Jim Al-Khalili on the Science of 1,001 Nights
Part Two of “The Worlds of Scheherazade”
Building on Lit Hub’s five-part Finnegan and Friends podcast, the new season of The Cosmic Library, “The Worlds of Scheherazade,” plunges into and out of the 1,001 Nights with guests Katy Waldman, critic at The New Yorker; Yasmine Seale, translator of the 1,001 Nights; Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist; Mazen Naous, professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; and Hearty White, host of Miracle Nutrition on WFMU.
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The House of Wisdom was a center of learning in Baghdad of the Abbasid caliphate. Established in the eighth century, it sustained a golden age of science that coincided with the collection of early versions of the 1,001 Nights. In this episode, we hear about the science of the Nights, the science of the Abbasid age, and the history, more broadly, of science fiction.
A similar exchange from culture to culture, language to language, made possible the scientific advances of this time and 1,001 Nights. The very frame narrative of Shahrazad is a Persian story, and leading figures associated with Baghdad’s House of Wisdom were Persian, as well. In this episode, Jim Al-Khalili, author of a book on the House of Wisdom, describes two Persian thinkers, Ibn Sina and al-Biruni:
Both these guys were philosophers, scientists, polymaths—and they were
having the sorts of debates about the nature of reality that would not seem out of place in modern physics . . . debating about: how does the light from the sun reach the Earth as it travels through space, are there many worlds, are there parallel universes? Stuff that you’d think, “How could they possibly be talking about that?” I just get the feeling that we didn’t invent cleverness in modern times.
The Nights and scientific work have more in common than speculative thinking and reliance on cross-cultural communication, too. Both depend on ceaselessly driving toward something yet to be fully grasped—either through repetitive experiments or repetitive storytelling. Maybe it was inevitable, then, that the Nights would have a major part in the history of science fiction. You’ll hear in this episode how magnetism was a scientific preoccupation that became a source of adventure within the Nights—specifically, within the stories of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” which also contain a link to a later monument of science fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Yasmine Seale is a translator of 1,001 Nights. Her translation of Aladdin was published in 2018 by Liveright, and her translation of other stories from the Nights are in the new Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1,001 Nights also from Liveright.
Jim Al-Khalili OBE FRS is a theoretical physicist and professor at the University of Surrey. He is the author of twelve books, including The House of Wisdom.
Hearty White is host of Miracle Nutrition on WFMU—a radio show of inspirational dada.
Katy Waldman is a critic at The New Yorker, where you can find her writings on books, TV, and more.
Mazen Naous is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He translates from Arabic, works on music and literature, and the 1,001 Nights are one of his areas of specialty.