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May 23, 2010

Page: 22/39

Home > 2010 Issues > May 23, 2010


A brilliant study on modern astronomy

By MV Kamath

Founders of Modern Astronomy: From Hipparchus to Hawking; Subodh Mahanti, Vigyan Prasar, Pp 310 (HB), Rs 200.00

TO say that this is an astounding piece of work would be an understatement of the year. One does not remember any book of this kind published in India or elsewhere. Not that there aren’t biographical works on astronomers. Subodh Mahanti himself provides 109 references and there surely must be many more, especially in other languages. What Mahanti has done is to introduce to the reader some of the most prominent figures in the field of astronomy down the centuries, as the title says, from Hipparchus to Hawking. Mahanti is modest; he does not claim that his work is all—encompassing or even that the selection of names is comprehensive and unquestionable. But that is beside the point. His desire has been to interest ‘general readers’ in the vast field of astronomy. One can assure him that he has achieved his intention splendiferously. It should be on the bookshelf of every student for the sheer amount of knowledge that he has collected and presented in the most reader-friendly way imaginable. Mahanti has been writing on astronomers and other scientists for more than a decade now for the popular bi-lingual science magazine cum-monthly newsletter called Dream 2047 published by Vigyan Prasar which itself had undertaken special programmes and national campaigns built around celestial events like Total Solar Eclipse (1995, 1999) and Venus Transit (2004). This book, a collection of the articles he had written, was put together in part to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009), happily to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the first recorded astronomical observations with a telescope by Galileo Galilie and the publication of Johannes Kepler’s Astronomia Nova (New Astronomy). Though Hipparchus of Rhodes (ca 190 ca 120 BC) is considered the greatest astronomer of antiquity, and Claudius Ptolemy (ca AD 90-168) “the last great classical astronomer, Mahanti has taken special care to write about Aryabhata (ca AD 476) and his disciples like Pandurangasvami, Latadeva, Prabhakara and Nihsanku, unfamiliar names even to Indians themselves. But credit for propagating Aryabhata goes to Bhaskara (ca AD 600). While Aryabhata postulated rules for indeterminate analysis, it was Bhaskara who elaborated them and suggested their application to astronomy. It is interesting to know that the first Indian-built satellite launched by a rocket of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1975 was named after Aryabhata. Among India astronomers and scholars whom Mahanti has chosen to write about are Samanta Chandra Sekhar (1835-1904), last noted siddhantic astronomer, Meghnad Saha (1874-1956) pioneer of astrophysics, Subramanian Chandrasekhar (1910-1995) described as “one of the greatest astrophysicists of the 20th century”, Manali Kalit Vainu Bappu (1927-1982) known as doyen of modern India astronomy and, of course,Jayant Vishnu Narlekar (1938 -), pioneer of cosmology. It may interest many to know that CV Raman, the first Indian to get a Nobel Prize in Science was the younger brother of S Chandradekhar’s father! This must be the only occasion in the history of Nobel Laureates of an uncle-nephew combo winning the prestigious award though at different times. According to Mahanti, Chandrasekhar’s life was “attaining a complete understanding of an area, grasping and internalising it”.Whatever Chandrasekhar did, he did not only with a seemingly unmatched meticulousness, but also with elegance. As one scientist said of him: “It is a rewarding aesthetic experience to listen to Chandrasekhar’s lecture and study the development of theoretical structures at his hands”. In all, Mahanti has written about 27 astronomers and allied scientists and they include Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Galileo Malilie (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Isaac Newton (1642-1727) Frederick William Herschel (1738-1822), Albert Finstein (1879-1955), Fred Royle (1915-2001) and Stephen Hawking (1942- ) the last who predicted that Black Holes should emit radiation. What is surprising is that no mention is made either of Chinese or Japanese astronomers, which may have been an unintended oversight. There are, as Mahanti rightly notes, four phases of astronomy: before written records (35,000 BC to 4,000 BC), pre-telescopic era (4000 BC to 1609 AD), evolution of the telescope and advanced observation equipment (AD 1609-20th century) and finally AD 1969 onwards, dealing with inter-planetary explorations. We admire the work done by scientists in the 18th century onwards but it requires a true genius to assert, as did Aryabhata that rising and setting of the sun, the moon and other heavenly bodies are due to the relative motion caused by the earth’s rotation about its axis once a day. In this Aryabhata – and India – were far, far ahead of European thinkers and the Christian Church. Remember what happened to Galileo? According to Einstein, because Galileo realised that all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it, and particularly because he drummed it into the seientific world, he is the father of modern physics, indeed of modern science altogether, a very high tribute. What is so endearing about this book is that it is an easy read in the sense that it does not try to impress the reader with technical details that are difficult for the layman to understand, even if Mahanti is compelled to use scientific terms that are relevant to the subject that he is writing about and cannot be dispensed with. His study of individual astronomers is descriptive. They come through as human beings, though naturally, far, far above us ordinary folk. Arthur Stanley Eddington, a pioneer of the study of internal structure of stars had put forward two possible mechanisms for the production of energy and the question was which of the two processes actually took place. The subject is fascinating and the answer was to be provided by a German-born American physicist, Hans Albrecht Bethe (1906-2005). To read that is to be taken to a whole new world of scientific endeavour. Not surprisingly, so attractive is the writing that it is difficult to put the book down once one picks it up for just curiosity’s sake. Another attraction of the book is that it is richly illustrated. To Mahanti one can only say a loud thank you for his effort. That is what education is all about, to tell us about the legitimate originators of knowledge and how they came to acquire it.

(Viigyan Prasar, A-50, Institutional Area, Sector-20, Noida-201 307)

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