As of 2015, Khalili operates an active Twitter page and a personal website. In addition, he periodically writes for The Guardian newspaper; however, his most recent post there was in December 2014. Khalili’s personal website is host to his blog and a collection of his various science communication efforts.

Selected Bibliography:

Al-Khalili, Jim. Jim Al-Khalili’s Website. N.p., n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Al-Khalili, Jim. Twitter. Twitter, n.d.

“Jim Al-Khalili.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Biography in Context. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Peck, Tom. “Jim Al-Khalili: ‘I’m a Cuddly Atheist. I Don’t Need to Tell My Mum Her Faith Is Stupid’” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Dec. 2012. Accessed 1 June 2015.

President of the British Humanist Association.” British Humanist Association. British Humanist Association, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE.” Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE. The Royal Society, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.