Sunday, 2 May 2010

Omar Khayyam

We've recently discovered BBC's iPlayer and watching it has been added to our possible activities between dinner and bedtime. I enjoyed the first few programmes so well that I found myself making notes about what I remembered; ever since I've started making notes while I watch. Sad, I know, but I enjoy it and writing about things might help me remember what I learned. One of the great luxuries of retirement for me is having the time and energy to investigate topics such as this.

I seem to remember saying certain words over and over as a child, words that sounded exotic and interesting, not that I knew much about what they meant. I'm pretty sure that 'The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam' was one of those phrases that grabbed me, but I've never had occasion to know anything about it; I think I always assumed it was fictitious novel about a character with that name.

One of the BBC programmes I watched recently was about just this person and it turns out he was very real.
The TV programme jumped around quite a lot with beautifully colourful scenes from Persian art and exotic music in the background. I will try to put things more into a chronological sequence. As usual, I've ended up doing a bit of internet research (fun!) and discovered little tidbits like 'ruba'i' is a form of Persian poetry, and a rubaiyat is a collection of them.

Omar Khayyam was a man who lived in 11th century Persia. He was born in a city called Neishabour (Neyshapur...there are a number of spellings), now in Iran, which at its time was about a very cosmopolitan and learned city in the East, second only to perhaps Constantinople.
Neishabour has over time suffered destruction by earthquake and by Mongul invasion. It was a strategic location on the Silk Road between China and Europe and so would have been attractive to invaders.

One such invasion by a nomadic tribe was in 1040, a few years before Khayyam was born. They set up a new empire and established the schools at which Khayyam was to study. The knowledge and skills that he acquired allowed him to become a part of the Sultan's Court. Medieval Islam was the golden age of Science in the East and this man was part of that age.

Khayyam’s knowledge of astronomy was valued because it was important for Muslims to know when to pray and where to find Mecca. Mosques at that time were not just concerned with religious protocol, but also with the computing and writing of tables to provide that information. Star gazing was one of their main occupations.

If I understand my notes properly, the Muslim year begins in spring and is based on Khayyam’s calculations. Before these, they used a Yazgerdi calendar, which was lunar based and had only 355 days. Taxes were collected following the crop harvesting and this calendar was problematic. Not only did they sometimes find themselves absurdly celebrating spring in the middle of winter, but in some years there were two tax collections. Even worse, from the Sultan’s point of view, some years had none!

In 1074, the Sultan appointed Khayyam and other astronomers to make a new calendar. They studied the night skies for four years. The stars they used as reference points became known as the signs of the zodiac. Khayyam slightly overstated his calculation (expressed to twelve digits after the decimal); it is only accurate, apparently, to the fifth but as such is still more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use today, according to someone from the University of Wisconsin.

The cutting edge tool they used back then was an astrolabe. It looked to be a brass disc about 10” in diameter with lots of engraved information. There were the four main Islamic cities, each with their latitudes and a star chart to enable finding Mecca and offering timely prayer in each location using the altitude of the sun.

Khayyam was interested in not only astronomy and math, but also algebra. I thought the programme said he contributed to the Copernican Revolution, which rejected the concept that the Earth was the centre of the Universe, in favour of the sun. However, according to Wikipedia that all happened several hundred years later in Europe, which is what I vaguely remember; perhaps I misunderstood. The programme did say that the Western version of history often fails to recognise the contributions of the East. It was Eastern mathematicians who discovered 'zero' and negative numbers. These ideas were carried West via the trade routes through North Africa.

Khayyam was particularly interested in cubic equations, necessary to measure volume. He wasn't able to fully solve the problems he set for himself, but he apparently enjoyed the challenge. The Wikipedia entry for Khayyam shows a graph with a hyperbola and a circle and that's about all I can tell you about it! One of the people interviewed on the programme suggested that his love of poetry was linked with his mathematical background in that he saw patterns in language. I've heard of links between math and music, but not with poetry; this might explain why I'm not much into poetry, math having never been my strongest point.

In 1092, the Sultan Malik Shaw died and Khayyam virtually disappeared from court and scientific circles. It was during this time that he wrote his rubaiyat. The programme stops focussing on Khayyam’s life time and turns its attention to the impact of his poe

One of the Iranian interviewees pointed out that there are 'subversive messages and metaphors' in Khayyam’s writings, though not everyone chooses to take note of them. For example, ‘Drink wine for this is the essence of life.’ might be another way of saying ‘Take joy in living in the moment, for we do not know if there is another life’. This will have been an unorthodox view in that place in his time, as it is now in Muslim country. The programme showed a number of famous people quoting from the Rubaiyat, including Dr. Martin Luther King and Bill Clinton.

It is presumably Khayyam's contribution to science that caused a crater on the moon to be named for him, as all other names I looked at appeared to be scientists. Nevertheless, it is for his poetry that Omar Khayyam is most recognised. The programme went on to talk about how the Western world in Victorian times became aware of this man's poetry and I will share what I learned about that in my next post.


Struggler said...

BBC iPlayer sounds wonderful. I seem to recall, I've tried to get it to work here, but it won't allow overseas visits right now :(

TKW said...

Math related to poetry! Say it isn't so! Math makes me shudder, but I'm a big fan of the poem.

I learn good stuff here!

Shelley said...

TKW - I'm so pleased you like the 'learning' stuff. I'd say it was 'off topic' but I don't really have a topic, I just write about what interests me!

Struggler - I worked out that BBC doesn't allow people outside the UK to view. I'm hoping they'll figure out a way to share their stuff more widely, even if it means a pay-per-view arrangement. I think most of their stuff is trash, but these historical things I'd probably pay for...which is good, because I do, right?