History’s Hidden Heroes: Nilakantha Somayaji

illustration of children holding hands around the worldThe first step in educating yourself is to admit ignorance – and I am woefully, horribly ignorant.  This was made abundantly clear to me today when I was googling stuff and came across the name, “Nilakantha Somayaji, Indian Astronomer”.

It was then that I realized that, although if pressed I would probably assume that there must have been astronomers in India’s extremely lengthy history, I could not name a single one.  This is embarrassing.  However, I hate to waste a good case of embarrassment when I can turn it to a greater good, so watch for this blog’s new monthly feature on scientists and others who were been neglected by my Californian high school text-book.  I’m calling this feature “History’s Hidden Heroes”, but I’m aware that just because a person’s history isn’t well-known in the United States doesn’t mean it’s not well-known elsewhere.  It’s been hidden from me, specifically, and I want to un-hide it.

So, who was Nilakantha Somayaji?  He was born on this date, in 1444, and he seems to have lived about a hundred years – impressive!  He was a mathematician and astronomer of the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy.  As the name suggests, this school was located in Kerala, India, and was at its greatest between the 14th and 16th centuries.  Nilakantha Somayaji wrote a treatise on astronomy called Tantrasamgraha.  This treatise also contains many of his mathematical equations.  A more detailed description of the contents of Tantrasamgraha can be found at this article by J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson.

As a layperson and as someone who is math-phobic, it’s difficult for me to grasp or sum up the work that Nilakantha Somayaji was doing, but I think I can safely describe him as having done considerable work towards deepening understanding of how the solar system was organized and how it moved.  He also made significant contributions to algebra, geometry, and calculus.  Certainly his life shows us what amazing intellectual work was being done in India during his lifetime.

Who shall we talk about next month?  Got a favorite hidden hero?

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