JF Ptak Science Books Post 2571
As is often the case in looking through the early-ish issue of Scientific American, I usually find much more than what I was originally looking for, finding a lot that I had no idea that I needed to find, mostly because I had never heard of them before. And so grazing though the 1877 volume of the Scientific American Supplement I found in the weekly chess review in the back of each issue an extraordinary image and title:
I was tempted to add "Pre-Escherian" in the title to this post, but that would put the thing way over the top--but that is what came to mind first, a polished gazing ball with an interesting perspective. This was meant to illustrate an imaginary dialog between two astronomer-chess players (Richard A. Proctor and John Tyndall, though Tyndall's interests were spread far and wide and deep and then not so much in astronomy), both of whom had made contributions to astronomical spectroscopy. Further into the short article there was a little discussion of Dante and sunspots, which I was not aware of, though when I went looking for that reference I did find the following chess quote in Paradiso (Canto XXVIII) with our Poet in the ninth heaven:
"So sparkled then those circles all and each And every spark did more and more abound, In fiery light and so their number grew, Beyond the chess board's doubling problem's bound"
And another translation
"And after she had finished with her speaking, The circles all around began to sparkle, Like red-hot iron shooting off bright sparks. Each sparkle stayed within its fiery ring, So many that their number runs to more, Millions than the redoubling of the chessboard."
Moving on from the sunspots mentioned in the SA article, it has been pointed out by many that in the quote above that Dante may be referring to an earlier chess story, told at least by the 12th century, where the inventor of the game of chess agreed to give it over to the king if the king paid him in grains of wheat based upon the chess board, starting with one grain in the first square and then doubling the amount until the last square is reached. The big surprise for the king who agreed to this payment was a very fine lesson in the quick-as-a-bunny expansion of exponential sequences: you'd move from 1 to 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 to 32 to 64 to 138 to 276 just in the first rank, 57 more squares of doubling to go, until you summed them all up on square 64 and find yourself with the number 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, which is a big number. Bigger still if you consider that this is in terms of wheat, and I figured the weight of that wheat to be about 4 trillion kg, 4 trillion being about the equivalent of stars in 40 Milky Way galaxies.
Even though the article was very heavy in the discussion of some real games, and light in the inclusion of our astronomers and their conversation, everything winds up and out in a whimsical fashion, with a discussion of Gutenberg and spell-check. The author tells us:
"It would take but little argument to show that a mere oversight of Guttenburg's [sic] proof-reader made the world believe the moon was composed of cheese instead of chess".
And so it goes. 19th century astronomy/chess humor, as whacky as it gets.