Cosmos Episode 3: When Knowledge Conquered Fear — This week Neil deGrasse Tyson talks to us about comets and how Newton may be responsible for…well…EVERYTHING modern.
This week’s episode of Cosmos is a love letter to Sir Isaac Newton: alchemist, biblical chronologist, and probably the biggest contributor to the scientific revolution. At least the astrophysics part of it. The conversation begins with a brief history of comets, segues into a story about Newton’s confidant Halley, and then circles back around to how a particular comet1 proved both men to be right about a lot of things.
Welcome to you’re “doom.” Comets used to be harbingers of doom and gloom to our ancestors. Depending on factors such as the number of visible tails, direction of travel, and your chosen tribe, a comet could mean war, famine, pestilence, or death. FUN! Also: wrong. Shooting stars are not a magic bullet theory.
My son’s name is also Oort. According to NdGT, few people know of dutch astronomer Jan Oort. I took a half-semester course on meteorites my freshman year and one of the only things I remember from that class was the name Oort. You don’t forget a name like that. Also, he did some awesome things. My favorite is the Oort Cloud, his theorized area surrounding our solar system where comets come and go.
“Publishing is dead.” – 17th century publishers. After learning how young Isaac Newton spent his days (he was a loner, Dottie, a rebel), we find out that his landmark work Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica almost didn’t get published. The reason: people weren’t buying Halley’s book about fish. Also, there was some controversy involving mathematical theories which may or may not have been cribbed from Robert Hook. Those mathematicians can be such divas. Fortunately, Newton and Halley were one of the innovators of self-publishing and the Principia became the foundation of calculus, physics, space travel, and Cosmos.
Space travel? Yeah! Newton theorized that an object with enough thrust could exit the gravitational pull of Earth, establishing its own orbit. The animation on this episode offered a helpful illustration of a cannon on the north pole. The fired cannon ball would travel farther around the globe with a more powerful charge. If the charge had enough power, the ball would have no option but to escape. In other words, he created the germ of the idea of rockets.
Halley’s Comet. The last segment of the show focused on Edmond Halley: inventor of the diving bell and über-researcher. He became fascinated with comets and embarked on a massive research project for all reported incidents of sightings. NdGT reminds us this was pre-Google, so just try to imagine the years of research required. It was not in vain: Halley was able to determine there was a comet which made an appearance every 76 years. Before the comet’s next visit, he predicted when and where it would travel through our sky. Usually scientists and soothsayers try to hedge their bets or at least be a little vague. Halley offered a precise prediction and he. was. RIGHT. Awesome.
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