Sunday, May 07, 2006

A short biography: Muslim scientist and scholar Abu Raihan Al-Biruni

Lively Facts about Al-Biruni:

Born in Khwarazm (formerly north-western Iran at the time under the Iranian Samanids) presently in Khiva Uzbekistan near "Ural" in 973 A.D, was the Muslim scholar Abu Raihan Al- Biruni. During his early life, Al- Biruni was considered more of a modern type physician. He was what the people thought of as a resemblance to his predecessor the well-known Ibn Sina. This Persian physicist was also noted for his astronomical studies, scholary achievements, pharmisicist, and as a teacher who contributed greatly to the fields of mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and science. As a matter of fact, one of the craters on the moon is named after him (Al-Biruni crater)

During his early life Al-Biruni's reputation preceded him, the fame of his scholarship went around and when Sultan Mahmood Ghaznawi conquered his homeland, he took al-Biruni along with him in his journeys to India several times and thus he had the opportunity to travel all over India during a period of 20 years. Many scholars of Islamic historiography recognize in al-Biruni the exemplification of the true Islamic spirit in scientific inquiry. His mastership of Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek gave him access to the treasures of ancient civilizations and a means to grasp their "truths". He learnt Hindu philosophy, mathematics, geography and religion from thre Pandits to whom he taught Greek and Arabic science and philosophy. He died in 1048 A.D. at the age of 75, after having spent 40 years in thus gathering knowledge and making his own original contributions to it.

Various Writings Published by Al-Biruni:

He recorded observations of his travels through India in his well-known book Kitab al-Hind which gives a graphic account of the historical and social conditions of the sub-continent. At the end of this book he makes a mention of having translated two Sanskrit books into Arabic, one called Sakaya, which deals with the creation of things and their types, and the second, Patanjal dealing with what happens after the spirit leaves the body. His descriptions of India were so complete that even the Aein-i-Akbari written by Abu-al- Fadal during the reign of Akbar, 600 years later, owes a great deal to al-Biruni's book. He observed that the Indus valley must be considered as an ancient sea basin filled up with alluvials.

On his return from India, al-Biruni wrote his famous book Qanun-i Masoodi (al-Qanun al-Masudi, fi al-Hai'a wa al-Nujum), which he dedicated to Sultan Masood. The book discusses several theorems of astronomy, trigonometry, solar, lunar, and planetary motions and relative topics. In another well-known book al-Athar al-Baqia, he has attempted a connected account of ancient history of nations and the related geographical knowledge. In this book, he has discussed the rotation of the earth and has given correct values of latitudes and longitudes of various places. He has also made considerable contribution to several aspects of physical and economic geography in this book.

His other scientific contributions include the accurate determination of the densities of 18 different stones. He also wrote the Kitab-al-Saidana, which is an extensive materia medica that combines the then existing Arabic knowledge on the subject with the Indian medicine. His book the Kitab-al-Jamahir deals with the properties of various precious stones. He was also an astrologer and is reputed to have astonished people by the accuracy of his predictions. He gave a clear account of Hindu numerals, elaborating the principle of position. Summation of a geometric progression appropos of the chess game led to the number:
1616° - 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,619.

Social Issues and the political world:

Al-Biruni discussed, centuries before the rest of the world, the question whether the earth rotates around its axis or not. He was the first to undertake experiments related to astronomical phenomena. His scientific method, taken together with that of other Muslim scien- tists, such as Ibn al-Haitham, laid down the early foundation of modern science. He ascertained that as compared with the speed of sound the speed of light is immense. He described the Milky Way as a collection of countless fragments of the nature of nebulous stars. Al-Biruni described his observation of the solar eclipse of April 8, 1019 and the lunar eclipse of September 17, 1019. On the solar eclipse which he observed at Lamghan, a valley surrounded by mountains between the towns of Qandahar and Kabul, he wrote: ... at sunrise we saw that approximately one-third of the sun was eclipsed and that the eclipse was waning. He observed the lunar eclipse at Ghazna and gave precise details of the exact altitude of various well-known stars at the moment of first contact. Al-Biruni's book "Al-Tafhim-li-Awail Sina'at al-Tanjim" summarizes work on Mathematics and Astronomy. It was translated by Ramsay Wright in 1934, Luzac. He explained the working of natural springs and artesian wells by the hydrostatic principle of communicating vessels. His investigations included description of various monstrosities, including that known as "Siamese" twins. He observed that flowers have 3,4,5,6, or 18 petals, but never 7 or 9.

He has been considered as one of the very greatest scientists of Islam, and, all considered, one of the greatest of all times. His critical spirit, love of truth, and scientific approach were combined with a sense of toleration.According to Max Meyerhoff, Al-Biruni is perhaps the most prominent figure in the phalanx of those universally learned Muslim scholars who characterize the Golden Age of Islamic Science. His great contributions in so many diverse fields earned him the title "al-Ustadh," the Master or Professor par excellence. Some historians have called the period of his activity as "The Age of Al-Biruni." His enthusiasm for knowledge may be judged from his claim that the phrase Allah is Omniscient does not justify ignorance.

Al-Biruni's Mathematical/Non-mathematical Contributions:

His contributions to mathematics include:

· theoretical and practical arithmetic
· summation of series
· combinatorial analysis
· the rule of three
· irrational numbers
· ratio theory
· algebraic definitions
· method of solving algebraic equations
· geometry
· Archimedes' theorems

His non-mathematical works include:

· Critical study of what India says, whether accepted by reason or refused - a compendium of India's religion and philosophy
· The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries - a comparative study of calendars of different cultures and civilizations, interlaced with mathematical, astronomical, and historical information.
· The Mas'udi Canon - a book about Astronomy, Geography and Engineering, named after Mas'ud, son of Mahmud of Ghazni, to whom he dedicated
· Understanding Astrology - a question and answer style book about mathematics and astronomy, in Arabic and Persian
· Pharmacy - about drugs and medicines
· Gems about geology, minerals, and gems, dedicated to Mawdud son of Mas'ud
· Astrolabe
· A historical summary book
· History of Mahmud of Ghazni and his father
· History of Khawarazm

Al-Biruni's Achievements:

Some of his notable achievements included:

1) At the age of seventeen, he calculated the latitude of Kath, Khwarazm, using the maximum altitude of the sun.

2) By the age of twenty-two, he had written several short works, including a study of
map projections, "Cartography", which included a methodology for projecting a hemisphere on a plane, .

3) By the age of twenty-seven, he had written a book called "
Chronology" which referred to other work he had completed (now lost) that included one book about the astrolabe, one about the decimal system, four about astrology, and two about history.

4) He refined the ancient estimate of the
Earth's radius from approximately 6,314 km (measured by Eratosthenes in 240 AD) to 6,339.6 km. This feat was not repeated or surpassed in the western world until the sixteenth century.

Quotations by Al-Biruni:

Once a sage asked why scholars always flock to the doors of the rich, whilst the rich are not inclined to call at the doors of scholars. "The scholars" he answered , "are well aware of the use of money, but the rich are ignorant of the nobility of science".Quoted in A L Mackay, Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (London 1994)

[On the science and culture of the Hindus] I can only compare their astronomical and mathematical literature ... to a mixture of pearl shells and sour dates, or of costly crystals and common pebbles. Both kinds of things are equal in their eyes, since they cannot rise themselves to the methods of strictly scientific deduction.Hindustan

You well know ... for which reason I began searching for a number of demonstrations proving a statement due to the ancient Greeks ... and which passion I felt for the subject ... so that you reproached me my preoccupation with these chapters of geometry, not knowing the true essence of these subjects, which consists precisely in going in each matter beyond what is necessary. ... Whatever way he [the geometer] may go, through exercise will he be lifted from the physical to the divine teachings, which are little accessible because of the difficulty to understand their meaning ... and because the circumstance that not everybody is able to have a conception of them, especially not the one who turns away from the art of demonstration.Book on the Finding of Chords