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<   No. 2281   2009-04-25   >

Comic #2281

1 Edmond Halley: Mr Newton? I'm Edmond Halley. I've come to urge you to publish your greatest work.
2 Edmond Halley: A lifetime's collection of experience mixing elixirs and draughts.
3 Edmond Halley: Coming up with new combinations nobody considered or even thought possible!
4 Edmond Halley: The name of Isaac will forevermore be associated with great bartending!

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Edmond Halley, wow, now was this guy amazing. If you thought Isaac Newton was pretty cool because he, like, basically invented all of physics and the good bits of mathematics, then take a good look at Mr Halley some time.

He made major contributions to astronomy, meteorology, statistics, geophysics, and a bunch of other related fields.

He went to visit Isaac Newton one day to discuss a problem he was trying to solve to do with planetary orbits, only to discover that Newton had already solved it. The thing was, Newton had solved it and then promptly tossed the thing aside to do some shiny alchemy. It was only at Halley's insistence, and ongoing cajoling in the face of repeated attempts to abandon the project, that Newton eventually published what would become perhaps the most important book ever in the entire history of science: The Principia Mathematica. Not only did Halley make sure Newton didn't give up on this project, he paid for the publication out of his own pocket. A world today without Edmond Halley would have been almost the same as a world without Isaac Newton.

Only leaving out Halley would have taken away a lot of other stuff too. He was the first person to figure out that comets were things that could reappear at regular intervals, as opposed to strange one-off phenomena. Yes, he's that Halley, after whom the most famous comet in existence is named. It was he who realised that the comets of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 - previously thought to be independent objects - were the same thing.

But that's a fairly minor thing in his life. Halley also figured out a way to precisely calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun, by measuring the times at which the planet Venus crossed into and out of the face of the Sun, as viewed from various places on Earth. These transits of Venus are not common events, occurring in pairs 8 years apart, separated by gaps of over 100 years. The next transits after Halley proposed his method were due in 1761 and 1769. As it turned out, Halley died well before these events, but he had urged the British Admiralty to mount expeditions in those years to make the required measurements from various remote locations on Earth.

Scientists in 1761 observed the transit of Venus from locations as far apart as Norway, Canada, and South Africa. The observations were good, but more measurements were needed. So for the 1769 transit, the British Navy mounted an expedition to Tahiti, in the South Pacific Ocean. Not wanting to waste a long voyage like that, the Admiralty gave the captain of the expedition ship a secret mission: to scout the southern oceans for undiscovered lands that might lie there and be prime for colonising. The captain dutifuly observed the transit in Tahiti, and then sailed southwest, looking for new lands.

On 19 April, 1770, Captain James Cook of the Tahiti transit expedition sighted the east coast of Australia. The rest is, as they say, history. And perhaps none of it would have happened if not for Edmond Halley.

Set a course for adventure, your mind on a new romance...

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