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Merry Newtonmas

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Hermes
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Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;

God said, 'Let Newton be' and all was light.

Alexander Pope

Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 (Old Style) which was modernized to 4 January 1643. However, we still like to note that Newton was born in the year that Galileo died, 1642.

For most people, Newton is famous for his Three Laws of Motiion. Beyond that, those with additional education know him for inventing the Calculus to prove his theories of celestial and terrestrial mechanics. In addition Newton invented the reflecting telescope as a result of his experiments with light. And he also proved the general case for the Binomial Theorem ("Pascal's Triangle"). We tend to ignore his religious writings, the extent of which actually eclipsed his scientific production. His Arian beliefs foreshadowed modern Unitarianism, but he swore under oath to be a Trinitarian so that he could teach at Cambridge.

Few people except numismatists know him to have been the Warden and Master of the British Royal Mint. In 2001, I wrote a biography of Newton for the ANA's Numismatist magazine. Last year, I was happy to be able to place several reviews of Thomas Levenson's new book, Newton and the Counterfeiter, a gripping narrative of Newton as an investigator and prosecutor.

We here know that politics rests on epistemology and metaphysics. Newton's work in physics and mathematics was the starter -- the battery, induction coin, and motor -- for the Enlightenment of the 18th century. His Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) united theory and practice, logic and experiment, reason and evidence. Newton demonstrated that truths are necessary facts.

MERRY NEWTONMAS TO YOU!

Michael

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Amongst the general public he is most famous for the theory of gravitation (which is distinct from the three laws of motion, but is sometimes called a fourth law) and the apple falling from the tree (apparently that story is true, but it did not hit him on the head as sometimes depicted). That theory of course worked its way into celestial mechanics which you mentioned, but the key insight was that the same force that kept the moon and planets in their orbits is what causes things to fall to the ground here--that it was one force, not two fundamentally different phenomena, was a paradigm-shifting revelation. Before Newton it was believed that the heavens were ruled by different physical laws (presumably god's will) than things here on earth. Afterwards it appeared that even god was following set laws... which of course went a long way towards making atheism make sense to people looking at concretes as opposed to making abstract arguments.

His experiments with light also involved the beginnings of spectography and the realization that "white" light is a broad spectrum (mixture) of all colors. (Spectography would ultimately make it possible to determine the composition of stars many thousands of light years away, and to measure their radial velocity--both of which would otherwise be impossible without traveling to them. Imagine having to land on the sun to analyze it!)

There were lesser contributions to thermodynamics and acoustics, he worked out conservation of momentum and conservation of angular momentum--both very important--as a consequence of his three laws.

Newton is quite possibly the most intelligent man who ever lived, certainly the single greatest scientist. If, Hermes, you feel like I've been correcting your post thus far, it is because it is far too timid.

I have a book,"The 100: A Ranking Of The Most Influential Persons In History", and it lists Newton as #2, second only to Mohammed. Yes, even Christ was ranked lower than Newton (at #3)! (This is because Christ did not do as much as Mohammed did to spread the religion--the legwork there was done by Paul (#6)). In the writeup on Newton, mechanics, optics and the calculus are each mentioned as things that would have gotten Newton a place on the list--high places in many cases--if they had been the ONLY things he had done.

Now, one might grant that Newton was by far the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived but still ask why he should be ranked higher than such major political figures as Alexander the Great or George Washington, and ahead of such major religious figures as Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha. My own view is that even though political changes are of significance, it is fair to say that most people in the world were living in the same way 500 years after Alexander's death as their forebears had lived five centuries before his time. Similarly... most human beings were living the same way in 1500 A.D. as human beings had been living in 1500 B.C. In the last five centuries, however, with the rise of modern science, the everyday life of most human beings has been completely revolutionized. We dress differently, eat different foods, work at different jobs, and spend our leisure time a great deal differently than people did in 1500 A.D. Scientific discoveries have not only revolutionized technology and economics; they have also completely changed politics, religious thinking, art and philosophy. Few aspects of human activity have remained unchanged by the scientific revolution, and it is for this reason that so many scientists and inventors are to be found on this list. Newton was not only the most brilliant of all scientists; he was also the most influential figure in the development of scientific theory, and therefore mwell merits a position at or near the top of any list of the world's most influential persons.

Indeed.

I'd have to say I agree with that ranking.

(Ayn Rand is not listed, and I regretfully state that as of now I agree with that decision as well. The book was published in 1978, but even today she's had very little influence and as of right now, if her influence were to stop growing in 2000 years she and all of Objectivism would be less than a footnote. But give it time; her influence will grow. Perhaps an edition of this book written 200 years from now will put her in a very high place on the list.)

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But give it time; her influence will grow. Perhaps an edition of this book written 200 years from now will put her in a very high place on the list.)

Although I fear that her influence will not spread significantly among the worldwide population, it is clear that those who do accept her mode of thought will prove to become some of the most successful, innovative, and therefore influential people of the near future, so in that way, her influence is bound to grow immensely in years to come.

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Amongst the general public he is most famous for the theory of gravitation (which ... If, Hermes, you feel like I've been correcting your post thus far, it is because it is far too timid.

Well, it was just a Newtonmas Greeting. Numismatist Michael Hodder once said that I make my bones off the works of others, i.e, that I write reviews and summaries, as opposed to doing original work, like he does. Fair enough, it is true. My biography of Newton's tenure as warden and master of the Mint (Numismatist, November 2001) came largely from the works of Sir John Craig.

  • Sir John Craig, Newton at the Mint (Cambridge 1946).
  • “Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiters” by Sir John Craig, Notes and Records, London: The Royal Society,
    December 1, 1963, pages 136-145.

I also read the recent biographies by Berlinski, Westfall, and White:

  • Berlinski, David. Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World. New York: Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2000.
  • Westfall, Richard S. Never at Rest: a Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  • White, Michael. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorceror. Reading, Mass.: Helix Books, Perseus Books, 1997.

When Levenson's book came out (Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson; Boston;New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), I revisited those and then found “Isaac Newton--Crime Investigator” by John Craig. Nature 182 (1958). So, I know Newton fairly well.

I agree that if you ran some kind of "person on the street" questionaire, you would find that "most" people would say that "Newton discovered gravity" or something like that. When I cited his three laws of motion, I was, in fact, thinking of the Second: "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." It comes up in Little League Baseball; it is fundamental to firearms training; ice skaters know that first, and then much more about conservation of energy on a frictionless surface.

Reading The Logical Leap, I went through all of that yet again. Newton's telescope worked just fine, even though he was just plain wrong about light. You wisely wrote, "... and the realization that 'white' light is a broad spectrum (mixture) of all colors." Close enough, but that is not exactly correct, as, in truth, it only takes three colors (not the full spectrum) to fool our brains into seeing the nonexistent wavelenght of "white." (Unless you think "white" is out there somewhere beyond blue because the word "color" literally means "heat" and comes directly from our experience with iron: heat an iron rod and goes from red to white. Linguists have a rule of thumb that no language invents words for "brown" and "purple" until after the differentiation of "blue" from "green." Seriously. Our Indo-European languages are only about 6,000 years old, with increasingly rapid development. Try reading Aristotle in the original Greek and you will not be impressed: compared to Ayn Rand, he's Fred Flintstone -- he lacks concepts, even though the Greeks were inventing new words all the time. "The Greeks have a word for it," is a cliche from Roman times. In The Logical Leap, Harriman uses vernacular about color and about projectile motion. So, he never states explicitly that waves reflect as do particles with the angle of incidence equal to the angle of reflection; but waves refract according to Descartes' Law (Snell's Law to us): sin(i)/sin® = k. That disproves Newton's corpuscular theory. The pressure of light can be demonstrated and that experiment casts doubt on the wave theory because the "pressure" of a wave is perpendicular to its direction of motion.

that it was one force, not two fundamentally different phenomena, was a paradigm-shifting revelation. Before Newton it was believed that the heavens were ruled by different physical laws (presumably god's will) than things here on earth. Afterwards it appeared that even god was following set laws... which of course went a long way towards making atheism make sense to people looking at concretes as opposed to making abstract arguments.

Well, atheism was known before Newton - Francis Bacon alluded to it - and, again, in hacking through The Logical Leap, I discovered via other books that medieval astronomy was robust, a long sweep from the 800s through the 1400s, attempting to bring theory and measurement in to alignment. The Church was very supportive of astronomy (called "astrology" then) because getting Easter right required predicting the phases of the Moon relative to the position of the Sun -- the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of Spring. There was one observatory in Gorze in Germany founded in 953 by a group of men and women who had been studying astrology at a school or monastary of some kind in Metz. So, I try to get past For the New Intellectual when speculating about who thought what in the Middle Ages. But, be all that as it may, it is true that Newton's work made the Enlightenment possible: he brought theory and practice together in a clearly demonstrable set of principles.

Edited by Hermes
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