I had been operating for a year as a free-enterprise private tutor, and then got word that a well-known school needed a temporary science teacher. Their main concern was a GCSE examination class that had been taken in Year 10 by a brilliantly creative chemistry teacher. But exam syllabuses for him were somewhat of an inconvenience, best passed over lightly. The school wanted someone, me, to go in and crack the whip.
I was also made a Form Tutor for a Year 8 group. One fine morning, I escorted them along to a full school assembly, oblivious of what was in store.
The guy was near the top of his profession. And as he stepped forward in front of the hushed school assembly, his body language reflected the total confidence that he and the nearby headmaster had in his abilities. He was a Deputy Head of this over-subscribed Comprehensive school, one that had managed to retain the ethos of its previous Grammar school existence. One reason for the guy's confidence was that his name was carved on the plaque in the entrance hall. He had himself been a pupil there, and had risen to be Head Prefect, no less. Demi -god status at 18 ! And my, did it show !
So when he stepped forward to "give his assembly" I sat up, confidently expecting to observe a master class in how to give an inspirational pep talk , with total rapport. Little did I know that within a few minutes, I would be shocked to the core, and be seething for weeks thereafter.
And then it came. Just like that. A bolt from the blue. Correction - a great elephant turd from on high. "We can rule out Newton and Darwin straightaway " he said. (No, there was no mischievous tongue in cheek). "No scientist, in my candid opinion, can -or should - be considered for Personality of the Millennium" .
Scientific discoveries, he said, were like buses. You wait long enough, and one is sure to come along. For real unique genius, you have to look to the liberal arts - literature (his own subject), music, art. His vote was for Shakespeare.
Could I really be hearing this, I wondered, as I cast my eyes along my own 6th form students, their eyes set on careers in scientific research ? What must they be thinking, to hear their ideals and self-esteem being dismissed, shattered even, in this fashion ?
Each member of staff took it in turn to give an assembly. Mine was (as I recall) something like a month away. Time to think and plan carefully.
The Indian Information centre in London provided a huge and splendid poster of that magnificent monument. And there was a slide projector too, loaded with Isaac Newton memorabilia. Why ? I'll come to that in a minute.
Not so with the building. The foundations had to be right, first time. And then the plinth. Everything had to done in methodical fashion, knowing there was no going back. Yet a final glittering vision was achieved, built on a series of carefully planned stages, each one of which narrowed the range of options for what followed.
In other words, where the building was concerned, we are looking at the application of rational, empirical science, with its disciplines, its constraints. But the end result is still an incomparable work of art, and all the more so, given that in addition to pleasing the eye, it had to be stable, buildable, weather-resistant, repairable, conforming to these and numerous other practical requirements.
So let's forget about false and misleading distinctions between art and science.
It was then time to introduce into the talk THE APPLE, that miserable, demeaning, trivialising symbol of Isaac Newton in the British public mind, endlessly reinforced by the media.
Let's banish from our minds all thoughts about apples, these late arrivals in the Universe's history, and possibly restricted to a single obscure planet. Let's think about big spheres, ones that have been around for hundreds of millions of years: the Earth and the Moon, the first a satellite of the Sun, the second a satellite of the Earth. And then ask ourselves this. How come the Moon orbits the earth, at roughly the same orbital radius, without being pulled in, or flying off. ? And what must one do to put a small satellite into orbit around the Earth, something not achieved until the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 ?
It was Newton who provided the answer, in a so-called thought experiment, involving a cannon on a high mountain. How many of you have heard of it ? ( only a few hands went up).
Now imagine you point the barrel of cannon level with the Earth's surface and fire. What will happen ? The cannon ball will follow a curved path, falling finally to earth. No surprises there. Although there's no air to slow the cannonball, it's being pulled by gravity the whole time towards the earth. It can't stay up there for ever. Or can it ? Now suppose you use more gunpowder and fire the cannon with greater force.This time it will go further, but it will still finally hit the ground.
Do it a third time, and the same result, but the ball will land even further away. Now look at the the fourth shot in the picture. Something extraordinary has happened. The cannon ball has been fired with even more force, and is still travelling on a curved path, towards the earth, but it never hits the ground. Why not ? Because of the earth's curvature. Instead it goes completely round, and back again to its starting point. And then what ? Since there's no air, there's nothing to slow it down, so it goes round a second time, then a third time, then a fourth ...... In other words, the cannon ball is now in orbit. And it's mimicking the Moon, a much bigger satellite, that is also being constantly pulled towards the Earth, but never hits it, for exactly the same reason- because its orbital forward speed is great enough for it to hurtle endlessly around the Earth, instead of dropping onto the Earth.
So a lot of what you might have heard, or read , about being in orbit, like being weightless because of "zero gravity" for example, is totally wrong. There's gravity all right. But it's matched by speed, such that one is in free fall around the earth, making one effectively weightless, at least in relation to one's immediate surroundings, that are also in free fall. But you don't have to be in space for that to happen: you would feel weightless - albeit briefly- if you ever had the misfortune to find yourself in a faulty lift that was in free fall down a lift shaft !
Now you may ask: suppose Newton had died in childbirth - and he very nearly did. Would there have been another Newton, ie, like waiting for another bus to come along., as that Deputy Head so memorably put it. Yes of course, although probably much later. Newton's contemporaries, like Hooke, were smart, but not geniuses of the same mind-boggling order. And who knows, perhaps British history might have been very different as a consequence. There are some who think that it was the precocious Newton who triggered Britain' s likewise precocious Industrial Revolution, by fostering a mentality of "mind over matter", and taming matter to do labour-saving jobs for us, like pumping water out of coal mines, or getting the coal on rails from A to B. And if you can do it with coal, why not people ........
Feel better , now you've got that out of your system, blown your own trumpet etc ?