“Houston, this is Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.” – Sea of Tranquility, 3.18pm EST, July 20, 1969
The man had been sleeping fitfully the past few days, waking up frequently to wheezing coughs that wracked his whole body. He was 84, gaunt and aged. The care-giver who had been taking care of him for the past month, looked at him with concern. She had been retained by his niece, Catherine, whose house he had moved into some months ago. The woman, a widow by the name of Ms Swanson, knew the man, just as almost anyone in England did and she knew that the end was near.
The past few days, when he needed something or merely wanted to be turned on his side, the man had spoken to Ms Swanson in barely intelligible monosyllables, being able to form the words with some difficulty. But that evening, he seemed almost eager to speak. As she began clearing the bowl of porridge, cold and untouched, from his bedside table, she felt his fingers close around her wrist with surprising firmness.
This time, the words that the man spoke were crystal clear and for some strange reason, Ms Swanson felt compelled to write down everything that the man said to her. The world will forever be in her debt for having done so. He passed on peacefully in his sleep that very night, but the words that Ms Swanson wrote down have lived on, blazing forth through the centuries that have followed….
“I do not know what I may have seemed, to the world. But to me, I have been but a little boy on a beach, fancying a colorful pebble here and rushing to pick a pretty shell there, whilst the vast ocean of truth lay yet undiscovered before me.”
There is not a single school boy, leave alone a physicist or mathematician, anywhere, who has not read those words at least once. Nor has there been any man, woman or child who has not heard of the man who spoke them, a man who is recognized as history’s greatest theoretical physicist and mathematician – Sir Isaac Newton.
Newton’s work was not all-encompassing though. The strange and alien world that exists at the sub-atomic level, the world of Quantum Mechanics, was unknown then, revealed to us a century after his passing. But for all matter that is larger, beyond sub-atomic size, Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, gravity, optics and cubics have touched the lives of every single human being on this planet and continue to do so, even today.
Especially today – July 20th.
At 9.56pm, EST, on July 20th, exactly 45 years back, the first human being set foot on another world, one that even light from here takes discernible time (1.3 seconds) to reach – our moon. As his boot crunched and settled into the powdery soft soil in a location named the Sea of Tranquility, ex-test pilot and Naval Aviator, Neil Armstrong, knew well that he would not have been able to reach this far had it not all started with Newton’s work on calculus, gravitation and projectile motion.
Screaming headlines (Photo source: Wikimedia)
Again, July 20th is not just a landmark. It is the single greatest example of what a nation’s will and teamwork can achieve. It is also perhaps the only event in history that, at the moment of its occurrence, was applauded by every single human being on the planet. For once, all differences vanished, so overwhelming was the import of the event. For a week, there were no politics, no aggression and no enemies. The cold war that had been raging until then, simply stopped in stunned amazement. There was even a temporary lull in the Vietnam War that was at its punishing peak at that point in time.
It was a strangely exhilarating moment for me too, one that I have had the honor to live through and experience, as a 14-year old. During that time, I was in a harsh boarding school, against my wishes. A scrawny shy kid, easily bullied, who had decided to curl up within himself and shut out the reality of a nightmarish Darwinesque existence inside the dorms.
There was no TV those days, but the live broadcast from All India Radio was beamed through loud speakers into our school assembly hall where at approximately 8.30 in the morning of the 21st July, we were summoned to gather.
I remember the feeling of pride that coursed through me, even though I had nothing to do with the Apollo program. Everybody felt that it was ours, everyone’s, the human race’s accomplishment. That collective sense of achievement is perhaps why Neil Armstrong so aptly chose the words that he would utter as his boot hit the lunar soil….
”That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong’s words had been approved in advance by his masters at NASA and through him, the US was saying to the world that it mattered little that it was the US that had reached this milestone. All that mattered was that ‘man’ had gone this far. That is another example of the greatness of a nation – to be able to live happily in an atmosphere of collective credit, even though there was little doubt that only one nation could achieve it.
As the decades after the moon landings have gone by and the age of cathode ray tubes ceded to micro-chips, another milestone has swung into view round the corner and it is looking not only increasingly feasible but definitely doable within the 2020s – the conquest of Mars. The first manned mission is already in a state of advanced planning. Astronauts who display the capability to sustain the 18-month long journey in zero gravity, living and operating productively from inside confined spaces without conflict, are already in the process of being short-listed.
Mars will be another giant step, but as Newton so aptly put it when he whispered his message to Ms Swanson that evening in March 1727, it will be just another tiny pebble we will pick, on a beach that stretches up until the horizon.