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Newton versus Leibniz

Alec Baez

Engineering and Science University Magnet School

Abstract

Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz are inarguably the fathers of calculus. However,

when trying to publish their findings, the two entered a heated skirmish that lasted their lifetimes.

Their feud is known as the greatest scientific dispute in history due to the lengths both went to

discredit the other and prove themselves. Realistically, Newton completed his version of calculus

a decade before Leibniz completed his. However, due to Newtons reclusive and slow take on

life, he held off on publishing his ideas. His version of calculus didnt even become known off of

his campus until a year after its conception as well. Leibniz on the other hand was having a very

difficult time coming up with his version of calculus. He fumbled around with the concept and

came up with clumsy seeming equations. Through a mutual contact, he contacted Newton for

help by asking what his results were and how he came up with such ideas in his version. Of

course, Newton had not published his ideas yet when these messages were exchanged and once

Leibniz caught wind of this, the rest is history.

The Fathers of Calculus:

Newton versus Leibniz

Sir Isaac Newton was born to a fairly poor family on Christmas Day in 1643. His father

died shortly after his birth and did not get along with his stepfather at all. These unfortunates

seem like they may hinder his ability, but did not deter him at all from achieving high grades and

later attending Trinity College in Cambridge. This allowed his scientific interests to flourish

indefinitely since he decided to study mathematics, science, and physics at one of the worlds top

colleges at the time. Newton accomplished many scientific advances in his life besides the

development of calculus, including splitting white light through a prism (revealing the visible

light spectrum), improved the telescope, and his three laws of motion. However, when creating

his theory of calculus in winter of 1664 and October 1666, it was being developed by a German

mathematician and philosopher.

This mathematician was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz was born to an extremely

religious family in Leipzig, Germany in 1646. He was self-taught in advanced Latin and Greek

by the age of 12 and went on to study law at Leipzig University where he was introduced to

minds like Galileo, Thomas Hobbes, and Ren Descartes (a mathematician Newton had also

been inspired by). He still continued to work toward his law degree though extremely interested

in scientific studies. However, once his superior died later on, he decided to pursue these

scientific interests by studying mathematics and physics in Paris. Part of his studies included

infinitesimal calculus, or differential and integral calculus. This is where Newton and Leibniz

seem to cross paths. Though they never talked directly to each other, mostly due to Newton

being a shy recluse, they did send a few letters back and forth through a mutual friend named

Henry Oldenburg.

This is now where the controversy begins between the two begins. Henry Oldenburg was

the secretary of a society that kept scientists in Europe in contact with each other (The Royal

Society of London). One of the scientists he was in charge of keeping contact with as Secretary

of the society happened to be Leibniz. Newtons relation to this society was that he was one of

the more prominent members of the society, as well as the fact that they helped publish his

Principia Mathematica. Once in the society, Leibniz officially started to study the geometry of

differential and integral calculus and let Oldenburg know of his studies. Oldenburg replied in a

letter that Newton had found general methods to the subject, meaning he already had an

understanding of differentials (which he called fluxions). Through multiple exchanges of letters

from 1673 to 1676 between Newton, Oldenburg, and Leibniz, Newton shared his findings of

infinitesimals, but not his processes. After the series of letters are exchanged, the two stop

contact for nearly a decade. They only speak once again when Leibniz creates and publishes his

Nova methodus pro maximis et minimis, which states that Leibniz himself created calculus

alone.

Newton waited years to publish his version of calculus which he had only alluded to

within one earlier work, so this works for and against him. Supporters of Newton claim that since

he had this earlier work, he then had the idea of calculus first. Also, his peers at the society did

not doubt for a second that Newton had come up with it first. Perhaps most importantly is the

fact that within the exchanges of letters between the two, Newton stated the fundamental ideals

of calculus which Leibniz was struggling to understand at the time. Supporters of Leibniz

however argue that his publications come before Newton officially publishes any of his own

works on fluxions/differentials. His most important piece of evidence in his favor is that he

demonstrates his calculus in a direction completely different than that of Newton. In the end, Sir

Isaac Newton is believed to have unofficially started calculus before Leibniz, but it is Leibniz

who is thought to have officially created a finished and published version of the study.

Works Cited

Letter from Isaac Newton to Henry Oldenburg, dated 26 October 1676. (n.d.). Retrieved June 06,

2016, from http://www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/view/texts/normalized/NATP00197

http://www.ams.org/notices/200905/rtx090500602p.pdf

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. (n.d.). Retrieved June 06, 2016, from http://www-groups.dcs.stand.ac.uk/~history/Biographies/Leibniz.html

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