Abu Reyhan Birouni: A Persian Scientist

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Active ImageAbu Reyhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Birouni was a Persian scholar and polymath of the 11th century. He was a scientist and physicist, an anthropologist, comparative sociologist, astronomer and chemist, a critic of alchemy and astrology, an encyclopedist and historian.

What’s more, he was also a geographer and traveler, a geodesist and geologist, a mathematician, pharmacist and psychologist, an Islamic philosopher, theologian, scholar and teacher.

Birouni was also one of the earliest leading exponents of introducing the experimental method into mechanics and mineralogy, a pioneer of comparative sociology and experimental psychology, and the first to conduct elaborate experiments related to astronomical phenomena. He was the first Muslim scholar to study Indian traditions.

George Sarton, the father of the history of science, described Birouni as “one of the very greatest scientists of Islam, and, all considered, one of the greatest of all times”. A. I. Sabra described Birouni as “one of the great scientific minds in all history.”
Birouni was born in Khwarazm, then part of the Samanid Empire. He studied mathematics and astronomy under Abu Nasr Mansur. He was a colleague of fellow philosopher and physician Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna) and the historian, philosopher and ethicist Ibn Miskawayh in a university and science center established by Prince Abu Al-Abbas Ma’mun Khwarazmshah. He travelled to South Asia or Central Asia (modern-day Afghanistan) with Mahmud of Ghazni (whose son and successor Masoud was his major patron), and accompanied him on his campaigns in India (in 1030), learning Indian languages and studying the religion and philosophy of its people.

Active ImageThere, he wrote his Tarikh Al-Hind (Chronicles of India). Birouni wrote his books in Arabic and Persian, and spoke Khwarazmian as his first language, though he knew no less than four other languages: Greek, Sanskrit, Syriac and Berber.

Birouni’s earliest academic interests were in the physical, natural and biological sciences, resulting in a fascination with Indian science. Khwariz, Birouni’s homeland, served as a center for mathematical studies, which added yet another interest to his repertoire. He did a great deal of traveling, traditionally regarded as a part of one’s education in Islam, including western India to study ancient sciences.

While Birouni’s analytical brain contributed to mathematics and other sciences, he was also blessed with a creative brain in which religion, culture, language and history were to become his next focal points.

Further study in Djurdian, located southeast of the Caspian Sea, and Rey, near present-day Tehran, served as Birouni’s next semi-permanent residences around 338/998 C.E. Birouni’s initial time in Rey was peppered with academic disputes and criticism of his work and theories. With time and upward social mobility, he gained acceptance by the scholars of Rey.

With time and effort, Birouni advanced from a criticized theorist to a respectable academic.

Following an initial period of education through travel and interaction with various mentors, Birouni returned to his homeland of Khwariz before 399/1008 CE. Upon his return, he was recognized by the country’s prince, Abul-Hassan Ali ibn Mamun and served as a political and academic teacher to the prince’s brother, Khwarizmshah Abul-Abbas Ma’mun ibn Ma’mun for seven years. Birouni’s work was cut short, however, when the royal employer, Khwarizmshah, was assassinated in 407/1016 CE upon the country’s conquest by “the powerful Ghaznavid sultan Mahmud ibn Subuktakin”.

Following the conquest over his home country, militia and academic minds were simultaneously taken as prisoner to Ghazni, Afghanistan. Throughout his captivity in Ghazni, Birouni was able to continue research and write academic works, both independently and as an accompaniment to fellow scholars as an honorable prisoner.
Part of his independent work as a prisoner was spent traveling with the Ghazni military to Northwest India to teach Greek sciences. These trips to India resulted in his famous book, Al-Hind or India, an unofficial ethnography.

Birouni’s works number 146. These include 35 books on astronomy, 4 on astrolabes, 23 on astrology, 5 on chronology, 2 on time measurement, 9 on geography, 10 on geodesy and mapping theory, 15 on mathematics (8 on arithmetic, 5 on geometry, 2 on trigonometry), 2 on mechanics, 2 on medicine and pharmacology, 1 on meteorology, 2 on mineralogy and gems, 4 on history, 2 on India, 3 on religion and philosophy, 16 literary works, 2 books on magic, and 9 unclassified books. However, only 22 have survived, of which only 13 have been published. Six of his surviving works are on astronomy.

Active ImageBirouni invented a number of astronomical instruments. He wrote the first treatises on planisphere (the earliest star chart) and the orthographical astrolabe, as well as a treatise on the armillary sphere. He was able to mathematically determine the direction of the Qibla (the direction toward the Kabah in Mecca, which Muslims face while praying) from any place in the world. He also wrote the earliest treatise on the sextant.

He also invented an early hodometer and the first mechanical lunisolar calendar computer that employed a gear train and eight gear-wheels. These were the earliest examples of fixed-wired knowledge processing machines.

The first semantic distinction between astronomy and astrology was given by Birouni in the 11th century. In a later work, he wrote a refutation of astrology. His reasons for refuting astrology were both due to the methods used by astrologers being conjectural rather than empirical and also due to the astrologers’ views conflicting with those of Islam.

By the age of 22, Birouni had written several short works, including a study of map projections. His cartographic work included a method for projecting a hemisphere on a plane. He introduced the use of three rectangular coordinates to define a point in three-dimensional space and also developed ideas that are seen as anticipation of the polar coordinate system.

Birouni is regarded as the father of geodesy. At the age of 17, Birouni calculated the latitude of Kath, Khwarazm, using the maximum altitude of the Sun. He also solved a complex geodesic equation to accurately compute the Earth’s circumference, which were close to modern values of the Earth’s circumference.

His estimate of 6,339.9 km for the Earth radius was only 16.8 km less than the modern value of 6,356.7 km. In contrast to his predecessors who measured the Earth’s circumference by sighting the Sun simultaneously from two different locations, Birouni developed a new method of using trigonometric calculations based on the angle between a plain and mountain top, which yielded more accurate measurements of the Earth’s circumference and made it possible for it to be measured by a single person from a single location.

In mathematical geography, Birouni was the first to describe a polar equi-azimuthal equidistant projection of the celestial sphere around 1025. He was also regarded as the most skilled in mapping cities and measuring the distances between them, which he did for many cities in the Middle East and western Indian subcontinent. He often combined astronomical readings and mathematical equations to develop methods of pinpointing locations by recording degrees of latitude and longitude. He also developed similar techniques when it came to measuring the heights of mountains, depths of valleys and expanse of the horizon in The Chronology of Ancient Nations.
Birouni also discussed human geography and the planetary habitability of the Earth. He hypothesized that roughly a quarter of the Earth’s surface is habitable by humans, and also argued that the shores of Asia and Europe were “separated by a vast sea, too dark and dense to navigate and too risky to try” in reference to the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean.

Active ImageAmong his writings on geology, Birouni observed the geology of India and discovered that the Indian subcontinent was once a sea, hypothesizing that its seabed appeared with the drifting of alluvium.

Birouni broke through the ranks of traditional scientist with his incisive observations and excellent deductions. He was an all-rounded scientist par excellence.

Source: Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia & Iran Daily