Billions and Billions of Stars
I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts you’ve never heard of my all-time favorite hero John Flamsteed. On March 4, 1675, Flamsteed was appointed the first British Astronomer Royal. He was tasked by the King to catalog the stars. All of them. Flamsteed then spent nearly 40 years cataloging all the stars in the night sky. After a while (37 years or so), the King grew a little impatient to see the results, as did Sir Issac Newton, President of the Royal Society. So Newton, apparently a renowned historical asshole, broke into Flamsteed’s office and published the results himself along with Edmond Halley (Flamsteed’s rival). Imagine the balls of these guys! But I digress.
It’s Flamsteed I wanted to write about. Because I am completely in awe of his dedication to a singular task: counting stars. And his ability to stick with it and refuse even the King’s entreaties to publish because he “wasn’t finished.” Awesome.
This singular dedication to one task is a concept that fascinates me. I’ve tried many times to pick a hobby or interest and dive in head first and stick with it for prolonged periods of time. But after anywhere from a few weeks to three and a half years (a benchmark I find myself abadoning many interests, e.g., tennis, stand-up comedy, etc.) I abandon the task. Even fun stuff. I can only play World of Warcraft for about 12 hours straight before I hate myself. I can’t understand how anyone can dedicate themselves to one extremely narrow topic for so long. I think their brains are built differently, and it simply amazes me.
Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers about how it takes 10,000 hours on a task to become an “expert.” He throws the concept of inate talent into question by providing examples of people who spent the required time on their task, trade, or profession and became great. 10,000 hours playing piano. 10,000 hours dribbling a basketball. 10,000 hours watching movies for scenes with nude actressess, and boom! Greatness.
There are lots of other people, both current and dead, that I admire who have this ability. Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. Mother Teresa. Marcel Marceau. But I can’t really call any of them my heroes. Either I just don’t feel that passionate about them or they have some serious character flaw that keeps them from achieving hero status in my mind (gambling, adultery, abstinence, creepiness, in that order).
I’ll never really know if John Flamsteed had these flaws, so it keeps the fantasy alive. Plus, he spent 324,120 hours cataloging the stars (not counting bio breaks and sleeping). In your face, Newton! Can you imagine? I can’t. And that’s why this guy is my all-time hero.