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Did You Know?
By D.P. Agrawal

Question: Did you know that the famous poet Omar Khayyam was also an astronomer?


A loaf of Bread beneath the Bough
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse and Thou

I am sure, you have read this couplet of Omar Khayyam, the great poet and connoisseur of wine.

May 2002 marked the 954th birthday of Omar Khayyam who is more famous for his Rubaiyat. What is less known is that he also made great contributions to maths and astronomy.

Over nine hundred years ago, in Naishapur in what is now Khorasan in Iran, three young students made a pact. If anyone of them made a fortune, he would share it with his friends. In time, one, Nizam ul Mulk, became vizier, or administrator of affairs, to the Seljuq ruler of Khorasan. His friends, hearing of his elevation, approached him; the vizier generously upheld the promise.

Hasan al Sabbah wanted a place in government, but soon fell afoul of his benefactor and eventually became the head of the Persian sect of the Ismailis. From Alamut, his mountain fastness, Hasan and his fanatical followers spread terror across the Islamic world. Ironically, one of their countless victims included Hasan's former friend and benefactor, the Nizam ul Mulk, Today we know them as the Assassins, a word they have contributed to the English language.

The other beneficiary wanted no title or office. He asked only for the chance to study science and to pray for his benefactor's prosperity. Yet his contribution to our world would be far greater than Hasan's. He is known largely as the composer of many of the 600 short four-line poems that make up Persian literature's famous Rubaiyat. It is less well known that Omar Khayyam was also one of the world's great mathematicians and astronomers.

Khayyam was one of several remarkable Arab mathematicians and scientists who produced work of astonishing sophistication in an age when the people of what is now the developed world were busy slaughtering communities that didn't agree with them.

Al Khwarizmi (780-850) (the term algorithm is in fact is coined after his name) appears to have been the first of a long line of brilliant men who immeasurably extended the scope and depth of mathematics and its application by developing the theory of algebra.

Khayyam too had this gift for abstraction and understanding. Some of his work on cubic equations could not be surpassed for five hundred years. And his calculation of the exact length of the year differs from the current value nearly a thousand years on by just 0.000002 per cent!

Khayyam also did path-breaking work on the binomial theorem. Over the centuries, this would eventually form a foundation for probability and statistics, which in turn would lead to risk management-a powerful technique used to determine the viability of virtually any commercial enterprise today. The binomial theorem is also one of the core concepts of discrete structures, which form the basis for many important areas of computer science.

Khayyam deserves a toast of the best Persian wine for his great scientific contributions too.


Logout. Computers Today. May 2002 P. 88.

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