The forgotten math genius who laid the foundation for 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, measuring the distance from Earth to the Sun.

His work proved for the first time that the earth is not the center of the universe but revolves around the sun, disproving contemporary religious beliefs and laying the groundwork for Isaac Newton’s seminal work on gravity.

But today Horrocks is “almost forgotten” and few are aware of the important contributions he made to the field of astronomy. Due to his early death at the age of 22, his work was never published during his lifetime and he never gained wide recognition for his dazzling mathematical achievements.

“Without Horrocks, not all the parts would have been there for Newton,” said Dr. Matt Bothwell, public astronomer at the University of Cambridge. “Nevertheless, it has been almost forgotten, except among astronomy history buffs.”

Well, a new game horrorwill seek to assert Horrocks’ rightful place in history as a British genius who, according to playwright David Sear, “changed the way we see the universe”.

“Until Jeremiah Horrocks, we had no idea of ​​the size of the universe,” Sear said. “He was the first person to prove that the earth was not the center of creation, destroying important tenets of Christian doctrine and the primacy of a literal interpretation of the Bible.”

Despite this, Horrocks’ great treatise on the transit of Venus was lost almost forever. Only one Latin manuscript survived the ravages of the Civil War and the Great Fire of London. Passed from one astronomer to another twenty years after Horrock’s death, it was not published until 1662 in an appendix to the work of a Polish astronomer.

“Nobody understood the importance of Horrock’s work until Newton picked it up,” Sear said.

Horrocks was only 20 years old when he made a major mathematical breakthrough in 1639: “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 be in a few days and would not happen again until 1761. “Horrocks was the only person who knew it was going to happen,” Sear said.

He rushed to inform his friend and fellow amateur astronomer William Crabtree, a cloth maker from Manchester.

With just enough time to coordinate, the pair took advantage of the rare opportunity to view Venus’ silhouette from two different locations, allowing them to record important measurements that other astronomers had missed.

“The only way to measure the distance to the Sun back then 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 principles: “Newton would not have been able to complete his work on gravity if Horrocks had not made these observations in his time,” Sear said. “Newton drew on this earlier work.”

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

horror, which is being shown at Cambridge’s ADC theater from 28 March to 1 April as part of the Cambridge Festival, begins in 1632 as Horrocks sets out on foot to the university in the city. Sear said: “At the age of 14 or 15 – nobody is quite sure – he went from Lancashire to Cambridge to study the stars.”

The son of a clockmaker who was largely self-taught, Horrocks worked as a sizar while studying at Cambridge, serving his fellow students and even emptying their bedpans to pay for his living. “He would beg and borrow books from the various colleges in Cambridge and left without a degree, probably because he ran out of things to read,” Sear said. “Today we would consider him a kind of child phenomenon. At his age he was a genius, he was a genius and 400 years ahead of his time.

Related: The private life of Isaac Newton | Sarah dry

He believes the main reason Horrocks hasn’t received the recognition he deserves is that “he committed the sin of dying young”. This meant that Horrocks had no chance to make his work known and gain the respect of his fellow astronomers, and so he was not publicly acclaimed for his discoveries as Kepler and Galileo were.

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