Steve Connor: Feeding the mind of a boy genius

Science Notebook: Not satisfied with a model windmill, he put a mouse into the device
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The Independent Online

A charming story has emerged from the manuscripts of The Royal Society, which yesterday released some of its most precious archives on the internet. It comes from the extracts of the life of William Stukeley, an antiquarian and acquaintance of Sir Isaac Newton, who gave one of the most detailed and vivid accounts of the falling apple incident in the garden of Newton's mother.

However, another of Stukeley's stories about Newton relates to the time when the great man of physics was a boy at Grantham School in Lincolnshire in the 1650s. Newton became fascinated with the construction of a windmill nearby and he visited the site regularly to see the work progressing, as did many other Grantham residents.

But while the multitude returned with their curiosity satisfied, they remained ignorant of the exact mechanism involved in grinding the corn, Stukeley wrote. Not so the young Newton.

"He penetrated beyond the superficial view of the thing. He was daily with the workmen, carefully observed the progress, the manner of every part of it and the connexion of the whole. He obtained so exact a notion of the mechanism of it, that he made a true and perfect model of it in wood. And, it was said to be as clean a piece of workmanship, as the original," Stukeley wrote.

As an indication of "the extraordinary pregnancy of his genius whilst a boy", Newton was not satisfied with a model windmill powered by the wind. He added an "extraordinary composition" to it that allowed him to put a mouse into the device, which "worked it as naturally as the wind", Stukeley wrote. "This he used to style his mouse-miller and complained jokingly what a thief he was: for he ate up all the corn put into the mill."

Big chill on global warming

The cold winter has given many climate sceptics the chance to air their views about "global cooling" – the idea that the world has not got any warmer since the warmest year of 1998. In fact, data collected by Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies shows that 2009 tied as the second-warmest year in the 130 years of instrumental measurements. Indeed, the Nasa data shows that 2005, not 1998, was the warmest on record – the 1998 "record" comes from less compete data set of the Hadley Centre in Britain.

More interestingly, perhaps, is the fact that last year was the warmest ever for the southern hemisphere, which is especially significant given that most of globe south of the equator is covered by water, which warms more slowly and is subject to less variability than land temperatures.

It all goes to show that it is no good trying to look for long-term global trends by concentrating on short-term regional events, such as a colder-than-usual winter for north-western Europe. Apparently, the residents of Bethel in Alaska have experienced what is for them an unusual event – a brown Christmas – but that on its own does not prove global warming, no more so than a white Christmas in Britain proves global cooling.

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