To: Sir Isaac Newton
Fm: Your publisher

Dear Newt,

Trouble, baby. Remember the Principia, that tome on gravity and motion you cranked out in 1687? Well, cancel party plans for its 300th anniversary. It seems you slipped up in your calculations, and some kid from the University of Chicago just nailed you.

The gaffe occurs in Book Three, Proposition Eight. That's where you compute the earth's mass by using the angle between two lines: one from the planet's center to the sun and another from its edge. It seems you said the angle was one thing, but you used a slightly different number when you did the math. You probably just copied the figures wrong, and the boys down in Fact Checking should have caught it. They didn't, though, and Robert Garisto, a 23-year-old University of Chicago senior, did—while researching a paper for his history of science class, of all things.

We ran a check on Garisto. He was raised in New York City, runs five miles a day and shares a third-floor walk-up with three Chicago roommates. His family seems more inclined to music than math. One of his two sisters sings backup on Paul Simon's Graceland LP and his dad writes TV ad jingles for Aqua Velva, Eveready, Coke, you name it. (I'll bring you up to speed on "LPs" and "TV" later, Newt.) It's taken Garisto five years to graduate from college, mostly because he has worked up to 40 hours a week washing dishes and odd jobbing to pay his own tuition. For his paper on the Principia, he got an A-plus from the prof and a $150 prize from a campus science society. Good thing for us he's modest. "This is no big deal as to Newton's conclusions," he said. "Everyone makes mistakes."

Garisto's off to the University of Michigan next fall to get a doctorate in physics. With any luck, this'll all blow over by then. So not to worry; this probably isn't a matter of gravity (sorry), and when it comes to physics, you're still the star. It's just that Garisto's now an asterisk.

  • Contributors:
  • Grant Pick.