1986 Balzan Prize for History of Science
The contributions of Otto Neugebauer (*1899 – †1990) to the history of science, notably in the fields of Egyptology, Assyriology and Semitics, have put him in the front rank of scholars of the twentieth century.
His earliest work was in the field of ancient Egyptian mathematics, with his doctoral dissertation (1926) on the basis of Egyptian fractional computation, but he very soon extended his interests to Babylonian mathematics. His efforts transformed this, for the first time, into a real field of scholarly endeavor, his most fundamental contribution being the publication, in 1935-37, of all known mathematical cuneiform texts, with translations and extensive commentaries. He had already published, in 1934, a truly revolutionary book on both Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics, in which he clearly set out the ways in which these oriental civilizations had foreshadowed and influenced Greek mathematics, and also the profound differences between their approaches and Greek methods. This book already exemplifies the concern which has marked his whole career, to study the manifold influences of the sciences of the ancient civilizations on one another, and to trace the thread of their transmission.
The most fertile field for this kind of study is astronomy, where one can follow a related tradition for over 2000 years, from ancient Mesopotamia to Renaissance Europe. From the mid-1930’s onwards, much of Neugebauer’s scholarly life has been devoted to illuminating this tradition. Despite the strenuous efforts of the pioneers of the l9th and early 2Oth centuries, the field of Babylonian astronomy was mostly chaos until Neugebauer reduced it to order. Once more, he assembled a corpus of all surviving mathematical astronomical texts, the culmination of 20 years of work, not merely of collection, but of elucidation and comparison, which revealed both the debt of later civilizations, notably Greek and Indian, to their Mesopotamian forerunners, and the remarkable mathematical abilities of the Babylonian astronomers.
At the same time, he continued to work on the less influential but more picturesque Egyptian astronomy, where his primary contribution has been to eradicate a number of modern myths about its nature and influence. To this end he collaborated in the publication of the four volumes of all surviving Egyptian astronomical texts.
The culmination of Neugebauer’s lifelong concern with astronomy as a continuous tradition from the ancient near east through the classical world down to early modem times is his magisterial «History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy», published in 1975, and already recognized as the standard work. But more influential in his own lifetime (as revealed by the fact that it has been continuously reprinted for more than 30 years, and has been translated into numerous languages, including Russian and Japanese) is «The Exact Sciences in Antiquity» which opened the door to an understanding of the nature of mathematics and astronomy in the ancient world to many students and amateurs.
Neugebauer has also shown great interest in the transmission of the sciences in medieval times, partly through Arabic and Hebrew channels (hence his studies on Maimonides and on astronomy in Arabic). But in recent years his attention has been directed principally towards Ethiopic astronomy, where once again he has been the first to shed light on darkness, notably showing that the Ethiopic Easter computus of medieval and modem times preserves in an almost pure form the lost tradition of the Alexandrian church of late antiquity.
Neugebauer’s work has transformed the study of the mathematical sciences of the ancient world, particularly the ancient near east. He has always insisted that all generalizations about the nature and influences of the sciences of the various ancient peoples must be based on rigorous examination of the surviving documents, which requires not only expert knowledge of the relevant languages and scripts and profound mathematical understanding, but also a grasp of the whole cultural setting. He has made the way easier for others to follow him by his masterly editions of collected texts, which have always been accompanied by translations and commentaries enabling those not expert in the various languages to have access to them. Both by direct influence on his pupils in Europe and the United States, and by the indirect influence of his example and writings all over the world, he has set a new standard for what a historian of science should be.