January 28, 2008

Princess of Persia

Living in D.C., I often have the good fortune to see a variety of international and independent films that are out on limited release in the U.S. So last Friday I had the extra good fortune to see Persepolis, a beautifully animated rendering of the graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi.

The novels tell Satrapi's semi-autobiographical story of growing up during and after the Iranian revolution of 1979. It's an eye-opening culture story for anyone who only knows of Iran as "that place near Iraq that the UN might start sanctioning."

The film got me interested in Iran and it's history, so I did a quick bit of digging.

Until 1935 Iran was known as Persia, and Persepolis was its ancient capital. Persepolis was captured and partially destroyed around 330 B.C. after Alexander the Great invaded. The ruins are now part of an archaeological site that sits northeast of the modern-day city of Shiraz in southern Iran.

Like the Greeks, the Persians contributed mightily to early science and mathematics. For example, we can thank Persian alchemists for the first isolation of pure ethanol, or grain alcohol—in fact, the world "alcohol" comes from the Arabic al-kuhl meaning "the essence of a fermented liquid."

And fans of the video game series Prince of Persia will no doubt recognize the design on this 18th-century astrolabe, a Persian device used for a variety of astronomical calculations.

(Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2004)

I'll refrain from commenting on what Iran's current politics might mean for its modern scientific offerings, as I feel under-informed. For that I turn to Science magazine, which published this interesting news item in July 2005.

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