We all enter this world with a baby’s big, bright, eyes, knowing nothing about the cosmos. “We’ve had to figure it all out for ourselves,” Tyson tells us. The baby metaphor becomes all too real as he picks up one wrapped in a blanket, rocking it as he stands under the night sky.
Let this episode be henceforth known “Friends”-style as “The One Where Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains the birth of astronomy while holding a frickin’ baby.” It’s the image that perhaps best explains the shows tendency towards hyperbole. Whether it goes too far is up for debate, but it suggests an important question to consider: how did we get from stargazing in the Pleistocene to the refined mathematical description of the cosmos that we have today?
It all comes down to one thing: pattern recognition. “Cultures all over the planet looked up at the same stars and found different pictures there,” Tyson says. The very same tilt that causes a difference in seasons outside of the tropics causes different parts of the night sky to be visible. Over the generations, our ancestors were able to link changes in the sky pictures to changes in the seasons and the accompanying migratory (and later, agricultural) patterns that followed. Tyson suggests that our ancestors assumed these to be hints, messages from the higher beings controlling the goings on here on Earth. The stars, being very far away, didn’t appear to move at all and were assumed to be constant, so when the picture of the heavens changed, say, with the advent of a comet, early humans took it as an affront to the natural order.
Having no concept of why the skies truly changed as they did, “Every ancient human culture made the same mistake,” Tyson says. The comet must be a message sent by the god, or one particular god, they assumed and almost invariably our ancestors concluded the news was “not good.” Aztecs, Anglo-Saxons, Hindus, Zulu, and Babylonians alike perceived comets as portents of doom: famine, death, disease, catastrophe. The Greeks even derived the word disaster from comets, which literally means “bad star”.
The human talent for pattern recognition cuts both ways, it turns out. We see a Man in the Moon and canals on Mars; one is harmless, the other induces hysteria.
The Boonies of the Solar System
Now we’ve figured out what Comets actually are, and where they come from. “Drifting mountains of ice and rock,” comets are remnants from the Solar System’s birth. They spend most of their time out in the Oort Cloud, a halo of objects extending almost one light year outside of the Sun but still gravitationally bound to it. Based just on the incidence of comets coming inside the orbits of the planets, Dutch astronomer Jan Oort was able to predict that there must be a swarm of them in the Solar System’s hinterlands. We still haven’t seen it, but we’re pretty sure it’s there. Far from being a one-hit wonder, Oort also calculated the distance of our sun to the center of the galaxy and pioneered the use of radio waves in astronomy.
Oort, accomplished astronomer that he was, however, is just a warm up to names you definitely have heard: Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley. Halley has a comet named after him; Newton has a brand of running shoes, a fig cookie and a Boston suburb. Together, as Druyan will show, they changed the practice of astronomy forever.
In 1664, a comet showed up right before Europe got hit by the plague (again) and London went up in flames. Those who thought comets were omens from God had yet another data point in their correlation study between streaky signs in the sky and bad shit going down on Earth.
But with the Scientific Revolution in full swing, Edmund Halley, born to a family of considerable means, was able to look at comets with wonder. His wealth afforded him the opportunity to pursue that curiosity; he journey to the southern hemisphere to make new star maps of constellations nobody had ever seen, coming up with new patterns, like birds and compasses.
His map was a big hit at the Royal Society in London and caught the attention of Robert Hooke, the curator of experiments. Though the cartoon reenactments key in on the description of Hooke as a mean, bent and ugly man, he was a formidable scientist. He discovered the cell by looking at cork and even has a law named after him, relating the force needed to compress or extend a spring. He was also friends with Britain’s first pot dealer and wrote about the effects of marijuana.
While weed may have been new, Europe was already fully addicted to coffee. “The coffee house was an oasis of equality in a class-obsessed society.” Tysons says. It was here that Halley and Hooke contemplated why the planets moved as they do. Johannes Kepler had already shown that the orbits around the Sun were ellipses, rather than circles. Kepler could show that the closer planets are to the sun, the faster they move. Was there a force acting on the planets like the force acting on Hooke’s springs?
Hooke both tried and failed to come up with a mathematical description of why the planets moved as they did. Having given up on Hooke, Halley and his buddy Christopher Wren needed to find someone else who might be able to put it together.
“How about that mathematician at Cambridge?” Tyson asks, as he walks out onto a stately quad. A man who had already invented the reflecting telescope, done work on the nature of light, and even had a falling out with Hooke.
It turns out all this business about comets and Edmund Halley has been a long slow reveal to one of the most important scientists the world has ever seen. Though it never got him laid, Newton’s genius was unquestionable. For crying out loud, the man invented calculus when he realized he didn’t have the mathematical tools to describe the world as he saw it.
Unlike Halley, Newton had a rough home life growing up. He never knew his father and his mother abandoned him, only to return years later with a new family. At Cambridge, things didn’t go much better. He lacked friends and spent most of his time cooped up in his room. Some of his pursuits yielded great insights into nature but he also had some strange interests, like alchemy and calculating the second coming of Jesus Christ.
In 1684, Halley went up to Cambridge and found the reclusive Newton, proposing collaboration with Hooke. Turns out Newton was again ahead of the curve, having figured it out five years previously.
Halley had not only found his guy, but an intellectual triumph. The book containing Newton’s mathematical formulation of gravity is among the most important ever written. I have a print of the title page hanging on my wall. Holding what I can only assume to be an original copy of Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” Tyson says, appreciatively, “Here are the opening pages of modern science, with its all embracing vision of nature. Universal laws of motion and gravity, not just for the Earth, but for the cosmos.”
In possession of a masterpiece, Halley had just a teeny problem. Unfortunately for him and Newton, the Royal Society had blown all its money printing an illustrated history of fish, which did not make the New York Times’s bestseller list that year. Luckily, Halley had the money to publish it himself. “That pre-scientific world, the world ruled by fear, was poised at the edge of a revolution,” Druyan writes. Halley is the man responsible for bringing the revolution out of Newton’s dorm room and into the world.
Before Newton, “everyone looked at the perfection of the clockwork motion of the sky and could only understand it as the work of a master clockmaker,” How else to explain it? There was only one way something like this could come about in their imagination. There was only answer for them: God. God had simply decreed that the solar system be that way. “But this explanation is the closing of a door,” Tyson points out. “It doesn’t lead to other questions.”
This is Tyson at his best, explaining, in the tradition of Sagan before him, how we might feel about the science he presents.
“Matter obeyed commandments we could discover, laws the bible hadn’t mentioned. Newton’s answer to why the solar system is the way it is, opened up an infinite number of questions.”
And this wasn’t even all that Newton had fit into the “Principia Mathematica.”
In addition to calculus, Newton came up with the idea of the escape orbit, the “end to our imprisonment on Earth.” It’s a clever though experiment that nowadays many high school physics students can understand: fire a cannon off the earth with increasing power. Eventually, you’ll fire one fast enough that it can escape gravity to reach a state of perpetual free-fall, or as we call it, orbit. “This changed everything,” Tyson states.
What follows onscreen is a good representation of what Seth MacFarlane brings to the series, besides clout with FOX executives. It’s a simple montage of rockets and other spacecraft: moon buggies, Saturn Vs space shuttles, Mars rovers. It’s short, kind of like a “Family Guy” cut-scene, but it makes an interesting statement about the power of Newton’s ideas. Spaceflight is simply the inevitable progression of what happened after one of us got the idea of the escape orbit.
In addition to being Newton’s only friend, Halley went on to accomplish much more, although discovering a comet was not one of those things. He made the first map of the Earth’s magnetic field and refined the diving bell, and invented the weather map. He figured out how far away the sun was and first realized that the stars in the sky were actually moving.
But what he did do with the comet was impressive enough. He applied Newton’s ideas about gravity to historical data about comets and found out that one of them reappeared every 76 years. “For millennia, comets had been props for mystics who considered them to be merely omens of human events. Halley shattered their monopoly, beating them at their own game, a game no scientists had ever played before: prophecy,” Tyson says. Not only did he predict when this comet would come, but the path it would take through the sky.
Halley worked right up until his death at the age of 85. Legend has it that he died right after downing a glass of wine.
Hooke had not been so lucky. After the “Principia Mathematica” was published, Hooke doubled-down on his feud with Newton, claiming Newton stole the laws of gravity from him. His health finally failed him after years of opium use and his rival, Newton, succeeded him as president of the Royal Society.
Legend also has it that Newton, still mad about his feud with Hooke from years earlier, destroyed the only known portrait of Hooke, one belonging to the Royal Society. Cartoon Newton watches with satisfaction as Hooke’s portrait burns, but this indulgence of myth raises a troubling point. The Royal Society itself has investigated this matter, whether Newton is the reason there’s no longer a portrait of Hooke hanging in their halls. Their conclusion is that it’s unlikely.
What are we to make of this? Does the narrative value of this anecdote justify its inclusion? Is it a reminder that we must question and fact-check everything? It’s a disappointing end to an otherwise great episode.