Friday, January 13, 2012

Wine, Loaf, Thou—and Math

Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), known to most by means of Edward FitzGerald’s translation (using a loose meaning for that word) of the Rubaiyyat, was also and perhaps predominantly a mathematician and a philosopher of the school of Avicenna. As I noted earlier (here), I am now reading a wonderful book on mathematics—one of whose early themes is Euclid’s fifth postulate about parallel lines. Khayyám played in that game too, and it delighted me to discover the page of a Persian manuscript of his reproduced by Wikipedia (link). Looks odd that, doesn’t it. FitzGerald was a wonderful poet but apparently challenged in finding original material. His Rubaiyyat is a kind of free, rearranged, and often reinterpreted rewrite. Robert Graves offered a more authentic version, but got shouted down. Meanwhile I note that people of a certain stripe—those who, like Khayyám, believed in the priority of intuition in knowledge—nonetheless often spend huge chunks of their time on mathematics, and the higher the individuals’ rank and fame, the more likely that turns out to be. Avicenna (Ibn Sina), whose thought Khayyám followed, was of that persuasion too.

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