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Contributions of Polish Men and Women
of Science and Mathematics

by Jan P. Muczyk
Polish American Journal, September 1994

Mikolaj Kopernik
Jan Heweliusz
Tadeusz Banachewicz
Maria Sklodowska-Curie
Zygmunt Wroblewski
Kazimierz Funk

Tadeusz Krawicz
Stefan Banach
Waclaw Sierpinski
Florian Witold Znaniecki
Bronislaw Malinowski
Alfred Korzybski

Mikolaj Kopernik
1473-1543

Latin Nicolaus Copernicus, was the son of a Torun burgher. Copernicus completed mathematical and astronomical studies at Krakow University (also known as the Jagiellonian University) and then studied the liberal arts at Bologna, medicine at Padua, and law at the University of Ferrara, from which he emerged with a doctorate in canon law.

Using the instruments he constructed (the originals are in the Uppsala museum in Sweden, taken by the Swedes during the Deluge), Copernicus discovered and proved the heliocentric system, upsetting the medieval notion that the earth was the center of the universe. His theory, "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium," was published in Nuremberg, May 24, 1543, while Copernicus was on his deathbed. He was reluctant to have it published earlier because it was in conflict with the official teachings of the Catholic Church, which had adopted the Ptolemaic system because it was compatible with the literal interpretations of the Bible.

The Copernican view was later corroborated and improved by the great German astronomer, Johannes Kepler (1771-1630) who, relying on the empirical measurements of the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) made the orbits of the planets elliptical rather than circular.

Copernicus' work also formed the basis for the law of gravity, discovered by perhaps the greatest of all scientists, the Englishman, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). When Newton was complemented on his discoveries, he responded that "I was able to accomplish what I did because I stood on the shoulders of Giants." Newton had Copernicus, Kepler, and Brahe in mind. It is for his seminal and revolutionary discovery that Copernicus is considered the father of modern astronomy.

Copernicus in every respect was a "Renaissance" man. He was elected a canon of the Catholic Church and diligently executed the duties associated with that office. He practiced medicine at Lidzbark and Frombork, and he authored a treatise on monetary reform. He even directed Frombork's defenses against an invasion by the dreaded Teutonic Knights.

I find it pure poetic justice that a Polish Pope recently exonerated the Italian astronomer and scientist, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), a man tormented by the Inquisition for defending the theories of a Polish astronomer, Copernicus, of all doctrinal error.

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Jan Heweliusz
1611-1687

Polish astronomer from Gdansk, studied comets, cataloged the stars, and constructed some of first accurate maps of the moon's surface. In recognition of his scientific endeavors, one of the moon's craters is named after him.

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Tadeusz Banachewicz
1882-1954

Astronomer, Geodesist, and mathematician. Founder and editor of "Acta Astronomica," and author of more than 230 works in celestial mechanics, spherical astronomy, atmospheric refractions, and geodesy. He developed chronokinematic methods for observing eclipses of the sun, measured the libration of the moon, and organized at the Jagiellonian University Observatory in the Beskid mountains, of which he was director, systematic observations by Jan Gadomski of ecliptic stars. It was there that the first "Polish comet" was observed. Previously, Banachewicz had been director of the Dorpat Observatory in Estonia.

Banachewicz developed matrix methods for application in astronomy, geodesy, and certain areas of engineering. This system of applied mathematics he named "Krakowians," after his home town, Krakow. He introduced a general formula for spherical polygonometry from which are derived all other formulas of spherical trigonometry.

He survived Sachsenhausen, and died in 1954. He is buried in Skalka church in Krakow, a necropolis for distinguished Polish contributors to science and Polish culture. Asteroid no. 1286 bears his name, as does one of the moon's craters.

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Maria Sklodowska-Curie
1867-1934

Chemist and physicist extraordinaire. After completing her studies in chemistry and physics, Maria Sklodowska, because an assistantship for a woman scientist was not available at the Jagiellonian University, went to the Sorbonne, where she met and married Piere Curie (1859-1906), a brilliant French scientist. Together they studied the radiation of uranium. Their joint research led to the discovery of two new radioactive elements polonium (named in honor of Poland) and radium. In 1903 Maria Sklodowska-Curie and her husband were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. After the death of her husband, she became a professor of physics at the Sorbonne and continued her research. This work enabled her to obtain pure radium, for which she received her second Nobel Prize in chemistry (1911).

During her stay abroad, Maria Sklodowska-Curie maintained close contacts with her homeland. When she visited Warsaw in 1921, she organized the Institute for Radioactive Research. Maria Sklodowska-Curie is the greatest Polish scientist of modern times and undoubtedly the most outstanding woman scientist of all time.

While touring "Old and New Town" in Warsaw, my wife, Dianne, and I encountered a reconstructed house with a plaque on the front that read: "On this spot stood the house in which was born in 1867 a baby girl by the name of Maria Sklodowska." Dianne, a biologist who always drew inspiration from Madame Curie, and I found this experience to be profoundly moving.

Maria Sklodowska's daughter, Irene, displayed the same good judgment as her mother by marrying another brilliant French scientist, Frederic Joliot. It was Frederic who insisted that at their marriage their names be hyphenated (Joliot-Curie) as a tribute to Irene's illustrious mother. Together Frederic and Irene received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 for synthesis of new radioactive elements, and this is absolutely unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prizes. Never has a father-son or mother-daughter combination won the Nobel Prize, with this one exception.

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Zygmunt Wroblewski
1845-1888

A chemist, and Karol Olszewski (1846-1915), physicist, both professors at the Jagiellonian University, were the first to liquefy oxygen and nitrogen.

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Kazimierz Funk
1884-1967

A bio-chemist, discovered the concept of vitamins and coined the term for the life-giving substance.

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Tadeusz Krawicz
1910-

Professor of the Medical Academy of Lublin, known for his "frozen technique" in eye surgery and surgical treatment of myopia.

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Contributions of Poles to the "Queen of Sciences"

The "Polish School of Mathematics" is a description of the advancements in "the queen of sciences" made principally but not exclusively at two Polish universities between the two great wars (1918-1939).

The heart of the Polish School of Mathematics was at the University of Warsaw (often referred to as the Warsaw School), and was embodied in the person of Waclaw Sierpinski. The soul, on the other hand, was personified by Stefan Banach at the University of Lwow (commonly known as the Lwow School), a part of Poland during the inter-war period.

Sierpinski's scientific output and that of his students, such as Kuratowski and Borsuk, played a pivotal role in the development of modern mathematics, i.e., set theoretically inspired branches of logic and mathematics, such as set theory and topology. Kuratowski to this day is widely recognized by mathematics students for the Kuratowski-Zorn Lemma and as one of the founders of topology.

Banach's work and that of his students, such as Mazur, Orlicz, Schauder, and Ulam created the field of mathematics known as "Functional Analysis," the mathematics of the nuclear age. Stanislaw Ulam, as did many other Polish mathematicians, came to the United States, and by collaborating with Von Neumann, Teller, and Rabi developed the basic mathematics for the Hydrogen bomb. These men, in fact, energized mathematical research in the U.S. Tarski distinguished himself at Harvard and Berkeley in the foundations of mathematics. Splawa-Neyman created his own school of statistics at Berkeley. Kac became one of the leading experts in America on probability. Zygmund, who recently died at the age of 91, was a professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago for forty-five years. He is remembered for his work in harmonic analysis, a method for analyzing periodic functions. In 1986 he was awarded this country's highest honor, the National Medal of Science.

Banach was honored in many ways. Banach spaces, Banach algebra, and Banachring are named after him, as are numerous

mathematical theorems and principles. Besides the contributions that bear Banach's name, there are: Orlicz space, Sierpinski's curve, Borsuk's retract, Polish Space, and Reverse Polish notation that proved a godsend to calculator manufacturers and computer programmers. The latter would have born Lukasiewicz's name had it been easier to pronounce. In addition to Lukasiewicz, Chwistek and Lesniewski were preeminent mathematical logicians of the Warsaw School. Bertrand Russell observed that these three were among only six persons who had actually read and understood the technical sections of Russell's "Principia Mathematica." Chwistek even improved on it.

At Banach's commemoration ceremonies, which opened the conference of functional analysis in September 1960, renowned mathematicians from around the world gathered to pay tribute to this child of the streets of Krakow, but it was S.L. Sobolev, the celebrated Russian mathematician, who captured the sentiments of the audience with his opening statement: "Exactly 15 years ago, world science suffered a great tragedy--Stefan Banach died."

Over 50 percent of Polish mathematicians engaged in research perished as a result of World War II. Fortunately, the indefatigable Hugo Steinhaus, one of the most versatile minds of his day and who discovered Banach, survived. He continued the Lwow tradition at the University of Wroclaw. Sierpinski and Kuratowski returned to Warsaw to pick up the pieces and, as one might expect of such uncommon men, have done quite well. Wladyslaw Orlicz went to the University of Poznan to continue his research and to build a quality mathematics department.

Current Polish mathematicians such as Schinzel (the reigning prince of "number theory"), Pelczynski, Rolewicz, Bessaga, Urbanik, Maurin, Bojarski, and Geba, ever mindful of their patrimony, have become know to cutting-edge mathematicians around the world.

When stars exhaust all of their energy, their light continues to traverse the eons long after they are dead. Even though Banach and Sierpinski are now deceased, their light continues to illuminate mathematicians and, ultimately, all of us. The Poles have much to be proud of, yet one must wonder how much the Poles could have attained had their opportunities to achieve not been so connected to their tragic history.

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Social Sciences

Florian Witold Znaniecki
1882-1958

Another alumnus of the Jagiellonian University. The monumental five-volume study entitled "The Polish Peasant in Europe and America" with W.I. Thomas is his best known work, and is regarded as a classic in sociology. This and his other works, "The Method of Sociology," "Social Actions," "The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge," and "Cultural Sciences, Their Origin and Development" have made lasting contributions to the field of sociology, and made Znaniecki a pioneer of that social science. Znaniecki was completely bilingual and taught in the U.S. at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of Illinois.

In Poland, he taught at Poznan University where, in 1922, he founded the Polish Sociological Institute and trained many students. For these reasons he is also known as the father of Polish Sociology. He wrote half of his works in English and half in Polish. His most important works were, however, written in English. His reputation would have been even greater had his works in Polish been translated into English in a timely fashion.

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Bronislaw Malinowski
1884-1942

A brilliant social anthropologist, pioneered the "functional" approach to social anthropology, and whose work had a major influence on Margaret Mead. Malinowski was a product of the Jagiellonian University as well. He taught at the University of London and at Yale University. His contributions are embodied in the following books: "Crime and Custom in Savage Society," "Coral Gardens and Their Magic," "The Dynamics of Culture Change," and "Magic, Science, and Religion."

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Alfred Korzybski
1879-1950

Founder of the discipline known as "General Semantics" and mentor of S.I. Hayakawa, the former U.S. Senator from California and president of San Francisco State University during the Vietnam protests. His research was conducted at St. Elizabeth's hospital in Washington, D.C. His contributions can be found in the following books: "Science and Sanity" and "Manhood of Humanity."

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