166 years ago today, September 23rd, 1846, Johann Gottfried Galle discovered the planet Neptune, the first ‘official’ observation of our outermost planet (sorry Pluto) in human history.
The story however is a bit more in depth than that, and something that I think we can all learn from in an odd science-applied-to-life-lessons way.
Over two centuries earlier, in 1610, Galileo made what was a near heretical discovery. He observed moons, or other worlds, orbiting the planet Jupiter. Why was it heretical? Most at the time believed the Earth to be the center of the universe; that the sun, and all the heavens orbited around us, in perfect paths that have never, nor will ever change. The discovery of something orbiting something else far off in the distance strengthened the minority opinion that many scholars and public figures (including the Pope who Galileo called out on this error in a few books) were wrong. Thus, not entirely popular outside of the scientific community, nor with the church. That old guy with the white beard and the popped collar was to some quite a pompous hell raiser in his day.
A few years later, as Galileo was still charting and observing his newly discovered moons, he made a brief mention in his notes of a ‘fixed star’ he saw, lying somewhere beyond Jupiter. He mentioned this star on both December 28th, 1612, and January 27th, 1613. Oddly that was the end of it. He made a few scribbles that something wasn’t quite right about this star, but he never went back to it, and never made an attempt to observe it again. No one really knows for sure, but with the mass of data he was processing with Jupiter’s moons and all the excitement around his discovery, it was maybe just…overlooked.
That fixed star was actually the planet Neptune. You can even play around with various planetarium programs to ‘go back in time’ to that date, and see that the two planets lined up perfectly in the sky. Neptune appeared ‘fixed’ or stationary against the background stars because it had just entered what is called ‘retrograde motion’ where an object orbiting outside of our own orbit seems to stop, and then go backwards a bit. Sort of like watching someone run around a track. For a moment your head and eyes don’t move, the person is ‘visually stationary’ in their circular path. Galileo was looking up at Jupiter on the exact date that Neptune started retrograde, talk about perfect timing to see a ‘fixed’ star.
Neptune then just kept on doing what Neptune does for another 233 years. Uranus, (the butt of many jokes, actually pronounced Ur-uh-nus) the planet before Neptune and beyond Saturn, took another 168 years to be discovered by musician-turned-astronomer, William Herschel around 1781. Galileo, in 1613, almost discovered the last planet in our solar system, invisible to the naked eye, two planets and billions of miles beyond anything that was known at the time.
So what’s the point? How can we relate?
All of us strive for, and will eventually achieve some form of success. Success varies obviously. Not all of us will go on to discover new worlds, but if you’re a custodian, you’re going to maintain a great building, if you’re a teacher, you’re going to write a great lesson plan, if you’re a salesman, you’re going to complete a big deal. It’s going to happen, because it’s how we as a species stay alive, reproduce, and find our way in life. The alternative is never-ending failure, which biologically we are not programmed to do. It’s in your DNA…to be successful at some level, and at some thing, in your life.
Okay, so why then do we care about Galileo’s scribbles about a ‘fixed star?’
It’s not the tireless hours of innovation, hard work, and preparation that should scare us. During those times you are alert, you are focused, you are aware that something is possibly out there, just over the horizon that you are working towards. What should scare us are those moments of success, when we make our own big discoveries, and are enjoying the moment we have created. Enjoy the moment, you’ve earned it. However, pay attention to what information might now be available to you that might push your knowledge even farther, and turn something great, into something out-of-this-world.
Am I saying Galileo was a failure? Of course not. However his mistake (if you can even call it that) is a fantastic lesson to be learned. Keep your eyes and mind open during the good times. You never know what ‘fixed stars’ of your own lie just beyond the moment you’re in, waiting to be discovered.