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Bronze-level articleIsaac Newton

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Sir Issac Newton sneaking a peek at Leibniz's answers
The poetry of reality

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Isaac Newton. No question about it. The smartest person ever to walk the face of this earth. The man was connected to the universe in spooky ways. He discovered the laws of motion, the laws of gravity, the laws of optics. Then he turned 26.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, when asked which scientist he'd most like to meet

Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was a god among men mathematician, physicist, alchemist and philosopher. Classical mechanics, gravity, optics and calculus are among his fields of original study. He is also credited for the empirical Newton's Law of Cooling[1] and the invention of the pet door.[2] He is known as one of the most important and influential individuals in the history of science.

Contents

[edit] Work

Newton was one of the first true scientists as we would recognise them today. He clearly grasped the importance of empiricism, writing

In experimental philosophy, propositions gathered from the phenomena by induction are taken as true, whether exactly or approximately, contrary hypotheses notwithstanding, until other phenomena appear through which they are either rendered more accurate or liable to exceptions.[3]

He also have a rather neat description of the scientific method.

The best and safest method of philosophizing seems to be, first to inquire diligently into the properties of things, and to establish those properties by experiences and then to proceed more slowly to hypotheses for the explanation of them. For hypotheses should be employed only in explaining the properties of things, but not assumed in determining them; unless so far as they may furnish experiments. [4]


Like many of these early scientists who studied the field that was then called Natural Philosophy and before the traditional distinctions of science developed, his interests were varied. He is best known for his work in mathematics (pretty much inventing discovering calculus), astronomy (pretty much formulating a theory of gravity) and physics (pretty much laying down the fundamentals of classical mechanics). Newton was perhaps the most brilliant mathematician working in Britain at the time, and in 1669 he was elected as the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a post that would later be held by Paul Dirac and Stephen Hawking. His most famous work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is considered to be one of the most influential scientific texts of all time and a 2005 survey by the Royal Society put him above Einstein in a measure of who had the biggest contribution to physics. Newton, alongside Leibniz and a few others, gave early attention to the budding field of variational calculus, by giving the solution to the brachistochrone problem, stated by Johann Bernoulli. He generalized the binomial theorem into the form we recognize today. Indeed, Newton tended to think of functions in terms of infinite series and integrated or differentiated them term-by-term. (Cauchy later proved rigorously that this is in fact acceptable.) Today, when confronted with an integral that cannot be evaluated analytically, infinite series is the way to go, unless the integral is improper. However, these accolades and amazing achievements were mixed in with some frightening bouts of near insanity.

John Maynard Keynes described Newton as not the first of the rationalists, but rather the "last of the magicians" due to his obsession with alchemy. Indeed, discovering the nature of optics was probably a side effect of trying to turn lead into gold. He also tended to do a lot of weird stuff, such as staring directly at the sun for hours on end and jabbing objects into his eyes as part of his interest in optics.[5] His ragged and insane appearance while at Cambridge often led him to lecture to nearly empty rooms as people just refused to turn up (a situation well known to modern college professors at 9 am). Newton was famously difficult to get along with, saving much of his abrasiveness for Robert Hooke, who may have been the subject of the "standing on the shoulders of giants" quote, in reference to Hooke's apparent short and hunchback appearance. His bizarre eccentricity and foul personality (that was more prominent in, but not restricted to, his later life) has been attributed to mercury poisoning from his alchemy. Others have attributed it to the possibility of him having Asperger's Syndrome. Or maybe he was just a jerk.

[edit] Religious studies

As was common at the time, Newton also devoted much time to biblical scholarship, alchemy and other theological questions. Newton was a reclusive man and no accounts of him being in any kind of relationship exists, leading to suggestions that he was asexual, or possibly gay.[6][7] He was also Arian in his religious beliefs. He stood up to James II's attempt to appoint a Roman Catholic monk named Alban Francis to an academic post at Cambridge and the appointment was stopped. Stephen Hawking has criticised Newton for this as an example of religious intolerance ("A Brief History of Time"). However it is to be borne in mind that the Roman Catholic Church had burnt Giordano Bruno for heresy, mostly on account of his Arianism (i.e.the belief that Jesus Christ was of similar not same substance to and created by God.) and that this appointment was the thin end of the wedge, leading to similar persecution that had stifled scientific inquiry in Catholic countries after Galileo. In his own lifetime, Newton wrote more on religion than he did on natural science.

[edit] Isaac Newton, P.I.

Newton's day job was as Master of the Royal Mint, during which time he tracked down a notorious forger named William Chaloner, who was acting as a provocateur to implicate Roman Catholics in plotting against the state and then turning them in for a cash reward. He failed in the first prosecution but convicted him the second time around (resulting in his being hanged, drawn and quartered).

[edit] Legacy and criticism

Newton's famous phrase "If I have seen further than others, then it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants" and the story that the idea of gravity came to him watching an apple fall have to be understood in relation to his enmity with Robert Hooke, the greatest experimental scientist of his age. The term "gravity" had been coined by Hooke, especially in relation to planetary motion, and he even tried to measure it experimentally, before Newton even mentioned it. Thus it is likely that his inspiration for gravity came from the seven pages of notes he took from Robert Hooke's work more than from observing falling apples. Newton - being well known as one of the most aggravating personalities in science as well as one of the biggest brains - expunged all references to Hooke's work from his publications, and it's said that the reason that there are no surviving portraits of Hooke is because Newton destroyed them all.[8] Legend has it that Newton's "shoulders of giants" phrase was a dig at Hooke, because Hooke was short.

In his later years, Newton's desperation to solve many of the mysteries of physics led him to introduce invisible and unfalsifiable (a.k.a supernatural) elements into his theories, the foundations of the idea of the Ether, which earned him much criticism from his colleagues.

Like pretty much everyone that lived before the immense age of the Earth was realised in the 19th Century, Newton was a creationist, taking the Bible as the best scholarship on the origins of the universe. Modern creationists use him to justify their views - though they tend to ignore the occultism and that he lived hundreds of years before Darwin and other Victorian scientists. It almost goes without saying that this is just an argument from authority; after all, he also was a great believer in alchemy but modern chemists don't defer to him on the subject.

His Principia Mathematica is considered so important to the history of science that the S.I. unit of force is named the Newton in his honor.

[edit] College bowl question

He also held a very serious dispute (probably the most heated one in the history of science) with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the development of calculus. There was dissent among scientists over who developed it first. Leibniz took this matter to the Royal Society to act as a mediator and investigate the dispute, however, the president of the Royal Society (Newton himself) made sure the reports went in Newton's favour. It has been claimed that Newton invented calculus before Leibniz, but published his work later.[9]. As evidence that Leibniz had „peeked“ at Newton's work was this acronym in a letter from Newton: „6accdoe13f7i319n4o4qrr4s8t12ux“. It has been stated that it would have been a greater feat of genius to decipher that rather than just inventing calculus[10].

The answer, if you are ever in one of these college bowl game show things, to the question "who invented the calculus?", is now generally accepted to be: "Newton and Leibniz, simultaneously and independently." [11][12] However, it is worth noting that the rudiments have what we now call calculus has been around since the ancient Greeks, especially Archimedes. Newton and Leibniz are credited with the discovery of calculus in the sense that they recognized that differentiation (finding rates of change) and integration (finding accumulated change) are inverse processes — this is the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus — and used this relation to develop coherent mathematical theory.

He is also credited with the invention of the cat door,[13] although it is probably not true.[14]

[edit] Relationship between Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton

Another take on the observation that Newton stood on the shoulders of giants is that, since Galileo Galilei died in January of 1642 and Newton was born in December of that same year, and since Johannes Kepler didn't exist Newton’s work more or less takes over where Galileo’s leaves off, it is the logical, rational thing to conclude that Newton was Galileo reincarnated. This perspective is not universally adhered to in the scientific community.

[edit] Famous quotes

If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.
I do not define time, space, place, and motion, as being well known to all.
We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.
To every action there is always opposed and equal reaction.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

  • The Fellowship, by John Gribbin

[edit] Footnotes

  1. There's a well-known controversy that Gottfried Leibniz was the actual inventor of calculus. Newton said that Leibniz' calculus was "derivative"
  2. The Straight Dope: Did Isaac Newton invent the cat door?
  3. Densmore Donahue W. Newton's Principia: The Central Argument. Santa Fe, NM: Green Lion Press; 2003.
  4. as quoted in Gribbin J. Science, A History, 1543-2001. London: Allen Lane; 2002.
  5. Cambridge University Library - Isaac Newton at work
  6. St. Catharine Standard: Examining the non-sexual
  7. Isaac Newton's Personal Life, from Sussex University's The Newton Project.
  8. One of our editors is really into Hooke, in case you haven't noticed.
  9. A Brief History of Time
  10. The significance of this is that Newton could claim to have invented differential calculus first but at the same time it is impossible that Leibniz could have learned anything from it.
  11. Invoking quantum physics is also acceptable, but only if you bring a cat in a box.
  12. For a very readable account of the priority question see The Calculus Wars by Jason Socrates Bardi, 2006.
  13. Link
  14. Did Isaac Newton invent the cat door?, on The Straight Dope
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