A New Age of Exploration, Powered by Math

Summer is here and all over the world, people take the roads, airways, exploring the world around them. But our travels aren’t just limited to terrestrial destinations this year. New Horizons is sending us postcards from Pluto and we’ve just received news of the discovery of an “Earth twin”, a mere 1400 light years away, sighted by the deep space Kepler telescope, which is scanning the far reaches of the Universe like eagle-eyed RVers, phones at the ready, crisscrossing the United States. I love the audacity of the goals and the grandeur of the vision — we’re exploring the Universe! But what I also love about these achievements is that they celebrate the power of mathematics.

First off, let’s just start with the name: The Kepler Telescope. While aesthetic (and even religious) influences caused earlier astronomers to claim that planetary orbits were circular. But a raft of data and some careful trigonometric reasoning enabled Johannes Kepler to show that in fact planetary orbits are elliptical, an observation which served as partial motivation for Isaac Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity and his laws of motion. These in turn pushed Newton to invent the calculus. The snowball continues to roll, for with calculus in hand, the existence of celestial objects could be inferred, even when invisible through a telescope, by observing the deviations of visible planets (and other objects) from their expected orbits — deviations that could be credited to some invisible heavenly body exerting its own gravitational pull. Hello, Pluto — Thank you, calculus.

The discovery of our earth-twin (who goes by the futuristic name “452b”) requires us to strengthen our mathematical eyesight. Surveying the Universe — or even a slice of it — how do we find other solar systems? How do we find these planets —> Read More