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Only full-time prof. in dept. of history of mathematics dies at 72

Pingree taught at Brown for 34 years

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Professor David Pingree, a world-renowned scholar of Sanskrit, Assyrian and Arab mathematical texts and the only full-time professor remaining in the Department of the History of Mathematics, died last Friday at the age of 72.

The cause of death is believed to be complications from diabetes, for which he had been hospitalized intermittently since late October.

The makings of a scholar

Pingree was born Jan. 2, 1933, in New Haven, Conn. He lived much of his youth in Providence and attended the Moses Brown School until the age of 13. His family moved to Massachusetts, and Pingree enrolled at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., from which he graduated in 1950. From an early age, Pingree was engaged by classics and mathematics. He would spend the rest of his life devoted to studying material that captured the essence of both fields.

It was at Andover that Pingree taught himself Sanskrit, opening a door into the past that would ultimately lead him to his future studies. He discovered allusions to Sanskrit texts in many of the works of literature he studied, including Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” and other pieces from the New England transcendentalist movement. Pingree began thinking about how the scientific knowledge of one society can be conveyed to another and the effects of this cultural transmission.

Pingree spent both his undergraduate and graduate years at Harvard and, in 1960, received his Ph.D. in classics and Sanskrit. In fact, it was in a Harvard library that he met his wife, Isabelle Sanchirico Pingree.

In 1958, Pingree made his first trip to India, the birthplace of Sanskrit, where he continued studying the language. Upon returning to Harvard, Pingree worked under the supervision of the history of mathematics scholars Otto Neugebauer and Daniel Ingells. His research there culminated in a dissertation, “Materials for the Study of the Transmission of Greek Astrology to India.”

Soon thereafter, Pingree ass-umed a professorship at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. However, at the time, his former supervisor, Neugebauer, was aiming to strengthen Brown’s history of mathematics department, which he had worked to establish in the late 1940s. By 1971, Neugebauer had persuaded Pingree to join him at Brown, where Pingree remained ever since.

Top of his field, tops with his students

The 1970s were a “fertile time” for the department, said Alice Slotsky, a visiting assistant professor in the department. Pingree worked with Neugebauer as well as Abraham Sachs and Gerald Toomer – other pioneering contributors in the field – to produce a large number of articles on diverse subject matters. At the same time, the department advanced the understanding of pre-modern civilizations through analysis of their texts on astronomy and mathematics.

By 1986, all the professors – with the exception of Pingree – had either retired or moved to other universities. From that point on, Pingree managed the undergraduate classes he was teaching, guided the department’s graduate students and completed the administrative work that accompanied the department’s daily workings.

Pingree never had a secretary and refused to ever touch a computer. Fully aware of the capabilities of computerized technology, he maintained the philosophy that professors would do best to devote their energy to research as opposed to creating computerized presentations. He was wary of the false sense of precision that could accompany the use of modern technology and held himself to the meticulous, human methods available to the cultures he studied, even when doing complicated mathematical rounding.

Even with this avoidance of modern technology, Pingree was prolific in his publications, which included about 43 books and monographs and over 240 articles. At least one of his completely handwritten articles is waiting to be published.

“He was really central in the field. He took with him 10 times the amount of material he ever published, but at least we have what we have,” said Kim Plofker GS ’95, who earned her Ph.D. from Brown after studying under the tutelage of Pingree for six years. “The field has now reg-ressed about 10 years (because of his passing).”

At conferences, “he commanded respect. People would wait in line to talk to him,” she said.

Though his knowledge of the subject matter was formidable, Pingree remained approachable to his students and colleagues. Even when he was submerged in a particular text, Pingree would drop everything to answer a student’s question. Slotsky recalled that he would assist her with her publications in a reasonable and unimposing manner.

For Pingree, unraveling the history of mathematics revealed the thinking of ancient cultures. His work deals with the transmission of scientific knowledge – including mathematical and astronomical concepts – from one culture to another and how the recipient culture interpreted this information. Pingree was especially fascinated by cultures from much of the eastern hemisphere, and the scope of his publications includes Babylonian cuneiform texts, Hellenistic Greek, Arabic, Iranian and Sanskrit.

Beyond his work in the Brown community, Pingree was recognized nationally and internationally. While at Harvard, Pingree was chosen as a junior fellow at the university’s Society of Fellows. In later years, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellow-ship and a MacArthur Fellow-ship. He was also an elected member of the American Philo-sophical Society and the Insti-tute for Advanced Study and an A.D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell. In 2004, Pingree was honored in a festschrift, a collection of essays written in tribute to someone, titled “Studies in the history of the exact sciences in honor of David Pingree.”

The future of the department

Pingree had planned to retire at the end of this year, and his relations with the administration had grown strained as the University considered closing the department following his retirement. During this academic year, Pingree did not teach undergraduate classes, instead working individually with graduate students and continuing his research.

Slotsky is teaching all of the undergraduate classes offered in the Department of the History of Mathematics this year. The University has decided to continue offering the classes next year but will relocate them to the Department of Classics.

In anticipation of Pingree’s retirement, the history of mathematics department stopped accepting applications to its graduate program a few years ago. The two graduate students currently in the department, both within two years of receiving their doctorates, were confronted with questions regarding the completion of their degrees upon hearing news of Pingree’s death. However, the dean of the graduate school, Sheila Bonde, was immediately responsive to the students’ needs, according to those in the department. Slotsky will supervise their dissertations, which will be read by committees comprised of non-Brown scholars in the field.

Pingree is survived by his wife, daughter, two brothers and a sister. A private funeral service is planned, with a University service still to be scheduled.

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