Category Archives: Three questions

Three questions to Clemency Montelle

This is the fifth interview in the series Three questions, in which scholars,  invited to participate in the SAW events, answer three questions about their research.

It is my honour to introduce Clemency Montelle, who has given a talk about The mathematics underlying parallax in Sanskrit sources for the seminar Mathematical Practices in the context of the astral sciences and about Āmarājas commentary on the Khaṇḍakhākdyaka of Brahmagupta for the seminar Reading Mathematical texts.

Clemency Montelle is a lecturer for the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. She has a first-class honours undergraduate degree, with a double major in Mathematics and Classical Studies (with an emphasis in Greek and Latin). After completing a Masters degree, she was awarded a Fulbright graduate student award which supported PhD research at Brown University, Providence RI, USA, at the Department of the History of Mathematics under the expert guidance of the late Professor David Pingree, Dr Alice Slotsky, and Dr Kim Plofker, reading original texts in the Exact Sciences in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Cuneiform.

She is a mathematician with research expertise in the History of Mathematics. She combines a sound reading knowledge of several arcane languages and reads antique and medieval primary source mathematical manuscripts to investigate questions related to their content, context, origins, and their theoretical and practical ramifications, and consider issues of the transmission of mathematical knowledge from culture to culture.

1. Sarah Diemu-Trémolières : How did you get interested in astronomy in Sanskrit ?
Clemency Montelle : I studied Greek and Latin at university as well as Mathematics.  After several years studying these two seemingly disparate fields I realized that I could read ancient scientific texts in these original languages to bring together the two strands of my study.  After Greek and Latin, Sanskrit seemed the next ancient language to master.  Little did I know that their scientific tradition was so vast and so little studied!

2. SDT : What were your key findings in studying the cultural aspect of mathematical knowledge in astronomy?
Clemency Montelle: My interests arise from the twofold nature of our investigation into the History of Science; that science is both defined and shaped by the cultural context in which it is practiced but also can be approached more abstractly as well as a form of knowledge which seemingly transcends its cultural context.  Balancing these two line of inquiries is as delicate as it is rewarding.

3. SDT : What do you expect from your trip to Paris in the framework of the SAW ERC project ?
Clemency Montelle: I am looking forward to workshopping some of my finds in the texts I am studying, both with fellow scholars who specialize in this area, but also from those in other closely related disciplines.  I want to know what questions they have of the sources, as well as reflections they have with respect to the content and the connections with their cultures of inquiry.
SDT :Many thanks !

Three questions to Alexander Jones

This is the fourth interview in the series Three questions, in which scholars,  invited to participate in the SAW events, answer three questions about their research.

It is my honour to introduce Alexander Jones, who will give a talk Mathematics and Metrology in a Fourth-Century Greek Papyrus Codex at the conference Cultures of Computation and Quantification in late March.

Alexander Jones is Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University. He studied Classics at the University of British Columbia and the history of the early mathematical sciences in the Department of the History of Mathematics at Brown University. Before coming to NYU, he was for sixteen years on the faculty of the Department of Classics and the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. His work centers on the history and transmission of the mathematical sciences, especially astronomy. He is the author of several editions of Greek scientific texts, among them Pappus of Alexandria’s commentary on the corpus of Hellenistic geometrical treatises known as the “Treasury of Analysis”; an anonymous Byzantine astronomical handbook based on Islamic sources; and a collection of about two hundred fragmentary astronomical texts, tables, and horoscopes from the papyri excavated a century ago by Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus. His current research interests include the contacts between Babylonian and Greco-Roman astronomy and astrology, the Antikythera Mechanism and other artifacts of Hellenistic astronomy, and the scientific work of Claudius Ptolemy.

Natalie Cernecka: How did you become interested in history of ancient mathematics and astronomy?
Alexander Jones: During my undergraduate study of Classics at the University of British Columbia, I chanced upon Neugebauer’s Exact Sciences in Antiquity on the shelves of the Mathematics Library. It revealed to me the existence of a field where I might apply a love of mathematics and puzzle-solving to ancient texts, with much more direct engagement with the manuscript sources than most classicists ever have. I was fortunate to be able to study the history of the ancient mathematical sciences in Brown University’s History of Mathematics Department when it was still at its full strength, with Gerald Toomer and David Pingree teaching and Neugebauer and Abe Sachs still strong presences though officially retired. As I came to know the material better, ancient astronomy increasingly attracted me because the sources are so varied and conducive to studying the transformations that take place in connection with transfer of methods. I am deeply interested in the phenomena of transmission not just between geographically distinct cultures but also between different intellectual communities within a culture. Continue reading

Three questions to Mark McClish

This is the third interview in a new series, entitled Three questions, in which scholars,  invited to participate in the SAW events, answer three questions about their research.

It is my honour to introduce Mark McClish, who will give a talk on the construction of fortifications in Classical South Asia at the workshop Cultures of Computation and Quantification (session of 8 February 2013).

Mark McClish is Assistant Professor of Asian Religions at Birmingham-Southern College. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin in Asian Cultures and Languages with a specialization in Sanskrit and Indian Religions. His research focuses on the political and legal traditions of classical South Asia, known as arthaśāstra and dharmaśāstra, respectively. He has worked primarily with the Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya (ca. 100 BCE – 100 CE), the sole surviving treatise on statecraft from the classical period and a repository for a wide array of information on contemporary political, economic, social, and cultural systems. He is interested in how the historical context of sources such as the Arthaśāstra shaped their development over time and in particular on how the political and legal theology of the orthodox Brāhmaṇa priesthood influenced the theory and practice of politics and law in the classical period.

Natalie Cernecka: How did you become interested in Sanskrit and Indian studies?
Mark McClish: I discovered my interest in Sanskrit and Indian Studies quite by accident. I had always been interested in the study of religion, but originally thought I wanted to work on early Christianity. After my first course on Hinduism with David Haberman, however, I turned to the study of India and never looked back. I was fascinated by the complexity and exuberance of the Hindu traditions. With his encouragement, I travelled to India right away and enrolled in Sanskrit courses immediately upon my return. With Sanskrit, it was love at first sight. I was introduced in graduate school to the tools and methods of philology and, through study with Patrick Olivelle, kindled an abiding interest in the classical Sanskrit legal and political literature. Continue reading

Three questions to Michael Loewe

This is the second interview in a new series, entitled Three questions, in which scholars,  invited to participate in the SAW events, answer three questions about their research.

It is my honour to introduce Michael Loewe, who will give a talk on Wang Mang’s bronze vessel for the system of capacity units of measurement at the workshop Cultures of Computation and Quantification (session of 29 January 2013).

Michael Loewe (born 1922) was appointed Lecturer in the History of the Far East at the University of London in 1963, and Lecturer in Chinese Studies in Cambridge in 1963 until his retirement in 1990. His research has been concentrated on the history of China’s early empires (221 BCE to 220 CE) with attention to religious, intellectual, and institutional developments and with account of both literary and material evidence.  His principal publications include Records of Han Administration (1967); A Biographical Dictionary of the Qin, Former Han and Xin Dynasties (2000) and Dong Zhongshu, a ‘Confucian’ heritage and the Chunqiu fanlu (2011); and as co-editor The Cambridge History of China volume I (1986) and The Cambridge History of Ancient China (1999).

Natalie Cernecka: How did you become interested in Chinese studies?
Michael Loewe: In 1942 I was trained in certain aspects of Japanese and thereafter in contemporary Chinese.  During a six months’ stay in  Pei-ping in 1947, I acquired a deep interest in China’s traditional culture and on return to England I was able to pursue this interest while working for a degree in Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Continue reading

Three questions to Howard Goodman

This is  the first interview in a new series, entitled Three questions, in which scholars, invited to participate in the SAW project seminars, answer three questions about their research.

It is an honour to introduce Howard L. Goodman, who will give several talks at three one-day workshops on Li Chunfeng, and on the treatises in the official histories written in Tang China, which will take place at the end of November – beginning of December 2012.

Howard Goodman became interested in Chinese, as well as Russian and music, at a young age.  He received a PhD. in early Chinese intellectual history at Princeton and taught at several universities. His research interests are varied, as reflected in his papers on such subjects as Wei-Jin music, careers of local families, harmonics vis-a-vis musical scales, factionalism, poetry, the nature of mortuary rites and commemoration, institutions of scientific thought.  He is the author of two books: Xun Xu and the Politics of Precision in Third-Century AD China, covering such issues as musicology, poetics, metrology, and archeology in the career of Xun Xu (d. 289) and his peers, and the role of factions and scholarly groups; and Ts’ao P’i Transcendent: The Political Culture of Dynasty-Founding in China at the End of the Han, dealing with exacting arts, mantic ideas, notions of revelation, etc., that lay behind Cao Pi’s decision to install a new dynasty in 220. In 2013, Howard Goodman will be a Visiting Associate Professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago.

Natalie Cernecka: Why did you become interested in Li Chunfeng?

Howard Goodman: I became interested in the 7th century Li Chunfeng during research into scholars of the 2d-3d centuries, especially Xun Xu (d. 289). In the process, the third century’s approach to precision in ritual knowledge and ritual arts seemed like a fascinating set of intellectual-scientific tools — tools that came from China’s long traditions, including mathematics, harmonics, astronomy, mechanical engineering, etc. I sensed that certain 2d-3d century scholars thought of themselves as workers in technical fields (not just social groups of writers and political operatives); they applied recent contributions in the exacting arts and in classical commentaries, as well as findings in archeology. I understood that we need to learn about Li Chunfeng, who was in fact making his own, much more mathematically-oriented, judgments on earlier judgments. Li may be seen as a back-looking mirror on post-Han scientific thinking.

Karine Chemla
: How does learning about Li Chunfeng help us use the evidence he gives us — and is sometimes the only one to give us– about earlier scientific activities in China?
HG: From Cai Yong’s day (not to mention Ban Gu) down to Li Chunfeng’s I see a profound evolution in the way the technical treatises on, and creative achievements in, harmonic  systems were framed. A major change from Cai to Xun Xu (who did not write treatises but did leave documents) was the refined use of antiquarian documents (esp. provenancing of objects-as-witnesses). This activity had existed in the Dongguan archives of Eastern Han dynasty, but for Xun, collecting and provenancing entirely defined his reforms in metrology and musicology. However, Xun treated his predecessors in a highly iconoclastic way: he denounced his predecessors.

Li Chunfeng was not this kind of iconoclast, instead he carefully carried forward the findings of important predecessors, without denunciation. He looked back at the history of harmonics and astronomy in two ways. First, he continued that tradition of collecting and provenancing — Li’s treatises are a veritable anthology of quoted documents (saved nowhere else) about metrology, harmonics, and physical cosmography, ranging from Xun  Xu’s own archival notes to the most advanced of the mathematical findings of especially Northern Dynasty experts. This “Li Chunfeng anthology”, so to speak, also may have included many actual devices at his disposal.

Secondly, Li wrote his treatises in a historiographical manner that installed leading figures in specific fields. He explicitly defended Xun Xu’s radical metrology and harmonics by offering hundreds more collected objects as witness-proofs and introduced mathematical explanations where Xun had not explicitly done so. Moreover, Li updated 500 years of cosmography by carefully reconstructing the theories and devices of Wang Fan (3d c.). In this way, Li Chunfeng’s work both retrieved and built up a history of achievements. Li’s own armillary sphere may be seen as a final key to his mathematico-cosmographic work, but I believe we know too little about it for anything more than suggestions to be made.

NC: What is the most exciting problem concerning Li Chunfeng’s writing that still needs to be solved?

HG: Li’s written treatise on the history and specifics of court astronomy during the Jin dynasty (266-419) was translated by Ho Peng Yoke and is a major step in studies of Li Chunfeng. To round out our view of Li’s scientific mind, we should translate his treatise on harmonic systems, Lüli zhi (a.k.a. “Treatise on Calendars and Pitch-pipes”, esp. the treatise that became part of Suishu), bringing out his view of mathematical developments. We also need an investigation of Li’s Daoist writings to see if they relate to arts, precision, and techne of the type found in Tang court ritual. For example, does the Daoist term “flowing pearls” (used in a Li Chunfeng Daoist essay) relate to mercury used in armillary drives? What would studies of Li show us about the Tang nexus of Daoism, the state-cult, and certain arts and techniques?

NC: Many thanks!