I have been hooked to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (buy the book at Amazon) this week, a book that I vociferously recommend. His humor is as engaging, as is his ability to simplify science, to a point of making it entertaining. And, only a short way into the book, I stumbled upon a name that caught my fancy – Edmond Halley.
The Comet Man
Halley’s name is best known in connection with a flirtatious comet that keeps revisiting earth’s neighbourhood every 75 years or so. My knowledge about the man, I must confess, was limited to the mistaken notion that he had discovered the comet. He had actually identified the comet as being the same one observed by Petrus Apianus in 1531 and Johannes Keppler in 1607.
But, establishing the periodicity of this comet was hardly the summary of Halley’s life’s work. The man was much bigger than his reputation.
Halley was the protégé of the Astronomer Royale, John Flamsteed. At the age of 22,he became one of the youngest members of the Royal Society. Over the course of his illustrious life, Halley also discovered a method of determining the distance of the Earth from the Sun. Among his other accomplishments are inventing two types of diving bells for underwater explorations and publishing some of the world’s first actuarial tables.
The Fateful Wager
Anyone who has sat through high school science can recite the three laws that form the basis of much of our scientific knowledge – Newton’s Laws of Motion. To think that a wager between three friends led to a series of events that, in turn, led to the discovery of these laws, is curiously entertaining.
Robert Hooke (known for his work on cell structure), Sir Christopher Wren (the renowned architect) and Edmond Halley were academic friends. Over a dinner in 1683, the three were engaged in a conversation over the motions of celestial objects. Sir Wren offered a price of 40 shillings for an elegant solution to a celestial path of motion.
History claims that Hooke was a difficult man, with a belligerent disposition. At the time of the wager, he claimed to already have a solution, that he chose to withhold, to give others a chance to solve the problem, per him. While the discussion fizzled out at that table, Halley seems to have become obsessed with the idea.
The Other Cantankerous Scientist
Isaac Newton’s reputation is not any less interesting than Hooke’s. Newton was a secretive, paranoid, awkward man, who practiced alchemy and was known to hold occult beliefs. He rarely published his work, which often led to disputes over priority.
The man discovered Calculus and kept it to himself for 27 years, a fact that he annoyingly chose to disclose after Gottfried Liebniz published his own work in the domain.
Halley, in his pursuit of an answer to planetary motion, approached Newton in 1684. To Halley’s utter surprise, Newton told him that he had already solved the problem but had ‘lost the papers’. From this moment, Edmond Halley played a pivotal role in ensuring the publication of Newton’s legendary Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, aka Principia. He literally chased Newton to publish the work.
The Many Obstacles
The drama unfolded when towards the completion of this venture, Hooke claimed priority to the work. Newton got so peeved at the suggestion, that he threatened to withhold the crucial third volume of the work. Halley had to exercise much diplomacy and influence over him to convince him to complete the publication.
In fact, when the Royal Society backed out of the project, citing financial issues, Halley went on to fund the publication himself, even as Newton himself refused to contribute financially!
It suffices to say that without the relentless and selfless patronage of Edmond Halley, the Comet Man, the world might have remained oblivious to Newton’s Laws of Motion much longer!
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