Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed October 7, 1996
Contact: Richard Morin

One of a kind

David Pingree reconstructs the history of mathematics

David Pingree, professor of the history of mathematics at Brown University, heads the only history of mathematics department in the world.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- University Professor David Pingree is as much an anomaly in academia as is his department, the history of mathematics. It is not just the smallest department at Brown, it is also the only history of mathematics department in the world.

"Mathematicians don't do history, and historians don't do math," said Kim Plofker, a visiting lecturer in the history of mathematics department. "The history of mathematics is a woefully understudied field. It falls between the cracks of academia."

The history of mathematics department at Brown has been conducting ground-breaking research for almost five decades. But it might be safe to say that without Pingree the department might not exist. Currently, he is its only full professor. Plofker is its only other faculty member. Three graduate students, who came to Brown to study with Pingree, complete the department. It does not offer an undergraduate concentration.

Because its normal quarters are being renovated, the department is housed temporarily in an aging gymnasium, giving Pingree an office the size of a basketball court. He estimates that between the full-court backboards there are some 20,000 books and manuscripts about the mathematics of Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, the Near East and India. There is no card catalog; it's his personal library.

Pingree's extraordinary collection of Sanskrit, the classical language of India, is considered by many to be the best in world. For decades, scholars worldwide have come to Brown to study with Pingree and use his collection.

Pingree has devoted his life's work to understanding the transmission of exact sciences - mathematics, astronomy and astrology - from the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia through Renaissance Europe, and the ways in which the recipient culture may alter the ideas in order to render them accessible. "Each time there is a transmission there is a transformation," said Pingree, a past recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. "It is only in modern times that Western science is transmitted without being changed."

To achieve his research ends, Pingree must employ a number of skills. He is part linguist, historian, mathematician, anthropologist and often sleuth. "Professor Pingree is a world renowned Classicist, Sanskritist, Assyriologist and Arabist all rolled into one," said Plofker, who earned her Ph.D. at Brown under Pingree.

Pingree has used surviving records of a later period and culture to reconstruct the sciences of an earlier one. For example, he used Greek astrology to clarify earlier Babylonian omen texts; 8th- and 9th-century Arabic texts to reconstruct 5th-century Sassanian (Persian) astronomy and astrology; and Byzantine Greek astronomical tables to reconstruct their Arabic and Persian sources. His work has taken Pingree throughout the world in search of primary sources. He estimates that in India alone there are 30 million Sanskrit manuscripts. "There is an enormous mass of unpublished materials out there," he said. The difficulty is that many institutions don't know what they have in their possession.

For example, Pingree said, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University once received a collection of Sanskrit astrological texts from a Jewish refugee who had fled Nazi Germany during World War II. Since the Bodleian's Orientalists were all working to crack Adolph Hitler's codes, the collection was put in the stacks. It wasn't until 1986 that the collection was discovered among the Library's possessions. "They decided to sweep the floor, something they apparently hadn't done in a long time, and they found the collection," he said. Pingree was soon off to England to catalog the collection. "We sat on the floor piecing it all together," he said. "It was absolutely astonishing."

To help ensure that North America's collections of South Asian manuscripts are properly protected, Pingree is leading a group of two dozen scholars in cataloging, digitizing and putting the 35,000 or so known texts onto microfilm. He estimates the project will take 15 to 20 years. "I've wanted to do something to save the manuscripts for decades," he said. "Now we are doing it."

At age 73, Pingree has no desire to slow down. He has nearly a dozen books and translations in progress. "There is too much I want to share with people," he said.

History of Mathematics Department at Brown

The history of mathematics department was founded at Brown in 1947. It was first headed by Otto Neugebauer, who was recognized as the world's leading historian of Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Greek mathematics. During the 1950s and 1960s, the members of the department devoted themselves to fundamental research into tablets, papyri and manuscripts that detailed the ancient mathematical sciences. The research produced several landmark texts. The 1970s were the departments most prosperous times with four professors at work on the mysteries of ancient mathematics. Pingree was recruited to Brown by Neugebauer. He arrived on College Hill in 1971, and became chairman of the department in 1986.