Last week, I attended a national conference. The conference was about future therapies in neurology, and was attended by neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuropsychologists, and many other people interested in all things neurological.
After the event, I ran into a retired neurosurgeon as he patiently waited for a taxi outside his hotel. He had been a speaker at the conference, and quite possibly the oldest delegate there. He had seen one of my talks, and in reference to it, came up to me and said "I have a poem for you." He then recited the following (word for word, I might add) (1):
"Myself when young did eagerly frequent doctor and saint, and heard great argument about it and about:
but evermore came out by the same door as in I went."
I had not heard this one before; the meaning of it was not immediately apparent to me, so I asked him to repeat it. However, his taxi rolled up at the exact same time as I did so, so he quickly told me who had written it, got in the taxi, and left. "Omar Khayyam," he said, stepping into the cab...Omar Khayyam.
I remembered the name, and looked Khayyam's quote up on returning home. My initial take was as follows. A young man, eager to learn how to become a better version of himself, visits many doctors and saints; however, since he is young and presumably healthy, it is not to be educated or healed, but to learn from them both how to become an educator and healer. The young man sees that the doctors and saints vehemently disagree about how this should be done, and after doing his best to learn, finally "comes out by the same door as in he went," meaning that after his search, he is no wiser or better than he was at the start.
So who exactly was Omar Khayyam?
Omar Khayyam was a Persian polymath born in northeastern Iran who lived from 1048 to 1131. He was especially strong in mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.
In mathematics, Khayyam made a number of important discoveries. He further developed geometry by showing the possible existence of non-Euclidean geometries, particularly hyperbolic and Riemannian geometry. He also contributed to the invention of analytic geometry; in this sense, he was a precursor to Descartes. Yet Khayyam's greatest mathematical contribution was probably his conception of a theory of cubic equations (those with the formula ax3+bx2+cx+d=0); he was the first to do so, and the first to solve many of these cubic equations.
As an astronomer, Khayyam was commissioned by the sultan of his day, Malik-Shah, to construct an observatory at Isfahan so as to recreate the Persian calendar. After any years of effort, his work culminated in the Jalali calendar, which remained used in Persia and greater Iran from the 11th to the 20th centuries, and of which remnants still exist today in Iran and Afghanistan in the form of the Solar Hijri calendar. Unlike the Gregorian calendar which is used in most of the world today, the Jalali calendar was a true solar calendar, in which the duration of each month equals the time of passage of the sun across the corresponding Zodiac sign. As such, the Jalali calendar is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar; some historians have called it the most perfect calendar ever devised (2).
Khayyam was a polymath, well-versed in mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy (and poetry).
Khayyam also wrote a number of philosophical papers in which he emphasized and pondered the nature of existence, free will, and determinism. It has been said that when he died, Khayyam was reading metaphysics.
What kind of environment produced such a polymath?
The Islamic Golden Age
The place of one's birth often determines much of what is learned about the world. Growing up in the West, one tends to learn about the history of the West, and the same likely occurs in other places, such as the Middle East. And yet, all have contributed to the conceptual ideas employed in modern society.
Khayyam lived right in the midst of the Islamic Golden Age, a period of peak economic and scientific advancement from the 8th to the 14th century that only ended with the advent of the Mongol invasions. During this golden era, hundreds of scholars and scientists made marked contributions to technology, science, and medicine. Indeed, the Islamic Golden Age probably played no small influence on the rise of the European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries (3).
The Islamic Golden Age probably had a strong influence on the European Renaissance.