In his opus magnum, the Principia, Isaac newton conjectured that a plumb-line hung near a mountain would incline very slightly towards the mountain. If it were possible to calculate the mass of that particular mountain, the experiment would allow a universal gravitational constant to be calculated.

In early summer of 1774 a team of scientists led by Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, set out to make a detailed survey of Shiehallion, hoping that the regular shape of the mountain would allow a fairly accurate mass to be calculated. Surveyors took hundreds of measurements, carefully plotting the elevation each point.

While looking at the confusing mass of numerical data that had been gathered, mathematician Charles Hutton realized that if a line was drawn between all the points at the same elevation, a visual representation of the mountain’s form appeared. These were the very first contour lines, providing an entirely new way of imagining the Scottish landscape.

By the end of the summer, an informed calculation of the mountain’s mass could be made, and a reliable gravitational constant found. In turn this allowed the mass of the Earth to be calculated, and along with that, the mass of all the other bodies in the solar system could be reasonably deducted.

So Shiehallion became the yard-stick by which man-kind could at last measure himself against the infinite space of the universe. The empirical gaze of man could now look out towards the heavens and know how insignificantly tiny a speck he is in the universe, at the same time as knowing that he is superbly intelligent for realizing it.

Meanwhile, just over on the other side of the mountain, the two Giants of Shiehallion are having their humps transfigured by the fairies.

It is fascinating that one man ascending the mountain feels the certainty and importance of his own position in the universe, while another feels knee trembling uncertainty as the fairies chase after him. Yet both are probably blind to the other’s view.














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