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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.

8 responses to “Billions and Billions of Stars”

  1. F.B. Kail F.B. Kail says:

    I like to think I have a great attention span. I could watch Lawrence of Arabia a few times a week without hating sand, for instance.
    But 40 years of counting stars: that's badass dedication. Good for him, and good for you for having such a unique hero.
    This has also inspired me to read more about Newton. I didn't know he was a dick. I've read about Edison v. Tesla, but never Newton v. Flamsteed.

  2. Avatar Will says:

    Yeah, apparently he was. Check out this book: Newton's Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed
    There's also a website that lists the biggest historical dicks of all time and Newton is on it….I'm looking for the site now, can't seem to find it again…

  3. Sam Sam says:

    Bio breaks, love it. And I also love the following things: stars, the last name Flamsteed, Lawrence of Arabia, and prolonged hobbies. Great post!
    And Ben, Tesla was robbed!

  4. Avatar llxt says:

    i dunno. i can't say that i blame newton. i mean 37 YEARS IS A LONG TIME. in today's business world, flamsteed would've been sacked after about 37 months.

  5. Will, I don’t mean to shit on your hero – but I will, if I must. I have a hard time bying into the idea that anyone would spend that much time on such a selfless act. Mama T aside, you mention Tiger and Jordan as possibly comparable experts. But in return for their expertise these dudes were rewarded with worldwide fame and bajillions of dollars – and as we know now, loooooads of minge.
    I never heard of Flamsteed before reading your post, but I like to believe that he might have been brilliant for another reason. A reason you’ve yet to realize. What if Flamsteed enjoyed whatever the 17th century equivalent was to PS3 (maybe pot or sheep sex?). What if he was just a lazy guy who decided that he’d create a job that he can sell as being intriguing/important to the king, but one that was also something nobody else could possibly be interested in doing… say, counting all the fucking stars in the sky? So off he went, smoking bowls and screwing sheep, occasionally making some dotted maps and scribbling numbers in books, telling people that it was a guide to the galaxy, blah, blah, blah. All along collecting a paycheck, groping concubines and what have you. It’s possible, right? Right.

  6. Kail Kail says:

    See Stacy Parker Aab's piece for further discussion on concubines 😉

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