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
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
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
Logout. Computers Today. May 2002 P. 88.
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