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How did we get here? Part 5

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By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

Eight years after Shakespeare died, the Dutch bought Manhattan. It was 1624. Manhattan has come a long way since then, having both its good times and bad.

Manhattan is a very small place with a lot going on. The first time I went to Manhattan, I was disappointed how small it is. It is only 22.7 square miles. By comparison, Highland County is 558 square miles or almost 26 times the size of Manhattan.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to see it, even as a youth. I have always been impressed with my high school classmate who came in one Monday morning and reported he had driven to Manhattan and back for the weekend (I have told this story here before).

Although deceased, he shall still remain nameless. His parents were gone for the weekend, so he decided to hop in the family Volkswagen Bug and make the trip. I don’t know if his parents ever found out.

I have been there many times and taken in many sights, as well as having done business there. I fear that Manhattan, at least in the near future, will be nothing like Manhattan of the recent past.

Back to the humans – Frenchman Blaise Pascal. Blaise Pascal was born in 1623 and died in 1662, a life of only 39 years. No formal schooling, he was educated by his father. He was known for his work in geometry, particularly dealing with conic sections. You know what a cone is. Did you know that an ellipse and a parabola are related to the cone in mathematics?

This is Pascal’s work, particularly the mathematics that go with defining these shapes. There is another conic section (that is what these shapes are called) that you have held in your hands, probably many times. It is a “hyperbolic paraboloid” – the shape of a Pringles potato chip (or “crisps” to be proper about it). Ask your friends if they have eaten any hyperbolic paraboloids lately. Pascal also invented one of the first adding machines, called a Pascaline.

Pascal had a dramatic conversion experience in November 1654 and after that wrote a number of famous religious treatises. We will see this theme again shortly, a mixture of mathematics, physics and deep Christian religious faith.

Pascal is followed on our little path of discovery here by a scientist born when Pascal was 9. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was born in Holland in 1632. He died in 1723 at the ripe old age of 91. Van Leeuwenhoek shows up in grade school textbooks, for he is credited with creating the microscope and studying the life and times of microbes. There is an interesting overlap here. Galileo’s and van Leeuwenhoek’s lives overlapped by 10 years (recall Galileo died in 1642, while still under house arrest). Recall from last week that Galileo’s “Two New Sciences” written while under house arrest, was published in Holland, the home of van Leeuwenhoek, likely while Leeuwenhoek was a boy.

I find it fascinating how close in time and space many of these famous people lived. Van Leeuwenhoek is sometimes called the “Father of Microbiology,” for while he focused on the very small, Galileo had focused on the very large. One might see this as a time when humankind was getting out of the box of “only the visible.”

Scientists of this time could not usually count on governments or big businesses to support their research. Van Leeuwenhoek had been an accounting apprentice in a linen-draper’s shop (dry goods merchant) and opened his own shop later in life for financial support.

“By the end of the 17th century, van Leeuwenhoek had a virtual monopoly on microscopic study and discovery. His contemporary Robert Hooke, an early microscope pioneer, bemoaned that the field had come to rest entirely on one man's shoulders.” (Wikipedia.)

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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