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Scholar discovers 9th century math text in city

india Updated: Sep 26, 2009 02:22 IST
Snehal Rebello
Snehal Rebello
Hindustan Times
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A centuries-old text that can shed light on how Islamic society adopted ancient science lies here in the city’s KR Cama Oriental Institute Library.

Sonja Brentjes, a historian of science at Spain’s University of Seville, who is in the city, and is the first to study the text, which is an Arabic translation of the Elements by Greek mathematician Euclid.

Much of modern geometry rests on Euclid’s shoulders, from basic ideas about distances between points and the areas and volumes of objects to more complicated concepts and theorems.

All the rigour of modern mathematics also goes back to Euclid.

The core of this text is the closest the world now has to the oldest Arabic translation of Euclid’s monumental work. This Arabic translation dates back to the year 805, but has been lost.

“It was a huge intellectual endeavour for the Arabic translators,” Brentjes told Hindustan Times. “They had to struggle not only with the Greek language, also with the mathematics. Until then, they had no well-established scientific culture or training. They had to invent a language of mathematics in Arabic from scratch. I am very grateful to the Cama library for enabling my research.”

She said a study of this document would give us a better understanding of the intellectual development of Islamic society at that time.

In all likelihood, Euclid lived in 3 BC, but we have no text from this period. The oldest texts we have are Greek versions that date back at least to the 4th century if not earlier.

However, the physical manuscripts that contain these Greek texts date back to the second-half of the 9th century.

Similarly, the Cama text is found in a manuscript produced by a scholar in the 16th century. The text, however, is much older. It also contains additional notes and comments.

The Parsis brought the manuscript from southern Iraq to India in the 19th century.