Ask him what he does for fun, and University of Indianapolis math professor Jeff Oaks will tell you that he enjoys cycling. He also will tell you that he enjoys collecting railroad-tie date nails and studying medieval Arabic mathematics. That’s right. Learning medieval Arabic and researching centuries-old manuscripts is what he does for fun. So is learning the value of pi—to 115 places, or memorizing Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. (It’s long.)
Oaks, chair of UIndy’s Department of Mathematics & Computer Science, has always loved history and minored in it in college. “The advantage of math,” however, “is that there are no long books to read, no papers to write, and no labs,” he says. “With math, you just have to sit there in class and listen and take tests.”
Oaks credits his interest in Arabic math to a comment made by an undergraduate professor in a class about the history of science. “The prof said that we don’t know much about medieval Arabic science, and that planted a seed in my mind,” he says. “Years later, I decided to look into it. It’s a very difficult field and I never thought I’d become a researcher in it, but I have.”
Oaks began to learn Arabic from a former UIndy colleague and discovered that he was able to translate some of the medieval documents into English. Though he can’t translate modern Arabic very well, he recently translated a 90-page Arabic manuscript from the 13th century for his research.
“I’m a really persistent learner, and I don’t give up easily,” he says. “That’s been helpful in learning this language.” When Oaks does run into problems, he has other scholars he can turn to—but not many. As one might imagine, it’s a small and somewhat eccentric club of only about 50 or 60 people around the world who are studying medieval Arabic mathematics. Every few years, this small group gathers on Africa’s northern coast to discuss their passion. Last May, Oaks joined two dozen other math historians from various nations at the 10th Maghrebian Colloquium on the History of Arabic Mathematics in Tunis, Tunisia.
They all know each other by reputation, if not personally. And because they often review each other’s published findings, interesting friendships—and rivalries—can result. Also, as math history isn’t a discrete academic discipline in itself, its scholars hail from diverse specialties—math, history, philosophy, philology. “None of us has a good background in all the areas necessary to do what we do,” Oaks quipped. “It’s kind of a funny group of people.”
Oaks’s topic at the conference was the reluctance of early Arabic mathematicians to acknowledge algebra and geometry as mutually affirming disciplines. Among his current projects is co-editing, with the conference organizer, a translation of a 14th-century text. That sounds fun, too.
—Jennifer L. Huber ’07