When Irish monks led the way in maths and science

Ireland was the intellectual powerhouse of the Mediaeval era, excelling not only in the field of art and philosophy but also in mathematics - a fact which will be examined at a conference in NUI, Galway this weekend.

From the sixth to the 11th centuries, Ireland was a dynamic and expanding society. Irish clans established colonies in Wales and south west England, while in Scotland they expand into the Highlands and gave birth to Scottish Gaelic culture.

Irish monks travelled Europe establishing monasteries and academic centres of excellence. The work of Irish calligraphers would influence the layout of the modern book. Irish philosophers such as Johannes Scottus were celebrated internationally.

This period also saw a renaissance in Celtic art and design which produced the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, and the Ardagh chalice, and influenced the Book of Lindisfarne. It also saw the commitment of the Táin Bó Cúailnge and Irish myths, stories, and poems to paper.

While these achievements are much celebrated, the Irish contribution to mathematics in the Early Middle Ages is less well known. However the Second International Conference on the Science of Computus, to be held in NUI, Galway tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday, wants to change that. This international conference will bring together leading scholars on Early Medieval scientific knowledge.

The Science of Computus is the mathematics required to calculate the date of Easter and related topics. Computus straddles the fields of: mathematics and astronomy; biblical interpretation and cosmology; empirical astronomical observation; and the perennial quest to understand the concepts of Time and Time-Reckoning.

The conference is organised by the Foundations of Irish Culture Project, based in the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies at NUIG.

“There is much talk these days about the decline of mathematics and the sciences in Irish schools, and the effect that will have on the future prospects for Ireland’s economy and society,” said NUIG’s Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, the director of the Foundations of Irish Culture Project and the conference convener. “What many Irish people don’t realise is that Ireland was once at the forefront of mathematics and science. In fact, the ‘Dark Ages’ were anything but dark in the fields of mathematics and astronomy, rather it was the ‘Golden Age’ of Irish medieval scholarship.”

A focus of the conference will be the scientific knowledge that Irish scholars nurtured and developed during the years circa AD 500 to AD 1100. Time-reckoning, calendars, and the minute reckonings required to compute the date of Easter all involved the minutiae of mathematics, including the original concept of ‘digital calculation’, and astronomical observation in a truly scientific fashion.

“From the time of Columbanus, around 615 AD, Irish scholars led Europe in the field of computistical studies,” Prof Ó Cróinín said. “The contribution of our ‘Wandering Scholars’ is still highly regarded in other countries today, and evidenced by the wide range of international experts participating in our conference.”

For more information go to www.foundationsirishculture.ie/conference2008

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