Wednesday Wonders: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth MC

Just over 141 years ago, an Irish astronomer, economist, and all-around jack of all trades you’ve never heard of known as Kenneth Essex Edgeworth was born.

You probably have heard of Gerard Kuiper, though, or at least the belt named after him. Since Kuiper was of Dutch descent, that first syllable is pronounced with a long I, so it’s not “Kooper.” The first syllable rhymes with kite. (If you’re an L.A. local, it’s exactly the same as Van Nuys, and for the same reasons that I won’t get into here, because they’re complicated.)

Anyway… Kuiper was about 25 years younger than Edgeworth, died just over a year after him in 1973, and wound up with his name on something that Edgeworth originally predicted and described.

Okay, sometimes it’s referred to as the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, attributing the discoverers slash theorists in the right order, but that’s generally mostly not the case, so that Kuiper really is kind of the Edison to Edgeworth’s Tesla.

But Edgeworth was ahead of his time in other ways. Only eight years after Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and declared the eighth planet, Edgeworth was expressing his doubts, saying that it was too small to be a planet, and was probably a remnant of the bits and pieces that came together to create the solar system.

He was certainly vindicated on that one, and it was part of the same ideas which gave birth to what should be called the Edgeworth Belt, but which didn’t catch on until Kuiper got in on the act in the 1950s.

Maybe a big part of the problem was that Edgeworth was more of an armchair astronomer. While he published papers, he was a theorists and not an experimenter. Then again, Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist, not a practical one, and his theories changed the way we view the universe.

Edgeworth’s could have changed the way we view our solar system, and he also hypothesized what later became known as the Oort Cloud — named for another damn Dutch astronomer, Jan Oort, who once again came to the party long after Edgeworth proposed the idea.

When Edgeworth was a child, his family moved to the estate of his maternal uncle, who was an astronomer, and had an influence on young Kenneth. Later, the family would move to the estate of Edgeworth’s paternal grandfather, where he would develop engineering skills in his father’s workshop.

He went into the military, joining the Corps of Royal Engineers, and was posted to South Africa, where he served in the Second Boer War. His military career continued through World War I and beyond, and he retired in 1926.

However, between the Boer War and WW I, his uncle submitted his name for membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, and he was accepted for in 1903. By this point, he had already written papers on astronomy, since one of them was read at the meeting during which he was elected. He studied international economics during the Great Depression and wrote five books on the subject in the 1930s and 40s. He also published various papers on astronomy, covering subjects like the solar system, red dwarves, star formation, and redshift.

It was also at this time that he published his thoughts on Pluto, as well as the existence of both the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

After he “retired,” he published a series of letters and papers, leading to his book The Earth, the Planets and the Stars: Their Birth and Evolution, which was published in 1961. He published his autobiography, Jack of all Trades: The Story of My Life, when he was 85, in 1965, and died in Dublin in 1972, at the age of 92.

His contributions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud weren’t acknowledged until 1995, although he did have an asteroid named after him in 1978, 3487 Edgeworth. Yes, a comet would have been more appropriate, but those are only named after their discoverers, and after October 10, 1972, Kenneth Edgeworth wasn’t in a position to discover anything new.

But while he was around, damn what a life. And what an unsung hero. Proof yet again that, sometimes, the ideas that sound utterly crazy at the time turn out to be the truth.

I wonder which unsung geniuses we aren’t listening to now, but whose visions will be obvious in a generation or two.

Image: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth, year unknown. Public domain.

New Horizons

I’ve always been a giant nerd for three things: History, language, and science. History fascinates me because it shows how humanity has progressed over the years and centuries. We were wandering tribes reliant on whatever we could kill or scavenge, but then we discovered the secrets of agriculture (oddly enough, hidden in the stars), so then we created cities, where we were much safer from the elements.

Freed from a wandering existence, we started to develop culture — arts and sciences — because we didn’t have to spend all of our time picking berries or hunting wild boar. Of course, at the same time, we also created things like war and slavery and monarchs, which are really the ultimate evil triumvir of all of humanity, and three things we really haven’t shaken off yet, even if we sometimes call them by different names. At the same time, humanity also strove for peace and freedom and equality.

It’s a back and forth struggle as old as man, sometimes forward and sometimes back. It’s referred to as the cyclical theory of history. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. developed the theory with specific reference to American history, although it can apply much farther back than that. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, explored it specifically in his earlier novel The Wanting Seed, although it could be argued that both books cover two different aspects of the cycle. The short version of the cycle: A) Society (i.e. government) sees people as good and things progress and laws become more liberal. B) Society (see above) sees people as evil and things regress as laws become harsher and draconian, C) Society (you know who) finally wakes up and realizes, “Oh. We’ve become evil…” Return to A. Repeat.

This is similar to Hegel’s Dialectic — thesis, antithesis, synthesis, which itself was parodied in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, which posited a five stage view of history instead of three, adding parenthesis and paralysis to the mix.

I’m not entirely sure that they were wrong.

But enough of history, although I could go on about it for days. Regular readers already know about my major nerdom for language, which is partly related to history as well, so let’s get to the science.

The two areas of science I’ve always been most interested in also happen to be at completely opposite ends of the scale. On the large end are astronomy and cosmology, which deal with things on scales way bigger than what we see in everyday life. I’m talking the size of solar systems, galaxies, local clusters, and the universe itself. Hey, when I was a kid, humans had already been in space for a while, so it seemed like a totally normal place to be. The first space disaster I remember was the Challenger shuttle, and that was clearly human error.

At the other end of the size scale: chemistry and quantum physics. Chemistry deals with interactions among elements and molecules which, while they’re too small for us to see individually, we can still see the results. Ever make a vinegar and baking soda volcano? Boom! Chemistry. And then there’s quantum physics, which deals with things so small that we can never actually see them, and we can’t even really be quite sure about our measurements of them, except that the models we have also seem to give an accurate view of how the universe works.

Without understanding quantum physics, we would not have any of our sophisticated computer devices, nor would we have GPS (which also relies on Einstein’s Relativity, which does not like quantum physics, nor vice versa.) We probably wouldn’t even have television or any of its successors, although we really didn’t know that at the time TV was invented, way before the atomic bomb. Not that TV relies on quantum mechanics, per se, but its very nature does depend on the understanding that light can behave as either a particle or a wave and figuring out how to force it to be a particle.

But, again, I’m nerding out and missing the real point. Right around the end of 2018, NASA did the amazing, and slung their New Horizons probe within photo op range of the most distant object we’ve yet visited in our solar system. Called Ultima Thule, it is a Kuiper Belt object about four billion miles away from earth, only about 19 miles long, and yet we still managed to get close enough to it to get some amazing photos.

And this really is the most amazing human exploration of all. New Horizons was launched a generation or two after both Viking probes, and yet got almost as far in under half the time — and then, after rendezvousing with disgraced dwarf planet Pluto went on to absolutely nail a meeting with a tiny rock so far from the sun that it probably isn’t even really all that bright. And all of this was done with plain old physics, based on rules worked out by some dude in the 17th century. I think they named some sort of cookie after him, but I could be wrong. Although those original rules, over such great distances, wouldn’t have really worked out without the tweaking that the quantum rules gave us.

Exploring distant space is really a matter of combining our knowledge of the very, very big with the very, very small — and this should really reflect back on our understanding of history. You cannot begin to comprehend the macro if you do not understand the micro.

Monarchs cannot do shit without understanding the people beneath them. This isn’t just a fact of history. For the scientifically inclined, the one great failing of Einstein’s theories — which have been proven experimentally multiple times — is that they fall entirely apart on the quantum level. This doesn’t mean that Einstein was wrong. Just that he couldn’t or didn’t account for the power of the very, very tiny.

And, call back to the beginning: Agriculture, as in the domestication of plants and animals, did not happen until humans understood the cycle of seasons and the concept of time. Before we built clocks, the only way to do that was to watch the sun, the moon, and the stars and find the patterns. In this case, we had to learn to pay attention to the very, very slow, and to keep very accurate records. Once we were able to predict things like changes in the weather, or reproductive cycles, or when to plant and when to harvest, all based on when the sun or moon rose or set, ta-da. We had used science to master nature and evolve.

And I’ve come full circle myself. I tried to separate history from science, but it’s impossible. You see, the truth that humanity learns by objectively pursuing science is the pathway to free us from the constant cycle of good to bad to oops and back to good. Repeat.

Hey, let’s not repeat. Let’s make a concerted effort to agree when humanity achieves something good, then not flip our shit and call it bad. Instead, let’s just keep going ever upward and onward. Change is the human condition. If you want to restore the world of your childhood, then there’s something wrong with you, not the rest of us. After all, if the negative side of humanity had won when we first learned how to domesticate plants and animals and create cities, we might all still be wandering, homeless and nearly naked, through an inhospitable world, with our greatest advancements in technology being the wheel and fire — and the former not used for transportation, only for grinding whatever plants we’d picked that day into grain. Or, in other words, moderately intelligent apes with no hope whatsoever of ever learning anything or advancing toward being human.

Not a good look, is it? To quote Stan Lee: “Excelsior!”

Onward. Adelante. Let’s keep seeking those new and broader horizons.

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