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Chance favors the prepared mind.

November 21st, 2008

I was reading a newspaper article last weekend, and ran across one of the more satisfying aphorisms. Chance favors the prepared mind. I just like the ring of that.

Along roughly similar lines, it’s curiously inspiring when someone gets a great, lucky opportunity, and then really steps up to the plate and knocks the ball out of the park. I’ve been trying to identify the best examples of this phenomenon. Consider, for example, when Brian Johnson was offered the lead vocal for AC DC. It’s hard to argue with worldwide sales of 42 million for Back in Black.

What about instances drawn from Astronomy? Johannes Kepler jumps to mind, but everyone already knows the the raft of Copernicus-Brahe-Galileo-Kepler anecdotes. I like the story of Joseph Fraunhofer (lifted from Wikipedia):

Fraunhofer was born in Straubing, Bavaria. He became an orphan at the age of 11, and he started working as an apprentice to a harsh glassmaker named Philipp Anton Weichelsberger. In 1801 the workshop in which he was working collapsed and he was buried in the rubble. The rescue operation was led by Maximilian IV Joseph, Prince Elector of Bavaria (the future Maximilian I Joseph). The prince entered Fraunhofer’s life, providing him with books and forcing his employer to allow the young Joseph Fraunhofer time to study.

After eight months of study, Fraunhofer went to work at the Optical Institute at Benediktbeuern, a secularised Benedictine monastery devoted to glass making. There he discovered how to make the world’s finest optical glass and invented incredibly precise methods for measuring dispersion. In 1818 he became the director of the Optical Institute. Due to the fine optical instruments he had developed, Bavaria overtook England as the centre of the optics industry. Even the likes of Michael Faraday were unable to produce glass that could rival Fraunhofer’s.

The quality of Fraunhofer’s optics played a large role in providing Bessel with the precision that he needed to measure the parallax of 61 Cygni. In explicitly demonstrating the staggering distances to the stars, Bessel was able to bring to a 200+ year scientific quest to a dramatic finish. Hard to argue with that.

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