Eyes on the prize

MU professor receives 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship for translating 11th-century optical treatise from
Thursday, April 19, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:17 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
A. Mark Smith, a history professor at MU internationally renowned for his transcriptions, is one of 19 MU faculty members to ever win a Guggenheim Fellowship. He will travel to Europe this summer to pursue his study of the original texts of the manuscript he’s been translating.

For more than two decades, A. Mark Smith has been editing and translating a seven-part optical treatise titled “De aspectibus,” or “On Visual Appearances,” written by a medieval mathematician named Alhacen.

According to Smith, Alhacen — an “ingenious and savvy” Arab who lived around 965 to 1041 — played a crucial role in developing the field of what is today known as optics. Alhacen’s theories survived from roughly 1200, when his treatise was translated into Latin, until about 1600, when they were recast by Johannes Kepler, whose work, Smith says, had “enormous consequences in science and philosophy.”

Last year, Smith was awarded a Curators’ Professorship for his translation of the first five parts of Alhacen’s book. Now, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has recognized his work with a 2007 Fellowship.

Smith, who has been published in “The American Historical Review,” “Arabic Sciences and Philosophy,” “Archive for History of Exact Sciences” and “Isis,” describes Alhacen’s optical work as a broad synthesis of theory, visual anatomy and the psychology of perception.

“It’s basically about visual perception, not the physics of light,” Smith said.

Consisting of about 200,000 words, “De aspectibus” was originally composed in Arabic, titled “Kitab al-Manazir,” or “Book of Optics,” by Ibn al-Haytham in the early 11th century. Around 1200, it was translated into Latin under the title “De aspectibus” and attributed to Alhacen.

Seventeen different manuscript versions of the treatise were distributed throughout Europe, from the mid-13th to the late-15th century. Smith said he’s completed most of the edition and translation, which will fill eight volumes when finished. Half of Alhacen’s texts are geometric proofs, and the translation is difficult because of the abbreviations and some incorrect mathematical figures in the manuscripts, Smith said.

In a review of Smith’s translation of Alhacen’s first three books, Glen M. Cooper, of Brigham Young University, said the work “contributes to our understanding of the development of optics, a discipline of immense importance in the history of science.”

Smith attributes his interest in medieval history and the history of science to the Great Books Program he was exposed to when he was attending St. John’s College in Maryland. Developed in Chicago to promote cultural literacy, the Great Books Program holds that there are certain key works in the Western canon, from Homer, Euclid and Kant, up to Alfred North Whitehead, that students must read to become well-rounded individuals.

So although Smith went to college to study Descartes, he “became smitten with medieval works” and became a “medievalist,” in part because of the influence of a mentor who worked on medieval intellectual history.

A professor at the University of California-Riverside before coming to MU in 1986, Smith teaches courses in medieval history as well as the history of science from antiquity to the late-Enlightenment period. The grant from the Guggenheim Foundation will allow him to travel over the summer to continue his study of the original texts, which are located all over Europe, from Italy to Scotland.

Jonathan Sperber, chairman of the history department at MU, called Smith “internationally renowned” for his work and said that although his work is “seemingly specialized, it has wider ramifications, from science to technology to Renaissance art.”

Smith is one of 19 MU faculty members to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, which was established by U.S. Sen. Simon Guggenheim in 1925 to “further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts.” The foundation has awarded more than $256 million to more than 16,250 scholars in more than 78 different fields. Previous fellows include a number of Nobel, Pulitzer and other prize winners.

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