1986 Balzan Prize for History of Science
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 19.11.1986
To be awarded the prestigious Balzan Prize here in Rome is of great personal significance to me: it was here in Rome, through the hospitality of the Pontificio Istituto Biblico, that I wrote my «Habilitationsschrift» (on the Origin of the Sexagesimal System), Father A. Deimel being always willing to give advise and instruction to a bloody beginner on matters of Sumerian philology and culture. And it was on the basis of these early connections in my scientific career that I obtained access, years later, to the copies of Father Strassmaier of many hundreds of cuneiform tablets in the British Museum on which a systematic study of Babylonian astronomy in the Seleucid period could be based, revealing to us significant sources for the development of Hellenistic Science.
But this was all to come later. My first contact with Oriental studies was made by my reading two books which profoundly influenced my attitude to historical studies: K. Sethe’s «Von Zahlen und Zahlworten bei den alten Ägyptern» and H. Schäfer’s «Von Ägyptischer Kunst, besonders der Zeichenkunst». Here, for the first time, it became clear to me what systematic analysis of highly complex textual evidence could achieve. It led me to the study of the Egyptian language under Sethe himself in Göttingen. And I should in deep gratitude mention the intellectual liberality of my teachers in mathematics and physics in Göttingen (Conrant, Hilbert, Born) to let me go astray into Egyptology and accept a doctoral thesis on Egyptian mathematics.
This field of research next led me to Russia in order to help with the publication by W. Struve in Leningrad of the «Moscow mathematical papyrus» (the second such large text after the «Papyrus Rhind» in the British Museum). In Leningrad, Struve drew my attention to cuneiform texts published by the British Museum; with my Roman experience concerning sexagesimal material it did not take us long to reach an understanding of these texts and to show that Old Babylonian scribes had full knowledge of theorems conventionally ascribed to «Phythagoras» or «Thales», in addition to algebraic operations like solving quadratic equations, etc. Thus the stage was set for the work of the next years.
I do not think that such personal reminiscences are of great general interest. But I feel it to be my duty to recognize the contribution to a successful scientific career by scholars who, in fact, should share in the honor bestowed today on me. And I wish to emphasise that I was unusually lucky in having spent my life in daily contact with many extraordinary men, in Göttingen, in Copenhagen, and in the United States, who made my own work a pleasure and of rich reward. In particular, I cannot stress too much the fact that I never was given the feeling of being a foreigner when I came (in 1939) to the United States and for this I wish to express my special gratitude to Brown University and to the Institute for Advanced Study where my work found all possible support through many years. It is in this spirit that I accept most gratefully the Balzan Prize awarded to me.