I was having a lovely time writing out “flash cards” for Astronomy class this weekend. They’re not really flash cards in the traditional sense, like the math-fact cards you can buy at the store. I have a pack of 5×8 index cards and I’m setting up one card for each notable person I run across. The earliest name is that of Thales of Miletus (640-546 BC), and the most recent is Milutin Milankovitch, the Yugoslavian meteorologist who proposed in the 1920s that the Earth’s precession was partially responsible for large-scale changes in Earth’s climate, including the Ice Ages. I’m ordering them chronologically so I can sort of trace the evolution and development of knowledge as each philosopher, astronomer, or mathematician comes into being.
Anyway, I was cruising right along until I got to Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). And suddenly there was so much to know that I had to put down my ball-point pen and read that section of my textbook. And pull out Cosmos and read that section. And log on to Amazon.com and one-click order De Revolutionibus for my Kindle.
Then I was brought to tears reading about the end of his life. For all of Copernicus’s life he was associated with powerful religious figures within the Catholic Church, including his uncle (a Bishop), who raised him after his father died when he was 12 years old. Although he was trained as a cleric, he never took religious vows, and served as personal physician to his uncle for many years. Nevertheless, he studied astronomy in addition to his primary work, and developed a celestial plan that put the Sun in the center of the solar system and attributed motion to the Earth. It solved a lot of problems that were plaguing the current Aristotelian view, but it also presented a viewpoint that ran counter to Church teachings and made it possible that he would be charged with heresy.
So he did not publish what he had discovered. But his friends read his manuscript and quoted him, and circulated copies, and talked him up, and urged him to publish what he had. Finally he compiled his manuscript and sent it to be printed — in the fall of 1542. Soon afterwards, he developed an infection in one leg, and then suffered a series of strokes that left him bedridden. He lay dying at home in the spring of 1543, and his great work was on the verge of publication without his having a chance to see it. And at the last second, the publisher sent out an advance copy of his manuscript for him to view. After which, he died.
(For anyone to make this much of an effort on a dying author’s behalf shows that everyone knew the enormous value of this work. And for less than $10, it’s now on my Kindle in the same folder as a $4 electronic edition of Principia Mathematica. I also ordered Harmonies of the World by Johannes Kepler.)
Copernicus is a lively author and I’m enjoying his work. It’s wonderful to be able to access the core works of knowledge of our planet on a thin tablet that looks just like a prop from “Star Trek: Voyager.” And it’s good to read firsthand (well, secondhand, actually, as I’m not reading the work in Latin) that important writing is not necessarily dry.
This week in my academic and scientific life I started feeling my feet under me again. We finished the linear algebra review chapter for precalculus and started working on different kinds of functions, and the book changes its tone from “brusque review” to “leisured explanation.” With a couple of the kids sick with a quick-and-nasty stomach virus, and myself a bit under the weather on Friday night and Saturday morning, I was able to sit in bed and just read several sections in the math textbook and start understanding where we were going to go this week. What I’ve been doing — all last semester and this semester up until now — was just listening and taking notes in class, then diving into the homework and looking back in the text whenever I couldn’t figure out how to solve a problem. Now I’m trying to read ahead and actually study the text before the professor gets there so it will be more familiar and I can get my insights sooner. I’m also going to try to solve more of the textbook’s problems than only what I’ve been assigned. More practice is better. So even though i finished my Monday homework on Friday afternoon right after class, I’m hoping to set aside some time this evening to work through every book-problem that I can.
In Astronomy I had my first lab session on Thursday, and we worked in teams with a star chart and a celestial sphere. It was fun and although I really preferred to read my data from the printed star chart, I eventually got the hang of working with the celestial sphere. I still need to color-code my star chart as directed to be ready for the next lab session — twist my arm to have to color-code something. We had a short quiz on Thursday during the class session, and I think I answered almost everything correctly.
I worked myself into a new campus job on Tuesday morning, and started work there on Wednesday. Instead of photocopying syllabi for the professors in Languages and Literatures, I’m working in the office of the Assistant Dean of Letters and Science to process adds and drops, and to help ensure that graduating students have in fact completed all their necessary requirements. I’m working with spreadsheets (hello again, Excel), trotting Campus Mail back and forth across campus, and hanging out with a very sophisticated and friendly group of people. I’m also making more money by the hour and getting all the hours I need to be able to pay for this semester’s 10 hours of coursework. I also put my name forth at the Math Department to be considered for a little extra work such as exam proctoring and tutoring, just in case.
It’s work — but it’s wonderful. I feel as if I’m back home again.