The forgotten genius of mathematics that laid the foundations of Isaac Newton

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On a cloudy afternoon in England in 1639, 20-year-old Jeremiah Horrocks became the first person to accurately predict the transit of Venus and measure the distance from Earth to the sun.

His work demonstrated, for the first time, that the Earth is not at the center of the universe, but revolves around the sun, refuting contemporary religious beliefs and laying the groundwork for Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking work on gravity.

However, today Horrocks has been “almost forgotten” and few are aware of the important contributions he made to the field of astronomy. Due to his untimely death at the age of 22, his work was never published in his lifetime and he never gained widespread recognition for his dazzling mathematical achievements.

“Without Horrocks, all the pieces would not have been in place for Newton,” said Dr. Matt Bothwell, a public astronomer at the University of Cambridge. “Yet he has been all but forgotten, except among astronomical history buffs.”

Now a new work horrorxwill attempt to reaffirm Horrocks’ rightful place in history as a British genius who, according to playwright David Sear, “changed the way we see the universe.”

“We had no idea of ​​the scale of the universe until Jeremiah Horrocks,” Sear said. “He was the first person to demonstrate that the Earth was not the center of creation, destroying key tenets of Christian teachings and the primacy of a literal interpretation of the Bible in the process.”

Despite this, Horrocks’ great treatise on the transit of Venus was nearly lost forever. Only one Latin manuscript survived the ravages of the civil war and the Great Fire of London. Passed from one astronomer to another for 20 years after Horrocks’ death, it would not be published until 1662, in an appendix to the work of a Polish astronomer.

“No one understood the importance of Horrocks’ work until Newton picked it up,” Sear said.

Horrocks was only 20 years old when, in 1639, he made a crucial mathematical breakthrough: “He found an error in the mathematics of a very famous astronomer, Johannes Kepler, and corrected it,” Sear said.

This correction revealed that the next transit of Venus would happen in a matter of days and not happen again until 1761. “Horrocks was the only person who knew it was going to happen,” Sear said.

He hastened to inform his friend and fellow amateur astronomer, William Crabtree, a fellow Manchester draper.

The pair had just enough time to coordinate and took advantage of the rare opportunity to view Venus’s silhouette from two different locations, allowing them to record vital measurements that had eluded other astronomers.

“The only way to measure the distance to the sun at that time was to fix an object, between the Earth and the sun, and then triangulate,” Sear said.

In 1687, Newton recognized the importance of Horrocks’ observations in his beginning: “Newton would not have been able to complete his work on gravity, if Horrocks had not made these observations at the time he did,” said Sear. “Newton built on this earlier work.”

A diagram showing the transit of Venus in 1639 and 1761 from Horrocks’ observation. Photograph: Science History Images/Alamy

horrorxPlaying at the ADC Theater in Cambridge from March 28 to April 1 as part of the Cambridge festival, , begins in 1632 as Horrocks walks to the city’s college. Sear said: “At the age of 14 or 15, no one is sure, he walked to Cambridge from Lancashire, to study the stars.”

The son of a watchmaker, who was largely self-taught, Horrocks worked as a sizar while studying at Cambridge, serving his fellow students and even emptying their chamber pots to pay his expenses. “He begged and borrowed books from various Cambridge colleges, and he left without a degree, probably because he ran out of things to read,” Sear said. “Today we would be looking at it as a kind of childish phenomenon. At his age, understanding the mathematics he was doing, making these amazing observations with rudimentary telescopes, and then drawing conclusions that overturned established religious and scientific beliefs about the nature of the universe: he was a genius, and he was 400 years ahead of his time.” .

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He thinks the key reason Horrocks hasn’t received the recognition he deserves is because he “committed the sin of dying young.” This meant that Horrocks did not have the opportunity to publicize his work and earn the respect of his fellow astronomers, so he was not publicly praised for his discoveries as Kepler and Galileo were.

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