Thursday, December 5, 2013

Omar Khayyam, Mathematician

First page of "Cubic equation and
intersection of conic sections"
A book of verses underneath the bough
A flask of wine, a loaf of bread and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness
And wilderness is paradise now.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859, made Khayyam the most famous Persian poet in the 19th century. Few people realize that Khayyam did not need Fitzgerald to be famous. Centuries earlier, he was one of the most influential thinkers produced by the Middle East.

Born in Nishapur on the 18th of May in 1048, he spent part of his youth in Balkh, which would produce Rumi 80 years after Khayyam's death. He studied under the well-known scholars Mansuri and Nishapuri. He put his education to work: as an adult, he was either teaching algebra and geometry, studying the stars, working on calendar reform, acting as a court advisor, or learning medicine. He taught the works of Avicenna.
The Tomb

He was best known in his lifetime and afterward for his mathematical writing, especially on algebra. Many of the principles of algebra that made their way to Europe came from Khayyam's Treatise on Demonstration of Problems on Algebra (1070).

One of his claims was that the solution of cubic equations cannot be solved by a ruler and compass. He said it required the use of conic sections, and announced his intention to write a paper that lays out the "fourteen forms with all their branches and cases." He never got around to it, and 750 years would have to pass before someone produced the proof of Khayyam's claim.

Omar Khayyam died on 4 December 1131 at the age of 83, and was buried in what is now the Khayyam Garden in Nishapur. A  mausoleum was built in 1963 to house his remains.

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