I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos back when I was 14, back when my dream was to become an astrophysicist. (I must admit that the dream is now just a blur, so much so that I patted myself just now for spelling astrophysicist right at the first time of trying.) I read Sagan’s book just after I had read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, another favorite book on the subject, but I found Cosmos more accessible.
At the time of reading, three passages from the book stood out, and I knew then that I would keep quoting them from time to time. Of the three, I found the following passage about Sir Isaac Newton most inspiring:
“Nevertheless his prodigious intellectual powers persisted unabated. In 1696, the Swiss mathematician Johann Bernoulli challenged his colleagues to solve an unresolved issue called the brachistochrone problem, specifying the curve connecting two points displaced from each other laterally, along which a body, acted upon only by gravity, would fall in the shortest time. Bernoulli originally specified a deadline of six months, but extended it to a year and a half at the request of Leibniz, one of the leading scholars of the time, and the man who had, independently of Newton, invented the differential and integral calculus. The challenge was delivered to Newton at four P.M. on January 29, 1697. Before leaving for work the next morning, he had invented an entire new branch of mathematics called the calculus of variations, used it to solve the brachistochrone problem and sent off the solution, which was published, at Newton’s request, anonymously. But the brilliance and originality of the work betrayed the identity of its author. When Bernoulli saw the solution, he commented, ‘We recognize the lion by his claw.’ Newton was then in his fifty-fifth year.”
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