Cosmology and Me


Ptolemy's place
A sixteenth-century illustration of the Ptolemaic cosmos   (Wikimedia Commons public domain)


An autobiographical reflection:


I came to Brigham Young University as a freshman mathematics major.  I had a virtually life-size poster of Albert Einstein on the wall in my dorm room.  My real fascination, however, was with cosmology — the very biggest of big subjects.  I was interested in the origins and the nature of the cosmos as a totality.  And in its structure.


I soon realized, though, that mathematics wasn’t really my passion, as it was for some of my fellow students.  I also recognized that it wasn’t my forte, and that I would be unlikely to be able to achieve things at a level in the field that would satisfy me.


In the meantime, as I’ve mentioned before, I had a dorm neighbor and good friend who was taking a class in Greek.


I had come under the sway of the writings of Hugh Nibley some time before, and the idea of studying Greek — and antiquity more generally — fascinated me.  So I changed my major to Greek, with a minor in philosophy.  (No philosophy major was available at BYU at the time.)


I’m sure that my parents were dismayed, wondering how on earth I would ever be able to make a living with either Greek or philosophy.  It’s a good question, of course, and they would have been right to worry.  But my mother, at least, always assumed that I would become a corporate lawyer, or something of that sort.  (She and my Dad even brought the subject up after I had been hired on the faculty of BYU, offering to pay my tuition for law school if I ever wanted to go that direction.)


Corporate law had absolutely no appeal to me, however.  Still, I might have gone more or less that way, at one point.  Legal issues interest me.  Politics and political philosophy interest me very much.  But, had I gone into law, I probably would have ended up not as a highly paid corporate lawyer but as a professor at a law school, teaching jurisprudence or legal history or the philosophy of law.  I’m an academic by temperament, not a practical man of action.


Anyway, once I finished my oh-so-marketable degree in Greek and philosophy, I abandoned Greek to study Arabic, Persian, and Islam.


But the abandonment wasn’t quite as complete as it might seem at first glance.  After years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo, I did my Ph.D. at the University of California at Los Angeles, which has an exceptionally strong program in Near Eastern studies and which had, for me as a native of California, the very pleasant advantage of being cheap — especially with the fellowship that I won.  My dissertation concentrated on the cosmology [!] of an early eleventh-century Muslim Neoplatonist by the name of Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani.  And it devoted a great deal of attention to comparing his thought not only with that of his Muslim contemporary Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and his Isma‘ili Shi‘i predecessor Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani but with the work of the late Greek thinkers Iamblichus and Proclus and, especially, with the Enneads of the great Plotinus, the third-century founder of Neoplatonism.


So my Greek training and my philosophical interests persisted through all the changes.  And, as I look back, I realize that that early interest in cosmology did, as well.  Moreover, it continues.  Eventually, I intend to publish at least one very accessible book (and one not-so-accessible book) that will reflect my ongoing fascination with models of the cosmos.


The child, as Wordsworth put it, is father to the man.



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