21 November 2010

A "human orrery"

The young John Keats remembered an organized game at his school in Enfield, in which all the boys whirled round the playground in a huge choreographed dance, trying to imitate the entire solar system, including all the known moons… Unlike Newton’s perfect brassy clockwork mechanism, this schoolboy universe – complete with straying comets – was a gloriously chaotic “human orrery.”

Keats did not recall the exact details, but one may imagine seven senior boy-planets running round the central sun, while themselves being circled by smaller sprinting moons (perhaps girls), and the whole frequently disrupted by rebel comets and meteors flying across their orbits. (p. 113)
A quick search yielded evidence that this activity is still conducted today in various schools.

Text excerpted from The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Richard Holmes. Pantheon Books, New York, 2008.


  1. I read this book recently. It was fantastic - strongly recommended!

  2. I feel for the kid that has to be Uranus. Not only does he have to roll around the sun on the ground (instead of walking and spinning as the other planets presumably get to do), but he's also Uranus.


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