Happy birthday sir Newton, Isaac (1642-1727)

“Newton singlehandedly contributed more to the development of science
than any other individual in history. He surpassed all the gains
brought about by the great scientific minds of antiquity, producing a
scheme of the universe which was more consistent, elegant, and
intuitive than any proposed before. Newton stated explic…it principles
of scientific methods which applied universally to all branches of

English physicist and mathematician who was born into a poor farming family. Luckily for humanity, Newton was not a good farmer, and was sent to Cambridge to study to become a preacher. At Cambridge, Newton studied mathematics, being especially strongly influenced by Euclid, although he was also influenced by Baconian and Cartesian philosophies. Newton was forced to leave Cambridge when it was closed because of the plague, and it was during this period that he made some of his most significant discoveries. With the reticence he was to show later in life, Newton did not, however, publish his results.

Newton suffered a mental breakdown in 1675 and was still recovering through 1679. In response to a letter from Hooke, he suggested that a particle, if released, would spiral in to the center of the Earth. Hooke wrote back, claiming that the path would not be a spiral, but an ellipse. Newton, who hated being bested, then proceeded to work out the mathematics of orbits. Again, he did not publish his calculations. Newton then began devoting his efforts to theological speculation and put the calculations on elliptical motion aside, telling Halley he had lost them (Westfall 1993, p. 403). Halley, who had become interested in orbits, finally convinced Newton to expand and publish his calculations. Newton devoted the period from August 1684 to spring 1686 to this task, and the result became one of the most important and influential works on physics of all times, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) (1687), often shortened to Principia Mathematica or simply “the Principia.”

In Book I of Principia, Newton opened with definitions and the three laws of motion now known as Newton’s laws (laws of inertia, action and reaction, and acceleration proportional to force). Book II presented Newton’s new scientific philosophy which came to replace Cartesianism. Finally, Book III consisted of applications of his dynamics, including an explanation for tides and a theory of lunar motion. To test his hypothesis of universal gravitation, Newton wrote Flamsteed to ask if Saturn had been observed to slow down upon passing Jupiter. The surprised Flamsteed replied that an effect had indeed been observed, and it was closely predicted by the calculations Newton had provided. Newton’s equations were further confirmed by observing the shape of the Earth to be oblate spheroidal, as Newton claimed it should be, rather than prolate spheroidal, as claimed by the Cartesians. Newton’s equations also described the motion of Moon by successive approximations, and correctly predicted the return of Halley’s Comet. Newton also correctly formulated and solved the first ever problem in the calculus of variations which involved finding the surface of revolution which would give minimum resistance to flow (assuming a specific drag law).

Newton invented a scientific method which was truly universal in its scope. Newton presented his methodology as a set of four rules for scientific reasoning. These rules were stated in the Principia and proposed that (1) we are to admit no more causes of natural things such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances, (2) the same natural effects must be assigned to the same causes, (3) qualities of bodies are to be esteemed as universal, and (4) propositions deduced from observation of phenomena should be viewed as accurate until other phenomena contradict them.

These four concise and universal rules for investigation were truly revolutionary. By their application, Newton formulated the universal laws of nature with which he was able to unravel virtually all the unsolved problems of his day. Newton went much further than outlining his rules for reasoning, however, actually describing how they might be applied to the solution of a given problem. The analytic method he invented far exceeded the more philosophical and less scientifically rigorous approaches of Aristotle and Aquinas. Newton refined Galileo’s experimental method, creating the compositional method of experimentation still practiced today. In fact, the following description of the experimental method from Newton’s Optics could easily be mistaken for a modern statement of current methods of investigation, if not for Newton’s use of the words “natural philosophy” in place of the modern term “the physical sciences.” Newton wrote, “As in mathematics, so in natural philosophy the investigation of difficult things by the method of analysis ought ever to precede the method of composition. This analysis consists of making experiments and observations, and in drawing general conclusions from them by induction…by this way of analysis we may proceed from compounds to ingredients, and from motions to the forces producing them; and in general from effects to their causes, and from particular causes to more general ones till the argument end in the most general. This is the method of analysis: and the synthesis consists in assuming the causes discovered and established as principles, and by them explaining the phenomena preceding from them, and proving the explanations.”

Newton formulated the classical theories of mechanics and optics and invented calculus years before Leibniz. However, he did not publish his work on calculus until afterward Leibniz had published his. This led to a bitter priority dispute between English and continental mathematicians which persisted for decades, to the detriment of all concerned. Newton discovered that the binomial theorem was valid for fractional powers, but left it for Wallis to publish (which he did, with appropriate credit to Newton). Newton formulated a theory of sound, but derived a speed which did not agree with his experiments. The reason for the discrepancy was that the concept of adiabatic propagation did not yet exist, so Newton’s answer was too low by a factor of , where is the ratio of heat capacities of air. Newton therefore fudged his theory until agreement was achieved (Engineering and Science, pp. 15-16).

In Optics (1704), whose publication Newton delayed until Hooke’s death, Newton observed that white light could be separated by a prism into a spectrum of different colors, each characterized by a unique refractivity, and proposed the corpuscular theory of light. Newton’s views on optics were born out of the original prism experiments he performed at Cambridge. In his “experimentum crucis” (crucial experiment), he found that the image produced by a prism was oval-shaped and not circular, as current theories of light would require. He observed a half-red, half-blue string through a prism, and found the ends to be disjointed. He also observed Newton’s rings, which are actually a manifestation of the wave nature of light which Newton did not believe in. Newton believed that light must move faster in a medium when it is refracted towards the normal, in opposition to the result predicted by Huygens’s wave theory.

Newton also formulated a system of chemistry in Query 31 at the end of Optics. In this corpuscular theory, “elements” consisted of different arrangements of atoms, and atoms consisted of small, hard, billiard ball-like particles. He explained chemical reactions in terms of the chemical affinities of the participating substances. Newton devoted a majority of his free time later in life (after 1678) to fruitless alchemical experiments.

Newton was extremely sensitive to criticism, and even ceased publishing until the death of his arch-rival Hooke. It was only through the prodding of Halley that Newton was persuaded at all to publish the Principia Mathematica. In the latter portion of his life, he devoted much of his time to alchemical researches and trying to date events in the Bible. After Newton’s death, his burial place was moved. During the exhumation, it was discovered that Newton had massive amounts of mercury in his body, probably resulting from his alchemical pursuits. This would certainly explain Newton’s eccentricity in late life. Newton was appointed Warden of the British Mint in 1695. Newton was knighted by Queen Anne. However, the act was “an honor bestowed not for his contributions to science, nor for his service at the Mint, but for the greater glory of party politics in the election of 1705” (Westfall 1993, p. 625).

Newton singlehandedly contributed more to the development of science than any other individual in history. He surpassed all the gains brought about by the great scientific minds of antiquity, producing a scheme of the universe which was more consistent, elegant, and intuitive than any proposed before. Newton stated explicit principles of scientific methods which applied universally to all branches of science. This was in sharp contradistinction to the earlier methodologies of Aristotle and Aquinas, which had outlined separate methods for different disciplines.

Although his methodology was strictly logical, Newton still believed deeply in the necessity of a God. His theological views are characterized by his belief that the beauty and regularity of the natural world could only “proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” He felt that “the Supreme God exists necessarily, and by the same necessity he exists always and everywhere.” Newton believed that God periodically intervened to keep the universe going on track. He therefore denied the importance of Leibniz’s vis viva as nothing more than an interesting quantity which remained constant in elastic collisions and therefore had no physical importance or meaning.

Although earlier philosophers such as Galileo and John Philoponus had used experimental procedures, Newton was the first to explicitly define and systematize their use. His methodology produced a neat balance between theoretical and experimental inquiry and between the mathematical and mechanical approaches. Newton mathematized all of the physical sciences, reducing their study to a rigorous, universal, and rational procedure which marked the ushering in of the Age of Reason. Thus, the basic principles of investigation set down by Newton have persisted virtually without alteration until modern times. In the years since Newton’s death, they have borne fruit far exceeding anything even Newton could have imagined. They form the foundation on which the technological civilization of today rests. The principles expounded by Newton were even applied to the social sciences, influencing the economic theories of Adam Smith and the decision to make the United States legislature bicameral. These latter applications, however, pale in contrast to Newton’s scientific contributions.

It is therefore no exaggeration to identify Newton as the single most important contributor to the development of modern science. The Latin inscription on Newton’s tomb, despite its bombastic language, is thus fully justified in proclaiming, “Mortals! rejoice at so great an ornament to the human race!” Alexander Pope’s couplet is also apropos: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”


One thought on “Happy birthday sir Newton, Isaac (1642-1727)

  1. Strange how humanity has examples, (in this instance from an euro-centric perspective, though there are so many others), of Newton, Shakespeare, Socrates and others who could so easily be said to be the “Sons of ‘God'” with such tangible manifestations of contributing to our enlightenment, betterment and universal progress, yet we still cling to … See Moremythological icons/idols of the past to guide us to our future. Strange and dogmatically sad. People such as these ought to be venerated by all and sundry, but I don’t think most comprehend/perceive their contribution(S). These people actually LIVED. Wow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s