May 04

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – May, 2020

Isolation Isn’t All Bad

Throughout history, pandemics have had considerable influence in the course of human events, some great, some small. Most experts agree that the current situation will end up being in the first category. So I did some research into the connection between pandemics and astronomy and found only one good example, but it’s a pretty important one since it changed the course of history.

I am referring to the work done by Isaac Newton during the plague years of 1666 – 1667. Already a brilliant scholar at Trinity College in Cambridge, England, Newton was forced to “shelter in place” at his home, a farm called Woolsthorpe, about sixty miles north of the university. Many writers make reference to how Newton, isolated from the distractions of daily life, would invent calculus, write equations to describe the science of motion and gravity, study the nature of light, and much more. The famous story of the falling apple is a snapshot of the time. The legend has it that the plague created the conditions that enabled modern science to be created.

Not so fast, says writer Thomas Levenson in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine. According to Levenson, “Newton had begun to think about the most pressing questions in science while still studying for his exams . . . at Trinity College.” He also describes how Newton had worked on key problems and new approaches that would lead to calculus and a new approach to geometry, all before he left Cambridge.

When the epidemic finally subsided, Newton continued his work upon returning to Cambridge. He later wrote that, during the plague years, he had been “in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematicks & Philosophy more than at any time since”.

The legend is reinforced by the falling apple story. You have probably seen images where the apple falls on Newton’s head and all of a sudden a light bulb appears above it, indicating the birth of a new idea. Not really. It is true there were apple trees in the orchard at Woolsthorpe and that Newton observed them, but he merely used those observations to better understand and communicate the vast knowledge he had uncovered not only during the plague years but before and after them as well.

So the idea that inspirations come as bolts of lightening under just the right circumstances and that great discoveries don’t require years of intensive study by teams of highly trained individuals doing hard thinking is not really accurate. As Newton demonstrated, although a period of isolation frees the mind to narrowly focus on abstract problems, it takes a team effort and years of study to get a true understanding of what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
May 05: Alan Shepard becomes first American in space – 1961
May 06: NASA announces that Canada will build the shuttle robot arm – 1975
May 11: First geostationary weather satellite launched – 1974
May 12: Adler Planetarium in Chicago opens, first planetarium in western hemisphere – 1930
May 20: Pioneer-Venus 1 launched – 1978
May 25: President Kennedy gives speech challenging nation to land astronaut on Moon before the end of the decade – 1961
May 29: First experimental test of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity performed during total solar eclipse – 1919