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Nerds of Mizzou

Word nerd

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: Sept. 23, 2009
A. Mark Smith

Curators Professor A. Mark Smith shares a moment with Homer in the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology's cast gallery. Smith, a historian, lives in the past, with expertise in the Crusades and proficiency in dead languages.

Say that in Latin

One of A. Mark Smith’s most apparent eccentricities is his habit of using Latin phrases and other languages in conversation as if everyone knows what they mean. Who doesn’t speak Latin, after all?

A Curators Professor of history, Smith is as comfortable reading Latin as he is English and can, in fact, speak the dead language. On one occasion while lecturing in French to students at a school in Paris, his brain misfired, and he switched to Latin in mid-lecture.

Smith used that proficiency with languages in a recently concluded research project that spanned 24 years. He critically edited and translated — from Latin to English — a long treatise on visual perception and the physics of light that was written originally in Arabic by Alhacen, an 11th-century scholar, and then translated from Arabic into Latin around A.D. 1200.

For the difficult and time-consuming analysis of 17 existing Latin manuscripts of the work, Smith visited libraries throughout most of Western Europe.

“To really appreciate what Alhacen has done, you have to do it. It’s very painful, a real struggle,” Smith says.

How painful? The medieval text was written in a cramped ornate style similar to that in the Gutenberg Bible, not the Roman letters we use today. To the untrained eye, even if it were in English, it appears unreadable.

Smith isolated seven manuscripts written by scribes in different time periods and different geographic areas. He used one as a control copy, which he transcribed into Roman characters for ease of reading.

Then line-by-line, he compared the six others to the control copy to seek interrelations and places of divergence. He checked for omissions and errors. He identified occasional linguistic anomalies, and he deciphered the scribes’ varying styles of abbreviations or shorthand. 

With no formal mathematics background, Smith transcribed theorems that stretched across as many as 16 pages — longer than some mathematics dissertations — and he reconstructed the accompanying diagrams piece by piece. (Because scientists in the 11th century didn’t have a way of showing three-dimensional spatial situations, the original diagrams were incorrect.)

White gloves required

Manuscript page

A. Mark Smith spends much of his time translating Latin manuscripts such as this one.

While reading in the rare-books rooms of European libraries, Smith discovered some advice from a medieval scribe who’d begun his copy of a Latin manuscript with this warning: “He who handles this with dirty hands will go to Hell.” Heeding the message, Smith wore gloves when handling the parchment treasures. He sees no point in testing the centuries-old warning.

Medieval superstitions aside, Smith’s profoundly scholarly work earned him a 2007 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (an award generally recognized as one of the most prestigious grants in the humanities), four grants from the National Science Foundation (rare honors for a historian) and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Smith is an expert on medieval history and is internationally known for research on the history of science, particularly pre-Newtonian optics.

“Mark has spent his life pursuing information that casts a profound light on the modern world,” Department of History Chair Jonathan Sperber says. “He takes obscure, irrelevant text and shows how it is integrally related to the chain of scientific development of Western civilization.”

Crusading for vocabulary expansion  

As students in Smith’s The Crusades course take their seats in Strickland Hall, he announces, without a trace of a smile, a spot quiz on the assigned readings: “In honor of that great Missourian Walt Disney, we’re going to have our first Mickey Mouse exercise. Enjoy! You’ve got five minutes.”

Smith conducts class with a dry wit and a baritone delivery so deadpan that students in the 8 a.m. session miss three humorous references.

“His intelligence can be intimidating until he cracks jokes,” says graduate student Heather McRae of Denton, Texas. “What is to him a run-of-the-mill word is often a vocabulary test to undergraduates.”

During the day’s lecture, “Europe Aborning,” students encounter this smattering of vocabulary-strengthening statements. (For ease of reading, definitions are provided.)

  • I raise this as a paradigm (model).
  • The West had never accepted iconoclasm (destruction of cherished beliefs or traditions).
  • All kinds of vicissitudes (unpleasant changes) happened.
  • It tells you every jot and tittle (minute point) about what you need to do.
  • To subvent (subsidize) a military venture… 
  • Clovis’s sons are not feckless (ineffective).
  • He went through a lot of cerebration (thinking).
  • And this is a sobriquet (shorter version of someone’s name) of whom?

At home, Smith’s son Derrick, 17, reacts to his dad’s vocabulary in typical teenage manner by complaining loudly about such arcane language. On one occasion when Smith noticed a mess in Derrick’s room and advised him to “pick up all this detritus,” the teenager, he says, looked at him like he’d grown another head. 

Smith credits his use of dictionary-recommended words on his age — he can’t think of simpler substitutes.

Take my brother, please

“I like to see that being smart is cool,” Smith says of acquiring a Nerd of Mizzou title. Still, he insists he doesn’t deserve the honor: “It should go to my brother (Curators Professor of Biological Sciences George Smith); he doesn’t even know what century he’s in.“

The Smith brothers appreciate each other’s intellectualism and sense of humor. George counters with an example of Mark’s witty humor — a spoof lecture on “Death and Dying in the Middle Ages” that Mark presented at an international meeting of medieval scholars.

Through analysis accompanied by charts, graphs and other bogus proof, Mark demonstrated the low mortality rate in Europe from A.D. 400 to 1300 — when only 27 percent of the population actually died — and showed how, in later years, the death rate climbed to reach the 100 percent we have today.

Concluding this nerd story with comedian Steven Wright’s perspective on death may be appropriate here: “I intend to live forever. So far, so good.”

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012