Science in the Bluegrass —
Our adventure as beings
in the physical universe

Chris Graney

Some people love math. Recently I had the opportunity to visit the home of one such person — the 18th-century astronomer Benjamin Banneker. His former farm, near Ellicott City, Md., is now the site of a museum and park dedicated to his life and work.

A panel there displays Banneker’s mathematical work in his own hand and discusses his relationship with math:

[F]or this early American renaissance man there was no subject more fascinating than mathematics. … Benjamin’s independent study, exploration and applications of mathematics would evolve to form the foundation of his thinking and achievements. Among his favorite interests were algebra, geometry and trigonometry — including logarithms and tables of trigonometric functions. … This was the root of his knowledge applied in surveying and astronomical calculations … Essentially self-taught, it was his genius in mathematics that made self-evident the inherent intelligence of African Americans, in an era and culture that wanted to believe that they had little.

Note: “self-taught.” Banneker was not wealthy. The broader society around him granted few rights to and had little interest in educating people like him. Nevertheless, he ended up determining logarithms for astronomical calculations.

Banneker’s determination to learn, his love for mathematics and his pure brilliance must have been such that others around him who shared some appreciation for math somehow caught on to him — despite everything — and provided him with what was necessary for him to discover and learn about logarithms.

And keep in mind: Even had Banneker been a man of the highest position in society at the time, few others would have shared his appreciation.

Today, almost every American is awash in resources compared to Banneker, yet how many know what a logarithm is, let alone how to hand-calculate one?

Banneker would calculate eclipse information for London, or for some spot in the Indian Ocean, all by hand.

He surely did this purely for fun, and perhaps, because being a man of faith, he saw that mathematics is true in a way that can only happen if Truth itself exists. Banneker was unlikely to be visiting the Indian Ocean. Indeed, according to the museum, he cared little to journey far from his farm. Seen from a practical perspective, his calculations were useless to him.

The late Jesuit Father George V. Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory from 1978 to 2006, once commented on the uselessness of astronomy. Noting how college students in the astronomy course he taught would often characterize the course as fascinating but “useless,” Coyne said:

After many attempts at trying to refute that remark, I finally realized that it is correct. The course is “useless,” if that expression is understood correctly.  Philosophers distinguish … between “being” and “doing.” A knowledge of astronomy helps us to “be,” not to “do.”  It shares, in that regard, with the visual arts, with music, with sports. Astronomy will not help me repair my car or make better toothpaste, but it will help me be a more interesting person, to myself and to others … to participate in a richer way in our adventure as beings in the physical universe. Many of the other sciences, of course, share in this “useless” nature of knowledge, but astronomy, I hesitatingly assert, does so in a preeminent way.

Had Banneker and Coyne — both astronomers, both men of faith — met under the stars they would have quickly found common ground. Banneker’s eclipse calculations were indeed preeminently useless astronomy and, indeed, a participation in our adventure as beings in the physical universe.

I am sure Father Coyne would have said, “God bless you, Mr. Banneker!”

Chris Graney lives in Louisville and is on the staff of the Vatican’s astronomical observatory (www.VaticanObservatory.org).

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