With temperatures that reach 50C (122F) in the summer and the constant, abrasive swirl of sand grains in the air, Qatar feels like little more than a desert. But the mirages are different here. Instead of shimmering pools of water that vanish on closer inspection, huge structures rise from the bone-dry landscape. Some are squat and boxy; others curve elegantly into the sky. The skyline is dotted with skeletons of others yet to be finished.
Education City, on the outskirts of the capital, Doha, is at an embryonic stage. But it represents Qatar’s grand attempt to turn itself from fossil-fuel nation into scientific superpower. Famous universities such as Carnegie Mellon and University College London have opened satellite campuses amid the fake grass. Shell, Total and GE have set up research centres. Virgin Health Bank has opened an umbilical-cord blood bank. There is a technology park for start-ups seeking escapees from Silicon Valley.
The Qatar Foundation, the non-profit organisation set up by one of the ruling emir’s three wives, hopes that it will become an intellectual jewel in the Gulf and in the wider world.
At a time when Western countries are shutting down or scaling back science projects, it is a striking example of a scientific renaissance in the Muslim world. Last year, the US mothballed both the Space Shuttle and the Tevatron, its equivalent of Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. Spain shut down its ministry of science. Even Brazil, India and China are feeling the financial pinch. But the Middle East has found the will and the cash to think big – motivated by the need for a plan after the oil runs out, and perhaps by the desire to recapture scientific glories that once surpassed those of Europe.
The lexicon is stuffed with terms coined by Islamic scientists: algebra, alchemy, alkali, amalgam, elixir. In the eighth century, Arabic scholars started translating the work of the Greeks; over the next 400 years, their concepts were developed by such pioneers as the chemist al-Jabir, the mathematician al-Uqlidisi (whose name is thought to honour Euclid), the philosopher-medic Ibn Sina – known in Europe as Avicenna – and the polymath al-Biruni, whose 11th-century calculation of the Earth’s circumference was correct to within 1 per cent. By the time that London built its first hospital in the 12th century, Baghdad already had 60. Read on and comment » | Anjana Ahuja | Tuesday, May 15, 2012