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Middle East Team Dispatch

Reading + Writing + Arithmetic = Omar Kyayyám
March 29, 2000

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We think the phrase "reading, writing and arithmetic" was meant for Omar Khayyám. The man born in 1048 CE was an outstanding contributor in all of those fields. Now 'Ol Omar was born way before the days of resumes but I must say that if we were to put one together for him it would be most impressive. On top of being a world celebrated mathematician and astronomer, Omar found time to dabble in the sciences and even poetry.

So, where did this man, this myth, this legend come from? Well, he was born in Neyshabur, the provincial capital of Khurasan. Neyshabur is located 115 kms. west of Mashhad, where we are right now! Not much is known about his family but there is speculation that his father's trade might have been "Tentmaker." Tentmaker is the literal translation of Khayyám. Omar even pokes fun at his nickname in his writing:

"Khayyám, who stitched the tents of science,
Has fallen in grief's furnace and been suddenly burned,
The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life,
And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!"

--Omar Khayyám

Well, Omar certainly did "stitch the tents of science." He received an education in the sciences and philosophy in his native Neyshabur (Nishapur) and in Balkh. People began to take notice of Omar. He made such a name for himself that he was invited by the Seljuq sultan Malik-Shah to undertake the astronomical observations necessary for the reform of the calendar. The Sultan gave him some money to build an observatory in the city of Esfahan in order to carry out his work. Omar rallied several other astronomers to join in his work and he then led the men in research of the reform of the calendar. The result of his 18 years of work was 365.24219858165. 18 years of work and all that came out of it was a long string of numbers?! Well, actually that number is relevant in your life today. It is the number of days in the year! Omar's version of the calendar was known as the 'Al-Tarikh-al-Jalali' and is accurate to within one day in 3770 years. Not sure exactly what it all means but I trust that Omar knew what he was doing as the Persians used that calendar until the twentieth century. Omar was a stickler for accuracy, hence his result is to the eleventh decimal place. And this number keeps changing throughout time.


literal - true or exact
reign - exercise of power
delve - go into
revered - to have high regard for
revered - definition
excerpts - samples

Unfortunately, things began changing for Omar as well. The sultan died and his second wife took over the reigns of power. She ceased funding for the research at Omar's observatory. Omar took a pilgrimage to Mecca and upon his return found the Sultans third son has gained power. This was much to Omar's favor as Sanjar, the Sultans son, created an Islamic learning center in Merv. Khayyám took this opportunity to write several works on mathematics. His work was nothing short of brilliant. You might even be using some of his discoveries in your Algebra classes. He solved the cubic equation x3 + 20x2 + 200x =2000. Now that stuff is all Greek to me but for those of you who are more mathematically inclined I am sure it is super impressive. He wrote the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra. Omar also found the time to dabble in Geometry and wrote the Commentaries on the difficult postulates of Euclid's book. Now, I won't delve too deeply into all his equations and theories as I just couldn't possibly do them justice. I will just assure you that he is revered in the mathematics world to this day.

A few excerpts from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

"Lo! Some we loved, the lovliest and the best That time and fate of all their Vintage prest"

"With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow
And with mine own hand labor'd it to grow;
And this was all the Harvest that I
"I came like Water, and like the Wind I go."

--Omar Khayyám translated/paraphrased by Edward Fitzgerald

Now, mathematicians are not the only people that put Omar on a pedestal. He is most recognized in the Western world for his roba'iyat, or "quatrains." Quatrains are stanzas or verses of four lines. The Rubaiyat is not a single poem, but a collection of verses. Put together it becomes a complete poem. There is much speculation about how many verses Omar wrote. It is said to be between 200 and 600. The Rubaiyat was not brought into the limelight until an Irish fellow by the name of Edward Fitzgerald interpreted the verses in 1859. He then published The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

Other Links:
The complete works of the Rubaiayt online for your reading pleasure

A Web site covering the life and times of the man, the myth, the legend: Omar Khayyám

One might say he was the Shakespeare of his time! Many mathematicians scoff at the idea that he could have written poetry, yet others believe that such a poet could not have bothered with mathematics. There is no doubt that he will be remembered for his great contributions in many fields and his works will continue to engage people for years to come.


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