When Friendship Conquered Ignorance
‘When Knowledge Conquered Fear,’ the third episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson's new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, tells the story of how humanity learned to stop worrying and love the comet.We open with shot of the night sky reflected in the eyes of a baby. The poor child, abandoned in a basket in the wilderness, is an obvious metaphor for all of us: born under a blanket of stars, we use our remarkable talent for pattern recognition to make sense of the heavens. Luckily, Tyson (Papa Science) is there to pick us up and let us know it’s all going to be okay.
But, for the longest time we were convinced that things would most definitely not be okay. Our ancestors were as familiar with the night sky as you and I are with our favorite TV shows, and when anything disrupted the normal programming, it was like someone had activated the emergency alert system. Comets, for example, could only mean one thing: disaster. (Fun fact, the word "disaster" comes from the Greek for “bad star”.)
Enter Edmund Halley, who wasn't the least bit afraid of comets. He was convinced that they weren't agents of chaos sent to ruin our day, but just another part of the heavenly clockwork that we could predict and understand. Like the planets, he reasoned, they must orbit around the sun in ellipses. As brilliant a scientists as he was, Halley just couldn't complete the math necessary to back up his theory. When the head of Europe’s intellectual elite couldn't help him, he turned to a reclusive alchemist.
Isaac Newton had been hiding out at Cambridge University since being publicly humiliated by allegations of plagiarism. Halley was thrilled to find that Newton had done the math on elliptical orbits years before, but his insecurities had prevented him from sharing his findings. The two quickly became close friends, and like any good friend, Halley yanked Newton out of his comfort zone and published his work at his own expense. (Halley’s salary at the time consisted of copies of one of the poorest selling books ever published by the Royal Society. It was about fish.No joke.)
Halley’s investment in Newton’s vision produced the mathematical tools that allowed him to predict the return of the comet that today bears his name. That comet, considered an omen of doom for centuries, is now eagerly anticipated to return in 2061. One of the goals of the original ‘Cosmos’ was to humanize science by exploring the lives of the men and women who shaped our modern understanding of the universe. ‘When Knowledge Conquered Fear’ is the first episode of the new series to do this successfully, and even works in a respectful nod to Jan Oort. It’s because of Mr. Oort that we know where comets come from and where we are in the galaxy – discoveries that most likely wouldn’t have come about if Halley and Newton hadn’t teamed up. Cue the Golden Girls theme.