Chioniades and Wilbour Hall

By: | Post date: June 10, 2009 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Culture

Our story’s not about him, really, but in the Year Of Our Lord 1295, Gregory Chioniades [Bio Enc Astronom, Wikipedia] went from Trebizond to Tabriz, to learn astronomy at the feet of the Persian masters. When he got there, he set about translating the Arabic Zīj al‐ʿAlāʾī under Shams al‐Dīn al‐Bukhārī. We’re reasonably sure he set about translating via al‐Bukhārī’s Persian dictation, because this translation from Arabic has several bits of undigested Persian in it. Including ἀζάνη az āna (hence) and ταχούμ dahūm (tenth).

Chioniades had a lot more chunks of undigested Arabic in it, which is expected, because astronomy was an Arabic affair. If astronomy was a Greek affair, he wouldn’t have come to Tabriz, he’d have stayed in Trebizond and brushed up on his Ptolemy. The problem is, Chioniades should have brushed up on his Ptolemy anyway, because the undigested Arabic does not include words you’d expect, like azimuth, nadir, and algebra. It includes words you wouldn’t expect, like ἄουτζ awj (apogee), ἀφλάκ aflāk (spheres), τερίχ ta’rīkh (chronology), κουσούφ kusūf (eclipse). Chioniades did eventually do the brushing up he needed to, so his subsequent translations are more Greek-compatible.

Our story’s only tangentially about him, but in the Year Of Our Lord 2007, the Blogger Writing These Lines was hacking away at the vocabulary of Greek unrecognised by the TLG lemmatiser, and came across the first of a series of a sizeable number of undigested Arabic words. This led him to the glossary in the edition of Chioniades by David Pingree, and our story is more about him. David Pingree [see also autobiog], head of the Department of the History of Mathematics, was a gentleman with Old School erudition. Beyond mathematics and astronomy, he was conversant with Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Assyrian; and he translated source texts in all of the above.

The undigested Arabic was in Volume I of Chioniades’ Works, which Pingree published in 1985 (book review). There was no Volume II published. Pingree died in 2005, and there was no Brown Department of the History of Mathematics any more. So it looked like there would be no Volume II any time soon. And that, it seemed, was that.

About a week after making this melancholy determination, I was googling Archimedes for some reason or other—maybe his Doric, maybe his palimpsest; and I feel across a web page including PDFs of him. Whoever put this web page together was furious with the poor quality of the Google Books digitisation of Archimedes (the 1904 edition, not the palimpsest). He was furious enough that he rescanned the more distorted pages of Archimedes, and when that didn’t work out, he LaTeXed up what was missing. This was impressive enough for me to poke around the chap’s web site.

The chap, who goes by the name of Joe Leichter, was not just any Online Mechanical Turk with too much time on his hands. He was one of Pingree’s last students. He has put up the Wilbour Hall web site, named for the now defunct Department of the History of Mathematics at Brown, and containing mountains of mathematical texts in Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Latin. And coming out soon was the published version of his PhD: Gregory Chioniades, Collected Works, Vol. II. (Site currently down, and the copy of the book looks empty, but it was a forthcoming publication.)

Yet the story isn’t just about someone picking up Pingree’s legacy and running with it. The story is also about what someone picking up Pingree’s legacy does for a day job, now that there is no Department of the History of Mathematics at Brown (or that many other places). The answer is, he works for a while at Goldman Sachs, and now teaches computing to law students at the University of Virginia. And from what I’m seeing on the googleage, he’s still doing scholarship for the masses.

Joe Leichter is a mensch, born in an age of midgets. I don’t know the man, I don’t know his circumstances, I don’t have his leave to make him a poster boy for the commodification of academia. I can only infer from his accomplishments, and my resentments. In an age when departments of the history of mathematics are museum pieces, when universities award linguistics degrees without a single mention of Verner, when canons have been deconstructed so long that students can’t name who was in the canons to begin with, when humanities are a stepchild luxury—and don’t you fricking dare smirk, scientists, YOU’RE NEXT—in such a world, there are still Pingrees. There is no place for Pingrees on campus. So the hardier of them will keep doing what they do, off campus. (The rest will at most run occasional blogs on Greek linguistics…)

The world is upside down, and will only get more so. If it’s not googleable, it doesn’t exist. That’s calling much of the scholarly publishing market into question, and the medical payola scandal at Elsevier calls into question the remainder. Just found out about this today, and I’m still in shock. Journal publishers don’t disseminate as broadly as a PDF on a website + google, and noone cares about long-term availability anymore (not even the publishers, shirking away from paper): scholarly publishers’ key selling point now is their imprimatur, and once you piss that away through payola, you don’t recoup the loss of authority by blaming a rogue Australian subbranch, with staff who’ve since left your employ.

How far away from that is the university as an institution of legitimation? Grades aren’t always earned; students don’t see the academics off researching; the researchers are busy inflating publication counts, and enrolling graduate students by the dozen with no expectation of them staying in the system. It’s corrupt; and it’s always been corrupt, even if in different ways: for today’s malnourished army of TAs and RAs, and PhDs deserting to publishing, we had the malnourished vagantes, and streetfights around the University of Paris. The difference is, there’s competition now. If universities don’t do History of Mathematics in-house any more, the few that care about it will get their information outside universities. Via Wikipedia. And if it happens for the History of Mathematics, it will happen for Mathematics, and Linguistics, and whatever else you can get online. Whether for knowledge, or for certification. [EDIT: Editorial in the Australian, right on cue.]

The world is upside down, and will only get more so. Joe Leichter will make his way through it; it may or may not be the way he chose—it wasn’t the way I chose, after all; but it looks like he’ll keep giving his scholarship, even if that isn’t for the sake of a career path. For that, hats off.

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