Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sherlock, Moriarty and the Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Neptune is a rather interesting planet. Unlike all the other planets that were discovered using telescopes while looking for bright moving objects in the night sky; Neptune's existence was mathematically predicted using pen and paper by the French Mathematician Le Verrier. 

Actually, Neptune which at the time of its discovery in 1845 was the farthest planet in the solar system had previously been recorded on numerous occasions by different astronomers but was considered a fixed star instead of a planet, a result of rather peculiar coincidences. 

It could only be discovered when scientists and astronomers couldn't explain the motion of Uranus using the existing Gravitational laws that otherwise worked perfectly while predicting the orbits of the rest of the planets. This inconsistency led some scientists to question the veracity of Newton's laws of Motion and Gravitation over such large distances, it led others to conclude that there must be a large "perturbing body" nearby influencing the orbit of Uranus by the virtue of its own gravitational pull. 

In culmination of these discussions, a paper published by Le Verrier hypothised the existence of another planet along with its Mass and orbit. 

However, like everything else about Neptune, even its mathematical discovery was wrought with controversy. The British astronomer John Couch Adams, around a year before Le Verrier, calculated the location of this new planet. He then wrote to the Royal Astronomical Society where he mentioned its calculated Mass and radius of Orbit, for it to be observed using a telescope. But alas, because of the time it took the British in processing his discovery, Le Verrier had been declared as the Discoverer of Neptune. And, of course, he did write a paper for the Royal Astronomical Society on the “Obliquity of the Ecliptic”.

“It was Adams, of course. Murderous jealousy. He had written a paper for the Royal Astronomical Society on the Obliquity of the Ecliptic, and then read another one that seemed to surpass it.”

Ring any bells?

That’s an inconspicuous reference to “The Greek Interpreter” in the last episode of the TV series Sherlock- The Abominable Bride when Mycroft Holmes explains to Sherlock the motive behind the murder in a case. But in doing so, it did go a bit far ahead.



Obliquity of the Ecliptic is the angle between the plane of Earth's orbit and the equatorial plane. Its significance comes from the fact that it is the cause of different seasons in a year. There are indeed a few points of convergence that lead us toward this being an important theme in the series. For example, according to the books, Professor Moriarty was an accomplished mathematician famous for his treatise on “The Dynamics of an Asteroid”. Now, the prevalent Titius-Bode law proposed in 1760s accurately defined the orbits of all the known planets in the solar system when calculated in Astronomical Units (multiples of Earth's distance from Sun) save one discrepancy, that it predicted the presence of an additional body between these two planets. This was later verified as the Asteroid Belt between the two planets. Interestingly, the first time the Tituis Bode law came into question and was disproved was after the discovery of Neptune by Le Verrier's calculations, whose position in the Solar system didn't conform to this law.

Additionally, a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Drayson, did indeed write a paper on the Obliquity of the Ecliptic with predictions contrary to the established notions. And the person whose theory proved Drayson wrong happens to be Simon Newcomb, an astronomer widely believed to be the inspiration behind Moriarty. Also of interest is the fact that Newcomb was married to a certain Mary Caroline Hassler, daughter of a US Navy surgeon, Dr. Charles Augustus Hassler.

This amidst talk of Astronomy being the least of Sherlock's concerns!

I must confess that ever since I watched that episode, the one thing that has been constantly on my mind is “The Obliquity of the Ecliptic”, and not unlike Sherlock, who having already been in deep waters while wading through the Mind Palace tells Watson that he needed to trudge deeper still to formulate a theory. In the very next scene, he tells Lestrade that he needs to understand the “Obliquity of the Ecliptic” as it is a matter of supreme importance even as Lestrade keeps referring to the Bride murders. Later, Sherlock and John Watson are seen going to the Diogenes Club to meet “someone cleverer than you”. Mycroft elaborates that Adams had written a paper for the Royal Astronomical society on the “Obliquity of the Ecliptic”, and then read another one that seemed to surpass it; implying that Adams had murdered his peer as a result of jealousy in the Manor House case. So, while there is no further talk on the significance of the Obliquity of the Ecliptic, Mycroft does leave Sherlock with an explanation of murderous jealousy “It is no easy thing for a great mind to contemplate a still greater one”.

I found myself getting engulfed in this oblique reference. On the face of it, this seems like a mere continuation of the brotherly banter prevalent in the series. But it is possible, that Mycroft might be suggesting to Sherlock that he must first understand the reason for the murderous jealousy that is, why Moriarty wanted him dead, and how Sherlock may not have yet been able to fully grasp the extent of Moriarty's grand schemes.

It has been established in Season 3, almost as an afterthought, that Sherlock relies on Mycroft while solving cases inside his Mind palace. So, while it is Still Sherlock solving it; the guiding light, at least in his head is Mycroft. The conclusion about “Murderous Jealousy” being the motive behind a certain murder coming from Mycroft was I believe the primary take away from the episode.

In the possible context of John Adams, perhaps Sherlock has realized that instead of looking for Neptune (read death of Moriarty using Emilia Ricoletti's case as reference) in the night sky using a telescope, it is better to look at the disturbances in the path of Uranus (read Events before and after the death of Moriarty) to solve the mystery behind Moriarty's resurrection. Or it is just that we are about to get more details into the Manor House case where Moriarty was somehow involved.

In any case, I searched the net and found three worthy Adams. The first one of course was John Couch Adams. Out of the three, I dug the deepest into his life. I went so far as to find out the cause of death of both Le Verrier and John Couch Adams in a bid to find out if indeed “murderous jealousy” played any part. LOL.

 The second one was the British Philosopher Adam Smith. Out of the many essays and books that he wrote, “The History of Astronomy” is perhaps the most out of place for an economist and political thinker. There of course is a reference to the Obliquity of the Ecliptic in this book, but it doesn’t seem to connect any dots. What did catch my eye though is the repeated reference to “The invisible hand of Jupiter” meant more in mythological terms rather than astronomical ones. It seemed to match with how someone like Moriarty might operate, subtly and discreetly guiding all the pieces on the chessboard towards his ultimate goal.

The third one was the second US President John Adams. Incidentally, he had also been deeply involved in improving US relations with the British, and had indeed spent quite a lot of time in England. Another fun fact, John Adams was a great admirer of the Free market policies suggested by Adam Smith in his book “Wealth of Nations”, which he later implemented during his presidency. Another fun fact that I found out later is that Margaret Thatcher (Thatcher was revealed as a clue to the first episode, now titled “The Six Thatchers” in an apparent nod to “The Six Napoleons”) along with the US president John Adams and the progenitor of those ideas, Adam Smith are considered as the torchbearers of the Free market economic policies. However, I feel that The Six Thatchers shall have more to do with the IRA and the attempts on Thatcher’s life than Obliquity of the Ecliptic or  Adam Smith.

Now, we must understand that Sherlock while in his mind palace was trying to solve the mystery behind Moriarty’s return. There are two ways of looking at this. 

The first, there were some hints already running through Sherlock's mind that he wanted to analyze further. The mysterious death of Emelia Ricoletti that had similar elements as Moriarty's apparent resurrection was one of the reasons for this elaborate Victorian construct. The second, even being his talented self, it is not always possible to take control of everything that happens in one’s dreams. So, while he tried to recreate Victorian London, it is possible that certain events from the real life manifest themselves in his dream. In which case, all these references to Adams or Astronomy are mere noise in the data.

Now to my theories. First, I believe that Moriarty is alive and well. 

Second, we haven’t really seen Moriarty.

If anyone has ever read the books, they would know that Professor Moriarty is a middle-aged Mathematics teacher who prefers to keep away from spotlight. The TV version, while truly sinister, is poles apart from Doyle’s version breaking in and stealing the crown jewels or standing accused in courtroom trials. So, I feel the person we were made to think was Moriarty is actually, just an actor Richard Brook hired by the real Moriarty as he successfully claimed in public. Make some of it right, and people assume the entire narrative as true. 

And do you now see the apparent connection to Emelia Ricoletti? Other people posing as the presumed dead Bride to commit murders. Why is it not possible for Moriarty to use Richard Brook as a pawn, first to try and destroy Sherlock out of "Murderous Jealousy". And when his scheme failed, introduce Charles Augustus Magnussun to take on Sherlock, and just after Magnussun is killed, resurrect the dead Moriarty to cause terror and confusion.  In fact, Richard Brook might be the equivalent of his henchman Sebastian Moran who did all the leg work while Moriarty directed from behind the stage. What if there are actually a number of such Richard Brooks out there, working/posing as Moriarty in a vast Criminal syndicate?

The virus in the data was never Moriarty. It may have been Richard Brook and Magnussun

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