A brief history of the Department

In 1934 when Hitler came to power the members of the Mathematische Institut at Göttingen abandoned Germany. One of their number, Otto Neugebauer, the founder and principal editor of the Zentralblatt fur Mathematik (in which all the world's publications in mathematics were reviewed), and already recognized as the world's leading historian of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek mathematics, accepted a position at Copenhagen where he had a decade previously spent a year working on linear differential equations with constant coefficients and almost periodic right-hand sides in collaboration with Harald Bohr, Niels' brother. Neugebauer continued to edit the Zentralblatt fur Mathematik while in Copenhagen, but also finished there his fundamental investigation of ancient mathematical texts from Mesopotamia, the three volumes of Mathematische Keilschrift-Texte, and conceived of the project of publishing collections of all extant and known texts on mathematics and astronomy in Akkadian, the standard Mesopotamian language in the last two millennia B.C., and in Egyptian.

When the Nazis threatened Denmark in 1939, Dean Richardson at Brown together with the American Mathematical Society arranged for Neugebauer to come to Providence to teach in Brown's Department of Mathematics and to transform the Zentralblatt into the American-based Mathematical Reviews, to be published, as it still is, by the AMS, but edited, from 1940 till 1948, here at Brown by Neugebauer.

In 1940 Neugebauer toured the country examining collections of cuneiform tablets. At Chicago he found not only tablets, but Abraham J. Sachs, a brilliant young Assyriologist whom he brought to Brown as a research assistant with the help of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1948 Sachs, still only a research assistant, was offered the Chair in Assyriology at Johns Hopkins in succession to one of America's foremost Near Eastern scholars, William F. Albright. Since the Department of Mathematics balked at promoting an Assyriologist to a professorial rank, Brown's then President, Henry Wriston, created the Department of the History of Mathematics for Neugebauer and Sachs, primarily as a research unit, but also with the responsibility to train highly qualified Graduate Students. The first of these were Olaf Schmidt, who continued the still flourishing tradition of the Neugebauer approach to the History of Mathematics in Denmark, and Asger Aaboe, who initiated the same tradition (now regrettably dead at his retirement) at Yale.

But primarily during the 50's and 60's the members of the Department of the History of Mathematics devoted themselves to fundamental research on the tablets, papyri, and manuscripts that preserve what we know about ancient science. The landmarks were the publication of the three volumes of Neugebauer's Astronomical Cuneiform Texts in 1955; of Sachs' Late Babylonian Astronomical and Related Texts in the same year; of Neugebauer's and Parker's four-volume Egyptian Astronomical Texts in 1960 to 1972; of Neugebauer's The Astronomical Tables of al-Khwarizmi in 1962, and, after his retirement, Neugebauer's and Pingree's The Pancasiddhantika of Varahamihira in 1970/71, and his own magisterial The History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy published in three volumes in 1975. Throughout this period both Neugebauer and Sachs contributed numerous important articles on the history of mathematics and astronomy in antiquity and the medieval period, and also did much to further precise thinking and rational argumentation in the study of pre-modern civilizations in general: Neugebauer through the advice and counsel he gave to numerous scholars at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, and Sachs through his editorship of the Journal of Cuneiform Studies and his collaboration on the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, and both through correspondence and through inviting young scholars to come to Brown. Among the frequent visitors, some for short terms, some for a year at a time, were Gerald Toomer, a brilliant Oxford Classicist who became a member of the Department in 1965 and has published fundamental studies of Greek, Arabic, and Medieval Latin mathematics and mathematical astronomy; David Pingree, a Classicist and Sanskritist whom Neugebauer sent to the Oriental Institute at Chicago to become involved in Mesopotamian astral omens and who succeeded Neugebauer at Brown in 1971; Bernard Goldstein, a Hebraicist and Arabist who received his doctorate from the Department in 1963 and has spent the last thirty-three fruitful years at Yale and at the University of Pittsburgh; Noel Swerdlow, a medievalist who has concentrated on Renaissance astronomy at the University of Chicago; and E. S. Kennedy, a mathematician at the American University of Beirut who learned Arabic and Persian and, spending every third or fourth year at Brown through most of the 50's and 60's, established a thriving school of historians of Islamic science which includes the leading figures in this field: David King, George Saliba, Jamil Ragep, Bernard Goldstein, David Pingree, and others.

As already mentioned, when Neugebauer "retired" in 1969 (he, of course, remained incredibly active till his death in 1990), he was succeeded by David Pingree in 1971. The 1970's were the Department's most prosperous years; four scholars were actively doing research, and the scope of that research stretched in space from India to England and in time from 2000 B.C. till almost 2000 A.D. These scholars were then able to extend Neugebauer's insight into the usefulness of specific parameters and mathematical models in establishing the transmission of science from one culture to another to virtually the whole of the area on which Babylonian methods and their descendants impacted; the only significant area outside of this linguistic control was East Asia (China and Japan).

In the early 70's the possibility of studying Indian mathematics and astronomy at Brown with Pingree began to attract some Japanese scholars. First came Michio Yano, to be followed by Takao Hayashi, Takanori Kusuba, and Setsuro Ikeyama. These Japanese scholars have been investigating, among many other things, the relations of Chinese mathematical astronomy to Indian and Islamic science; but Brown remains the only place which maintains an almost global approach, embracing Mesopotamia, Classical and Medieval Greek and Latin, Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit.

In the 1980's the Department's students included Jacques Sesiano, now at the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne in Switzerland, and Alexander Jones, now at the University of Toronto. The Department received numerous distinguished visitors: Len Berggren, Peter Huber, Hermann Hunger, and Charles Burnett all made long visits. And it was possible through Pingree's MacArthur Fellowship (1981-1986) to bring Jan Hogendijk (now of the University of Utrecht) for two years and to hire, in the Classics Department, a Sanskrit instructor to take over the courses in this language that Pingree had begun teaching in 1978.

In the years since Pingree became Chair in 1986 the Department has awarded four PhD's, to Takanori Kusuba, Kim Plofker, Robert Lopilato, and Setsuro Ikeyama (as well as supervising a PhD thesis in the Department of Mathematics at Simon Fraser University and one in the Department of Classics here at Brown), and now has three students enrolled in the doctoral program. During these years the Department has been able to bring Visiting Professors to Brown for a year at a time; these were Jamil Ragep, Takanori Kusuba, S. R. Sarma, Erica Reiner, and, for one semester, Hermann Hunger. Other scholars who come on a fairly regular basis for collaboration and use of library resources are Christopher Minkowski of Cornell, Antonio Panaino from Italy, and Keiji Yamamoto from Japan. Kim Plofker has joined the Department as Visiting Lecturer at various times, most recently in 2002--2003. Alice Slotsky of Yale University currently teaches Akkadian as a Visiting Professor in the Department.

This page was last updated 12 September 2003.

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