Today (January 14) in London History – Don’t Look Up

We have Londoner Edmond Halley to thank for modern science. Today is the anniversary of his death.


London calling. 

It’s January 14th. Where shall we go today?

We could take a long trip – all the way back to January 14th,1437. Go ambulance chasing. Go back and do some damage assessment. I’m talking about that London Bridge disaster.

But, no, this is my baby, my toy, my show. And what my instincts are telling me is to forget 1437 and go instead to January 14th, 1714.  It deserves our full attention.

So off we go. To Greenwich. To a death bed.

An 85-year-old man – some kind of man – is dying peacefully at home.

His name is Edmond Halley. He’s indisputably “the greatest astronomer of his day.” That’s some honorific, some achievement. But having found out a bit more about Edmond Halley I think it’s entirely possible that the title – “the greatest astronomer of his age” – understates his achievement. And his importance. 

Everybody knows Halley of course for the comet named after him. Halley’s comet. The most famous comet of them all.

But dare I sneak this sucker punch in? People don’t look up.

They don’t look up Halley. They don’t know more about him than the comet named after him.

Well, I did look him up – and having done so, Whoa! do I ever look up to Halley. 

That’s why we’re here, in Greenwich – rather than at London Bridge. 

Let’s start with the comet.

The oldest and most famous observed comet of them all, Halley’s Comet, is a giant ball of dust and gas. Measuring, 15 kilometres by 8 kilometres, it’s a not insignificant chunk of galactic real estate. For the record, it’s significantly bigger than the Dibiasky Comet in the Don’t Look Up film. 

It drops in on us every 75 years. In 240 BC the Chinese made the first recorded sighting of the comet – they called it the Broom Star. 

So why is it so famous? That’s all down to Edmond Halley. He calculated that the “great comet” that kept on being seen every 75 years was, in fact, the same object. He knew of “great comet” sightings in 1531 and 1607. In 1682, he saw for himself the comet that would later bear his name. In 1705 he worked out the parameters of its orbit and predicted that it would return in 1758. Sure enough, right on time – in the last few days of 1758 – it turned up. The pity was that Edmond Halley was long dead by then.

But his work lives on. Edmond Halley gave Astronomy – gave the world – a new class of object that orbited the Sun. And to accompany it, a way to assign precise dates to historical sightings of a “great comet.”

Halley’s Comet last pitched up here in late January 1986. It’ll be back in 2061. But here’s a hot tip. In early May and late October each year Earth moves through streams of particles left in the inner Solar System by Halley’s Comet from that last pass in 1986. The Spring meteor shower lasts from April 19th to May 28th. It peaks on May 5th and May 6th. Produces about 55 “shooting stars” every hour. A few months later we get an autumnal version of the same thing. It lasts from October 2nd through November 7th. That one peaks on October 21st and October 22nd. It gives us about 20 shooting stars per hour after midnight. 

Ok, so that’s the Halley’s Comet chapter in Edmond Halley’s life. But that’s just for starters. 

Edmond Halley has many claims to fame. 

When he was an Oxford undergraduate he talked the dons into letting him go to St. Helena to make observations on southern stars. On the basis of that impressive field trip they granted him his degree. A certain Isaac Newton was an older friend of Halley. Halley persuaded Isaac Newton to write the Principia. And Halley paid for its publication. 

Edmond Halley midwived, The Principia, one of the most influential works of mathematical science ever written. 

Halley was the first geophysicist. He collected information about the magnetism of earth and such things as trade winds, aurora and meteorites. Halley drew up a synoptic chart of the trade winds – the first time any such meteorological chart had been produced. 

Halley wrote papers on mathematics, on optics, on thermometers, on rainbows. He studied the bills of mortality and constructed tables of life expectancy, forerunners of modern actuarial methods. His study of the observations of a mediaeval Islamic astronomer led him to propose that the moon was speeding up in her orbit around the earth. Halley was right about that. He discussed the account of the landing of Julius Caesar in Britain in relation to the tides in the channel and fixed the site accordingly. 

Edmond Halley was the first man to “borrow” a ship from the Navy – and the Navy made him a captain of it. Halley charted the Thames approaches. Halley’s papers on terrestrial magnetism were the best things written on that subject between his time and the end of World War II. 

For good measure, Edmond Halley made important contributions in the field of marine salvage. He improved the design of the diving bell, and devised a diving suit with its air supplied by a tube from a bell so that a man could work outside a bell. 

Edmond Halley’s observation of the transit of Venus in 1769 led to Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery.

Anything else? Halley smoked, drank brandy and swore like a sea captain. Well, he was a Londoner, after all. 

A Londoner who caroused with Peter the Great of Russia when the Czar came to England. Caroused with him and then pushed the Czar in a wheelbarrow through a Holly Hedge when they were both in their cups. 

I’m not just in awe of Edmond Halley. I like him.

But finally, to step back and look at the big picture…

In the second half of the 17th-century the world of science was transformed by British contributions. It’s no exaggeration to say the breakthrough that ultimately led to modern science came first in Astronomy. Not to put too fine a point on it, we have Edmond Halley to thank for modern science. 

Anything else? Yes, Edmond Halley was a lifelong Londoner.

Good night from Edmond Halley’s home town.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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