On May 8, 1774, a rare conjunction of planets sent the populace into a frenzy; fearmongers predicted that the planets would collide with each other and that the earth would be sucked into the sun and be incinerated. But, it wasn’t an apocalypse and a woolcomber named Eise Eisinga knew it–and proved it. Eisinga lived in the town of Franeker and demonstrated his mathematical genius at an early age. He studied Euclidean mathematics in his youth and by the time he was 18, had written three books about math, astronomy and the universe. He didn’t do this in vacuum, his father had also loved math. But his father was a woolcomber and that was Eisinga’s destiny as well.
Although woolcombing was his trade–and he excelled at it–he never abandoned math and astronomy. So when panic ensued over the little-understood conjunction of the planets,
he built a model of the solar system in the family’s living room to show that what had happened was predictable and logical and not a sign that the end of the earth was imminent.
And then he designed and built a mechanical planetarium in the ceiling of the room where his family lived, ate and slept. It was a way to show the order of the universe in order to prevent future panics. It took him seven years to conceptualize and build it. Nearly 240 years later, what he created is now the oldest continually operating planetarium in the world today.
If you’re ever near Franeker, visit it so you can see the planetarium. It’s a tribute to the purity of science as well as to one man’s genius. It’s built completely to scale. It accommodates leap years. It shows the date, the day of the week and year, as well as lunar phases. And the guy not only had the intellectual capability to conceptualize it (to build it to a scale that would fit on his living room ceiling, he had to reduce it in scale by a factor of one trillion), he also was a craftsman with the skills to build it all and make it run on a pretty simple weight system.
It doesn’t hurt that Franeker is an adorable town. It has a pedestrian downtown–where the planetarium is located–with canals, shops and a cafe where you can linger over coffee and ponder the logic of the universe and one man’s ability to explain it.
Ultimately, the Netherlands’ King Willem I honored Eisinga for his work, buying the planetarium in 1816 for what was a huge sum for the day: ten thousand guilders. The purchase had one condition: that Eisinga live
there, receiving 200 guilders a year for maintaining it and continuing to educate the people. And so he did, until his death in 1828 at the age of 84.
Professional truant that I am, I consider Eise Eisinga a superb example of why playing hooky is good for you–and for the world in general. He managed to be a prize-winning woolcomber in his day job. But he was about much more than that. When he wasn’t working at making a living, he was a scientist and astronomer who helped quell panic caused by ignorance by countering it with scientific truths. And you can’t beat that