While we in the West were tramping through the Dark Ages, doing little more than till our fields and fight our masters' wars, the Arabic world was in its intellectual pomp.
Its centre was Baghdad, and in one of the excellent documentaries the World Service pumps out with gratifying frequency the theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, born in the city to an Iraqi father and English mother, gave an absorbing account of Islam's golden age.
Though the professor refrained from potentially odious comparisons, it was impossible for this listener not to think of modern times, when the Muslim love of learning seems to have been buried under heaps of dogma. In the 9th century, though, when the seventh caliph Abu Ja'far al-Ma'mun established his House of Wisdom, Baghdad was the world's intellectual dynamo.
There gathered great minds, such as Avicenna, whose Canon of Medicine was still being studied in European universities 600 years later, or Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, who can lay reasonable claim to being the father of modern medicine. His stuff was still being translated – and not just for historical reasons – in the 19th century.
The 10th-century historian Ibn al-Nadim recounted the dream of Caliph al-Ma'mun, in which he dreamed he met Aristotle. "What is good?" he asked the philosopher, who replied, "Whatever is good according to reason". If only today's religionists – of all persuasions – could listen and take note.
The Secret Scientists was exactly the kind of programme that might end up on speechification.com, a blog that collates what it sees as the best of speech radio, with a listen-again facility – "We point to the bits we like, the bits you might have missed". Its bread and butter is Radio 4 – the latest posting is Jon Ronson's programme Fear of Flying from a couple of weeks ago – but there are choice items from elsewhere too, including a fantastic regular podcast from the Poetry Foundation – Avant Garde All the Time: The Sounds of the UK. This one was about Britain's unsung but rich history of concrete poetry – absolutely fascinating.
Equally life-enhancing is This American Life (thislife.org). It's effectively the greatest hits of Chicago Public Radio; highlights of the latest posting include a section on Harvard physicists who apply the Drake Equation – used to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilisations – to their chances of finding a suitable mate in Boston.
There was also the entertaining account of Eric Hayot, who fell in love with a two-stringed-fiddle player in China after singing in a traditional opera, lost touch when he returned to the US, then went back and tracked her down by the singular method of appearing on a TV show called Foreigners Sing Chinese Songs. Any self-respecting Hollywood exec should be knocking on their door – reader, he married her – with a big fat film contract. My only quibble is that this week's posting is a repeat of one from last February, but it was great stuff, none the less – and proof of a wide world beyond the radio dial.Reuse content