Magical TimesBy Bobby Neal Winters
A couple of books have come my way lately that are of such a quality I would be remiss if I did not share them with my friends: Isaac Newton by James Gleick and Longitude by Dava Sobel. I discovered the second while discussing the first with a friend [Maeve for those who are curious] over lunch.
The two books concern roughly the same time and place: England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. They also overlap in some of the characters that are discussed: astronomers and scientists. Together, this pair of books give me a different mental image of the era and the people.
Having been interested in science since grade school, I’ve venerated Isaac Newton as an icon. For a long time this was done on faith, as I wasn’t familiar with his achievements. Even after having studied the Calculus in college, I still didn’t know what he’d actually done mathematically. This was remedied somewhat when I taught a course out of A Radical Approach to Real Analysis by David Bressoud. Having then seen some of the things that Newton had done (and hadn’t done), I became convinced that he was nuts.
Isaac Newton, while putting a finer point on this hypothesis to be sure, did little to disabuse me of this notion. For example, in this book we learn that, while studying light, he inserted something like a crochet hook between his eye ball and eye socket, observed rings of light, and took notes about it. We see the scientific method made perfect, but, to be as eloquent as I can be, ick.
But I don’t mean to diminish Newton’s greatness by highlighting his weirdness. Newton was great and, what’s more, I would put him as perhaps the first and certainly the greatest of the Redneck Mathematicians.
He was born shortly after his father died. I am thinking less than nine months. His mother apparently didn’t care too much for him. She remarried a man who didn’t want Isaac hanging around.
This is the stuff of country music if I ever heard it.
He inherited his father’s farm, tried his hand at farming, and sucked at it. His male relatives looked at him, assessed that he was only fit for college, and packed him off to Cambridge. While he was at Cambridge, it was hit with the Plague, so he came home and invented the Calculus. At a time when most undergrads are not understanding calculus, he was inventing it.
And he kept it as his little secret.
That is weird. True, those were different times before openness and communication were valued in science, but Newton took it to an extreme even then.
Newton got a university job and then started doing two things that aren’t really highlighted in his scientific hagiographies: alchemy and Bible Study. He wanted to turn lead in to gold. He wanted to use the prophecies of the Old Testament to predict the end of the world. He didn’t turn lead into gold by the way; but he did predict the world would end in 2060.
While he was busy doing these things, a comet appeared in the sky Actually, they thought it was two comets, a little one and a big one, but it was really one comet: Halley’s Comet. Newton was first bothered by John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, who theorized the two comets were one. Newton more or less blew him off.
Then Edmund Halley comes on the scene and starts a chain of events that climaxes in Newton writing his scientific masterpiece Principia Mathematica.
Gleick does such a good job of drawing the characters here that I will leave the details of this to the interested reader. Suffice it to say, I am thinking of writing a short story about it.
Modern science wouldn’t be the same without these events.
The importance of technology is made plain in Longitude. When you are navigating at sea, if you don’t know where you are, their is a pretty good chance that you are going to die one way or the other. To know your position on the planet earth, you need to know your latitude and your longitude.
Latitude is relatively easy to calculate from direct astronomical observations. I might write that up sometime. Longitude is easy to calculate as well, provided you know exactly what time it is at your base point, i.e. zero longitude. This was a problem back in the day when clocks were only accurate to about fifteen minutes a day. That difference doesn’t sound like much to use but for navigational purposes it is quite profound. Indeed, as little as a few seconds a day drift accumulates over a long sea voyage.
The answer to this problem was ultimately a better clock. The story of how that clock was created by a carpenter cum clockmaker named John Harrison is told skillfully in Longitude. Sobel does a great job of making something that could be made dreadfully dull in other hands come to life. She’s talking about making clocks for heaven’s sake. How boring is that?
One of her techniques is following the politics of the clock’s gaining acceptance. It is here we run into some of the same characters as we did in Newton’s story, e.g. Flamsteed and Halley. It’s here that in the juxtaposition of the two stories I gain some insight. Newton profited by the emergence of institutions such as the Royal Society and the Royal Observatory; Harrison by way of contrast was somewhat blocked by the institutions, though it is much more complicated than that.
Ultimately, I found myself thinking that this was a magical time for England, as there was much, much more going on then than just gravity and time. Newton knew Jonathon Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame. Those pesky colonists over in the New World revolted along about then. And I am sure that someone who actually knew history could come up with a lot more stuff.
Suffice it to say, these books are interesting, informative, and readable.
Treat yourself to reading them both.