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Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543)

Nicolaus Copernicus was a mathematician and astronomer who proposed that the sun was stationary in the center of the universe and the earth revolved around it. He was born on February 19, 1473, in Torun city of Poland in Europe. His was the son of Copernide and Barbara. Nicolaus was the youngest among two sons and two daughters. Torun was a big and prosperous trade centre at the time of the birth of this great scientist. His father was a scholarly magistrate of the city. Besides, he was a rich, cultured, distinguished social worker and a well-wisher of society. When Nicolaus was 10 years old, his father died. The children were then put under the care of their uncle Lucas. His uncle was a priest and educationist. He was a respected figure in society. It was but natural for the children to be brought in a cultured and religious environment. Young Nicolaus had made up his mind to become a preacher and accordingly focused his energies in this direction.

At the age of 18, Copernicus joined the Cracow University in Poland’s capital Cracow. It was a well-known institute at that time with some of the best teachers in the land. A highly reputed institute, it attracted intelligent students from as far as Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Switzerland who came here to study. Latin was prominent and important medium of instruction. To have a better understanding of literature, science and other subjects, it was essential to know Latin. After joining the university, Copernicus too gained proficiency in Latin. He then started taking deep interest in astronomy, geometry (mathematics) and geography besides other important areas of study then. It was a time when Columbus was successful in discovering the new continent of America. Copernicus was 10 Years old then. With time, sea voyages were on the rise and with bigger ships and increasing sea travel, more emphasis was laid on astronomy. The need for accurate almanacs was felt, for festivals were celebrated according to the dictates of the church. Such was the state of society during that period.

Copernicus education took a different turn. In 1496, after leaving Cracow University, he joined Bologna School of law in Itlay. From here he moved to the famous Padua University where he studied medicine during 1501-1505. Thereafter, he took his Doctor of Canon Law degree from Ferara Univesity and he arrived at his uncle’s place in Poland. Discussions and deliberations with his uncle who was a priest led to the conclusion that his doctorate would be useful in taking up religious work. It was believed then that medicine and astrology were closely related. Once again Nicolaus went to Padua University and joined the School of Medicine.

The famous astronomer and mathematician-scientist Ptolemy (90 AD to 168 AD) was born in Alexandria, Egypt. In the second century it was a big port city, besides being the cultural capital. To enhance their knowledge, intellectuals and thinkers from the country and abroad visited its well-stacked libraries and imposing museums in this city. Greek scholar Ptolemy, too visited this city many a time for his study. In 150 AD, Ptolemy had made some important observations regarding the motion of celestial bodies. Though he did not entirely understand many peculiarities of these heavenly bodies, he believed in what he saw and accepted the prevailing belief that the earth is stationery and the entire universe revolves around it. Therefore, he believed in the seeming truth that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West.
Four centuries before Ptolemy, another Greek philosopher and astrologer had come to conclusion that the Sun was centre of the universe, but puritans did not heed to his conclusions and he was criticized. Ptolemy was influenced by popular belief. Accepting the geocentric (having the earth as centre) theory of the universe, Ptolemy based his calculations on it in his volume ‘The Great Treatise of Astronomy’, better known as ‘Almegaste’. Hence certain flaws appear in his calculations.

In Greek, ‘Planet means’ something that wanders on its own’. It had become an acceptable fact with philosophers, religious teachers and scientists, propagating the belief that the earth was stationary and the sun and other planets revolved around the earth. Ptolemy, the great scholar tried to explain the planetary motions and their positions, of which only some were true. Regarding the wrong calculations he had made, he justified them by calling them wandering celestial bodies. Poland’s famous scientist Copernicus was able to understand the complex planetary motions of these celestial bodies, but for this he had assumed that the Sun was at the centre of the universe.

It was by now clear that Sun and other planets revolved in orbits. During one such revolution, a celestial body in radial motion moves 360 degree. This circle is divided into 12 parts each of 30 degree. These are known as the Zodiac signs. Today we know that the Sun moves from one Zodiac sign to another, every month. Thus, in one year, the earth completes one revolution around the Sun. It was also believed then that there was an unknown link between the planets, Zodiac signs and the various organs of the body. On this basis and taking into account the birth time, astrologers draw the life chart of a person. Today too, people pay a lot of money to astrologers to know their future. In ancient India, Aryabhatt, Varahmihir, Brahmgupt, Bhaskaracharya and other astronomers were popular as astrologers.

During his learning years, Copernicus got a job as a junior priest in a church. Thus he received knowledge of science, religion and philosophy. Besides, he had studied law, which gave him a deep insight into the laws governing the church. Add to this his knowledge of Greek and Latin, and he was a well-versed scholar at the age of 33. He returned to Poland to serve his ailing uncle. Here his leisure hours were spent in independent study. This gave him a new insight into the universe and a scientific approach also. Initially, he accepted the ancient Greek and Arab calculations as they were. He had no appropriate instruments, but his was a thinking mind that worked wonders. On the basis of mathematics and philosophy he visualized the universe as a divine arrangement and made some observations. But all these remained in his notebooks.

This is precisely what took him to the peak of his popularity. In 1539, a 25-year-old German student named Georg Rheticus came to him. This bright young man impressed Copernicus. At 28, he joined Wittenberg University as professor. For two years Rheticus made a deep study of Copernicus’ notes and calculations. He came to the conclusion that Copernicus’ observations were very noteworthy and needed to be published. Taking into account the motions of planets Copernicus had classified them. He had clearly stated that the Sun is at the centre of the universe and all planets including the earth revolve around it. He had developed a theory based on it. Taking all these theories into account along with his theories, he wrote a treatise. But fearing a religious backlash due to Ptolemy’s widespread influence at that time, he did not get it published.

In 1543, with Copernicus falling ill, Georg Rheticus and his other friends took his permission to get his treatise printed and took it to Germany. The book was named De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (The revolution of the heavenly spheres). The credit for getting Copernicus’ notes printed in book form goes to Rheticus to an extent. When the printed book reached Copernicus, he was on his deathbed. He was in no condition to pass judgement or appreciate it. His heart had gone weak and his brain almost dead. He died on 24 May 1543.

Many rank this book along with Newton’s Principia. It sowed the seeds for discarding Ptolemy’s famous theory. Old and superstitions beliefs were given a burial and the path to the development of modern astronomy was thus laid. Fourteen centuries after Ptolemy had propounded his geocentric theory, Copernicus had presented his helio-centric theory. The stamp of religion was paramount at that time and no one dared oppose it. With Copernicus theory it was the dawn of a new era.

Salim Ali (1896-1987)

Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali was an Indian ornithologist and naturalist and also Known as the "birdman of India". He was born on November 12, 1896, in a big Muslim family of Khetwadi in Mumbai. He had five brothers and four sisters. His mother’s name was Jijat-un-nissa. His father Moizuddin died when he was just one year old & mother died when he was three year old. His uncle Amiruddin Taiyabji aroused in him a curiosity towards bird. After the death of his parents, uncle Amiruddin and Aunt Begum Hamida raised all the children.

It was a time when interest in birds was minimal. Birds were sold freely in Mumbai’s markets. For one rupee you could get eight to twelve birds many a time. Ali would bring such a variety of birds, keep them in cane baskets, teach them a little and then release them. He would never confine any bird for long or keep a pet forever. He would catch a bird, study it and after noting down its traits, release it.

At the age of eight he was admitted to a local school. In a short time he got admission to the St Xavier’s School. At the age of 14 years, owing to poor health he had to go and live with his brother and sister-in-law in Hyderabad (Sindh, Pakistan). There too along with the office peon he would look out for bird nests and study the birds and their eggs. In 1913, at the age of 17 years, he passed the matriculation examination of Mumbai University. By this time he had read books on hunting. Wild animals and jungles and gathered some interesting information. Such readings and introspection led Ali to a linking for wildlife. He would catch birds and make a comparative study. Then life suddenly took a turn. A letter from a relative in Myanmar (Burma) arrived. It mentioned that if Ali was not interested in studies he could come and join the newly set up mining industry in Myanmar. Salim was finding mathematics a difficult subject, so he at once agreed to leave for Myanmar. Through he was never interested in business; he was very keen to know the wildlife in the jungles there.

Here, he met a forest officer J.C. Hoywood. Ali learnt a lot about Myanmar’s birds form Hoywood. He gathered a lot of knowledge about birds and the scientific study of birds (Ornithology). Not inclined towards business, he had to return to Mumbai. Here he came in contact with father Blater, head of the biology department of St Xavier’s College. With his encouragement, Ali completed his graduation with animal science as his subject. In his 22nd year, in December 1918, Ali married Tehmina, who was well-versed in English and Urdu and had a visa for England. Tehmina encouraged her husband in his study of birds.

Salim Ali had no post-graduate degree in bird science or biology, but in five to seven years after marriage he had gathered a lot of information and gained insight into bird science, biology and animal science. In the meantime, he got a job in a friend’s export unit. Some time later, Father Blater came to his rescue. He got him a job as guide lecturer at Mumbai’s natural History Society Museum. After joining here he realized that if he wanted to become an authority on birds he had to make their systematic study. No such course on bird science was offered in any institute anywhere in the country. So, he decided to go to Berlin for such a study. There he started the study of birds with Bernhard, a young bird scientist. In Berlin, Ali studied with dedication and single-mindedness. In 1930, he returned from Berlin and started work in Nizam’s Hyderabad. He also received some grant for this. He studied bird science and also made a survey of birds. His study of bird habits earned him praise. Here he got a good opportunity to study the birds of Nilgiri.

Between 1934 and 1939, Ali studied bird science in Dehradun. Now, he came to be recognized among the world’s well-known bird scientists (ornithologists). In 1945, he made a scientific study of the birds of Kailas and Mansarovar. He has mentioned the details in his autobiography – The Fall of a Sparrow. In the deserts of Kachchh, he undertook a study, which he brought out in a volume titled Birds of Kachchh. For the study of birds he also undertook a motorcycle tour of Europe. His diary reveals many such instances. Now, he was an internationally known ornithologist. His work came to be appreciated in the country and abroad. He received honour and awards. In 1953, he was awarded the Asiatic Society Medal and in 1984, the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh as an appreciation of his work awarded him the Gold medal. In 1958, the Aligarh muslim University; in 173, the Delhi University and in 1978, the Andhara University honoured him with Doctor of Science degrees.

The Government of India honoured him with Padma Bhushan in 1958 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1976. Besides, in 1982, the Government of India honoured him by giving him the national research professorship in bird science. He was lauded for his efforts to protect wildlife and was awarded the National Award (gold medal) in 1983. The same year America’s National wildlife federation honoured him with the International Award. On June 20, 1987, this great ornithologist left this word.

Salim Ali Photo

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