On Reincarnation

You may be aware of an old myth that Isaac Newton was born shortly after Galileo died. I’ve seen it stated as “the same day”, “the day after”, or (less aggressively) “the same calendar year”. This close proximity has been used as “evidence” of reincarnation. “Surely,” the argument goes, “there couldn’t be two such towering geniuses working in the same field by coincidence so close together. Obviously Galileo felt his work was of such importance that he had to come back for another life to complete it.”

It’s such a nice idea (though I do have to wonder why that same towering genius didn’t come back in 1727 after Newton died instead of making the world wait another 150 years for Einstein) that it’s a shame it’s based on a false premise: Newton was actually born almost a year later – the confusion derives from the fact that it took England 168 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. There’s a nice little summary of the calendar issue here. Personally, I think that would actually strengthen the argument, as it doesn’t require us to assume that embryos are soulless until shortly before birth (or maybe that the soul can be evicted and replaced until birth [Hmm. Pardon me a moment while I make a note in my Story Ideas file… OK, I’m back.]), but it does seem to weaken the idea in the minds of people who take the notion seriously. People are strange that way.

But regardless of the specific dates, the idea of a genius coming back to finish work has enough appeal that I thought it might be interesting to look at a few other famous names and see if they too might have had more to do, and so come back for another round.

To keep it half-way reasonable, I’m setting the Galileo/Newton gap as the maximum, and only accepting a “reincarnation” if the successor was born within a year of the predecessor’s death.

Here’s a quickie to start things off:
Sun Yat-sen died 3/12/1925. Seven months later, on 10/13/1925, Margaret Thatcher was born. Maybe we’re onto something here…

Since I’m oriented more towards the arts than the sciences, let’s try a writer and a musician/composer.

Percy Bysshe Shelley died on 7/8/1822. Matthew Arnold (the British poet, not the television reporter) was born five months later on 12/24. He died 4/15/1888, and came back five months later on 9/26 as T.S. Eliot. Sounding reasonable? (I’ll risk derailing this particular thread by noting that Eliot died 1/4/1965 and I was born 6 months later on 7/8 – exactly 143 years after Shelley died. I’ll leave it to others to figure out if there’s some significance to the number 143.)
Johann Sebastian Bach died 7/28/1750. He clearly had more to say and came back a mere two weeks later as Antonio Salieri (who was far more respected than the play “Amadeus” would suggest – but that’s a discussion for another time) on 8/18. Salieri died 5/7/1825. Still with more to say, he came back again as Johann Strauss II (yes, the composer known as “The Waltz King”) on 9/25. Bach’s spirit refused to quit. After dying as Strauss on 6/3/1899, he came back as the Czech composer Pavel Haas on 6/21. With his work tragically cut short by the Holocaust (10/17/1944), he came back again. As Strauss, he had focused on more popular musical forms; as Haas, he had been working with folk and jazz motifs, so clearly a change of style was in order, and thus Bob Marley was born on 2/6/1945. Marley died 5/11/1981 – another career cut short – and six months later on 12/2, the next link in the chain of reincarnation arived in the form of Britney Spears.

Never mind. I think it’s pretty clear that this isn’t going to serve as evidence of reincarnation.

In an effort to avoid a law suit from Ms. Spears (or maybe the Marley Estate), I’ll note that this exercise was totally tongue-in-cheek. There were a few other directions I could have taken the Bach line after Strauss. Note that Hoagy Carmichael was born 11/22/1899, which could have been a fun chain to justify. He even died in 1981, but unfortunately not until three weeks after Britney was born, which would have blocked that link in the chain.

Even sticking with Pavel Haas, I could have gone in other directions. 1945 was a good year for musician/composer births: instead of Bob Marley, I could have gone from Haas to Stephen Stills (1/3), Rod Stewart (1/10), Eric Clapton (3/30), Bjorn Ulvaeus (4/25), Pete Townshend (5/19), Carly Simon (6/25), Debbie Harry (7/1), David Bromberg (9/19), Don McLean (10/2), Keith Emerson (11/2), or Dennis Wilson (12/4). Unfortunately, most of them are still alive, or died too recently for an obvious successor to have arisen – and then there’s that little matter of lawsuits…  I would hope most of them would like to think they could trace themselves back to Bach, but given today’s litigious society, I’d hate to be responsible for Bob Seger (born 5/6/1945) claiming the copyright for “The Well-Tempered Clavier”!

6 thoughts on “On Reincarnation

  1. Interesting concept. As a group, most of the great classical musicians lived in the same era as did the great scientists (beginning in the late 19th century). What do you make of that?


    • I’d suggest that it’s a question of definition. My tastes in classical music skew towards the Classical and Romantic Eras, so I have trouble with the notion of the great musicians being in the late 19th century. Consider Beethoven (1770-1827), Haydn (1732-1809), Schumann (1810-1856), and Schubert (1797-1828). I’ll grant you Brahms (1833-1897), Liszt (1811-1886), and Wagner (1813-1883). But I’d still put the peak (based on my own tastes) a good century earlier than you. Great scientists? Without naming names, I can’t do a whole lot with your assertion, but I’ll point out that science was fashionable in the 19th century. Everyone was doing it… So, in my opinion, it was more of a “quantity” thing than a “quality” thing. If you would like to suggest some specific great scientists of the time, we could discuss their merits relative to those earlier and later.


  2. 143 is commonly used as shorthand for “I Love You”, due to the numbers of letters in each word. It was also Fred Rogers’s weight for just about his entire adult life. TEACH THE CONTROVERSY!


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