Thursday, December 20, 2012

The End Of The World

During the Middle ages, great anxiety surrounded the approach of the year 1000. Many people feared that the new millennium would mark the end of the world – just as it had been described in the Book of Revelation in the Bible. How did the people of the time deal with this fear? And what was it about the year 1000 that made them think it would bring the end of human kind?

In 1890s, a number of historians observed that the approach of the year 1000 in Europe had been accompanied by fears about the end of the world. These fears were fed by the Church, which apparently wanted Christians to believe that they could secure their places in paradise by transferring their property to the clergy. Many Christians did so, there by securing the church’s power base for years to come. It is not difficult to imagine that this caused a sensation, and that the Church angrily denied that anything of the kind ever took place.

 We know that the level of anxiety among the medieval population rose as the year 1000 drew nearer. Naturally, they looked to their priests and to the Bible for guidance. The bible gives a detailed description of number of catastrophes and plagues that would lead to the end of the world. This would fulfill god’s will, and the New Jerusalem would descend from heaven. The problem was that the Holy Scriptures did not give an exact date, but some scholars estimated that the period around the new millennium would be the likeliest time. This leads to proclamations such as that of Parisian cleric, who announced around 975; ‘the Antichrist will come at the end of the year 1000 and the Last Judgment will follow shortly thereafter’. Many people believed such statements in part because a string of natural disasters that took place towards the end of the 10th century led them to fear for the future. In the year 987, parts of western and central Europe were stricken by torrential rains; a severe drought followed in 990; and shortly afterwards storms again devasted these regions. France in particular was badly hit by natural disasters; in 997, a terrible epidemic claimed countless lives, while in Burgundy, a severe famine even produced out breaks of cannibalism.

 Faced with the sign of imminent chaos, it was easy for people to believe in the legends that ‘the end of mankind is at hand’. The appearance of a comet in 1014, and a solar eclipse in 1033, were both interpreted as harbingers of further horrors.

 All these events were meticulously recorded by the monks, who were the chroniclers of history during the Middle Ages. The various disasters and strange celestial occurrences certainly seemed to confirm the apocalyptic predictions of the Church. Raoul Glaber, a monk from the abbey of Cluny in central France, wrote around 1050; ‘ After all the signs and wonders which occurred before or after the year 1000 of our Lord, there was no shortage of innovative people who predicted no less important events for the thousandth return of the passion of the Lord. And indeed there is no doubt that signs were manifest… they fulfilled the prophecy of John, which states that Satan shall be let loose after a thousand years’

The expectation of the thousand year reign of Christ on earth before the end of the world is known as Chilism and was a wide spread belief in the first centuries of Christianity. According to this doctrine,, the souls of the just will be resurrected and will rule with the Messiah, then, Satan will be freed for a short time, and the end of the world will follow.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Birth of Physics and Newton’s Apple -1

Newton and the aloe: it’s an image as enduring as any in history. As the story goes, the 23 year old Isaac Newton was sitting in his garden in his home in woolsthorpe, England, when he noticed an apple fall to the ground. A moment’s pondering, and he was inspired to postulate the law of universal gravitation.

Newton himself never put this story in writing, though he did recount it to his friend and biographer, William Stukeley, one evening in 1726, one evening in 1726. Yet, two other biographers of Sir Isaac his physician Henry Pemberton and mathematician William Whiston- interviewed Newton extensively about the origins of his theory of gravity, and neither mentioned the apple.

The story comes to us through Voltaire, who recounted it in Elements de philosophie de Newton, claiming he had heard it from Newton’s niece, Catherine Barton Conduit, who lived with Newton and managed his house hold for 20 years. Some historians speculate that Catherine may have been telling the truth- but she mistook an example her uncle had used to explain gravity for an actual occurrence. Carl Friedrich Gauss, the great 19th century mathematician, dismissed the entire story as an absurd insult to Newton’s genius.

 Whether or not the story is true, the impression it leaves- that Newton formulated his theory in isolation- is certainly misleading. In the late 1670s, Newton was already famous for his theories about light, his experiments in optics, his formulation of calculus and his invention of the reflection telescope. He climbed the academic fame quickly but found himself enrolled in several disputes over who had thought of what scientific theory first. Newton had little patience for such squabbling and resigned from the Royal Society, calling science ”a litigious lady.”

But then, in 1679, one of Newton’s earlier rivals, Robert Hooke, became secretary of the society. Hooke was stymied by several problems in mechanics and believed Newton was the only man who could help. So in November of the year, Hooke wrote a gracious letter to Newton inviting him to correspond on subjects in physics of mutual interest. Newton accepted the invitation, but soon regretted doing so, And the reason? Hook made public some of Newton’s erroneous speculations, much to Newton’s embracement.

 It was in one of Hooke’s letters, however, that Newton first heard the idea that the motion of an object under the influence of a force could be broken up into to composite motions; one I the direction of the force and changing in accordance with Newton’s second law and the other perpendicular to the force and moving uniformly in accordance with the Newton’s first law. Unbeknownst to Hooke, this was the breakthrough idea that Newton needed.