Some Stuff About Edmond Halley


When I saw the Maths History tweet about Edmond Halley’s birthday I wondered if the November 8th date given was the relevant one since, after all, in 1656 England was still on the Julian calendar. The MacTutor biography of him makes clear that the 8th of November is his Gregorian-date birthday, and he was born on the 29th of October by the calendar his parents were using, although it’s apparently not clear he was actually born in 1656. Halley claimed it was 1656, at least, and he probably heard from people who knew.

Halley is famous for working out the orbit of the comet that’s gotten his name attached, and correctly so: working out the orbits of comets was one of the first great accomplishments of Newtonian mechanics, and Halley’s work took into account how Jupiter’s gravitation distorts the orbit of a comet. It’s great work. And he’s also famous within mathematical and physics circles because it’s fair to wonder whether, without his nagging and his financial support, Isaac Newton would have published his Principia Mathematica. Astronomers note him as the first Western European astronomer to set up shop in the southern hemisphere and produce a map of that part of the sky, as well.

That hardly exhausts what’s interesting about him: for example, he joined in the late-17th-century fad for diving bell companies (for a while, you couldn’t lose money excavating wrecked ships, until finally everyone did) and even explored the bed of the English Channel in a diving bell of his own design. This is to me the most terrifying thing he did, and that’s even with my awareness he led two scientific sailing expeditions, one of which was cut short after among other things irreconcilable differences with the ship’s other commissioned officer, Lieutenant Edward Harrison (who blamed Halley for the oblivion which Harrison’s book on longitude received), and the second of which included a pause in Recife when Halley was put under guard by a man claiming to be the English consul, and who was actually an agent of the Royal African Company considering whether to seize Halley’s ship[1] as a prize.

After his second expedition Halley published charts showing the magnetic declination, how far a magnetic compass’s “north” is from true north, and introduced one of those great conceptual breakthroughs that charts can give us: he connected the lines showing the points where the declination was equal. These isolines are a magnificent way to diagram three-dimensional information on a two-dimensional chart; we see them in topographic maps, as the contour curves showing where a hill rises or a valley sinks. We see them in weather maps, the lines where the temperature is 70 or 80 Fahrenheit (or 20 or 25 Celsius, if you rather) or where the wind speed is some sufficiently alarming figure. We see them (in three-dimensional form) in medical imaging, where a region of constant density gets the same color and this is used to understand a complicated shape within. Not all these uses derive directly from Halley; as with all really good, widely usable concepts many people discovered the concept, but Halley was among the first to put them to obvious, prominent use.

And something that might serve as comfort to anyone who’s taking a birthday hard: at age 65, Halley began a study of the moon’s saros, the cycle patterns of different relative positions the Sun and Moon have in the sky which describe when eclipses happen. One cycle takes a bit over eighteen years to complete. Halley lived long enough to complete this work.

[1] The Paramore, which — I note because this is just the kind of world it was back then — was constructed in 1694 at the Royal Dockyard at Deptford on the River Thames for a scientific circumnavigation of the globe, and first sailed in April 1698 under Tsar Peter the Great, then busy travelling western Europe under ineffective cover to learn things which might modernize Russia. Halley had hoped to sail in 1696, but he was waylaid by his appointment to the Mint at Chester, courtesy of Newton.

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