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Celebrating Newton

Author(s): Stefi Weisburd

Source: Science News, Vol. 132, No. 1 (Jul. 4, 1987), pp. 11-13
Published by: Society for Science & the Public
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Accessed: 14/05/2011 09:50

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The legacy and legend Newton live of
on Isaac
300 years after the publication of hi masterpiece,
the Prinafipa

Thenye who now on heavenlynectarfare, ter stage during the Age of Reason and Newton's accomplishments as Edmund
Comecelebratewithme in song the name they inspired the French and American Halley and others were while Newton
OfNewton,to the Musesdear;forhe authors of new governments. "The New- lived. To celebrate his genius, scientists
Unlockedthe hiddentreasuresof Truth: tonian revolution ... remains one of the and historians are gathering at a number
So richlythroughhis mindhad Phoebuscast most profound revolutions in the history of commemorative symposia planned for
Theradianceof his own divinity of human thought," writes I. Bernard this year in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv,
Nearerthe gods no mortalmay approach Cohenin Revolutionin Science(1985,The Oxford, Holland and elsewhere. In addi-
- Edmund Halley's preface to Belknap Press of the Harvard University tion, the Smithsonian's National Museum
Newton's Principia Press). of American History in Washington, D.C.,
This year marks the 300th anniversary is hosting a special exhibit on Newton
Science is a search for the essence of of the Principia's publication. While Ein- and the Principia. And in Britain, four
everything, for the fundamental stein's relativity theories and quantum commemorative stamps have been is-
laws that govern the universe. If mechanics have shown the limits of New- sued in Newton's honor.
there is one person whose work embod- ton's work (applicable only to the mac- These activities, says physicist Frank
ies the spirit and remarkable products of roscopic, slowly moving physical world), A. Wilczek at the Institute for Theoretical
this pursuit, it is Isaac Newton. His Phi- scientists today are as much in awe of Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., are "not
losophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica only a celebration of Newton, but a cele-
(Mathematical Principles of Natural Phi- bration of [his] whole scientific world
losophy), commonly known as the Prin- view and method that has led to such
cipia, may well be the most important enormous insights" long after his death.
document in the history of science. PHILOSOPHIAE
In many ways, the Principia is a blue- Tistorians are fond of saying that
print for modern physical science. With NAT U R ALLI S H Newton was the culmination of the
it, Newton created a mathematical frame- 17th-century scientific revolution.
work for physics and conceived basic
laws of motion and of universal gravita-
PRINCI PIA Newton's predecessors, such as Galileo,
Kepler and Hooke, were moving away
tion that unify a diverse array of phe- from the Aristotelian world view, in which
nomena both in the heavens and on MATHE MATICA- the behavior of objects is dictated by the
earth. The revolutionary power of the "qualities" they possess; Aristotelians
Principia and other Newtonian works is believed, for example, that a stone falls
felt to this day: His celestial mechanics
Autore S. NE WTO N, Trin. Coll. Cantab.Soc. Mathefcos
Profeffore Lucafiano, & SocietatisRegalis Sodali. because its "nature" necessitates that it
guide the paths of satellites and space- move toward the center of the universe,
craft, his reflecting telescope is enabling .) or that planets travel in circular orbits
astronomers to study recently dis- IMP RIMA TUR
S. P E P Y S, Reg. Soc. P R S E S.
because the circle is a heavenly form.
covered supernovas, his numerical meth- In contrast, the emerging view during
7o/ii 5. s686.
ods are used in computers and his mathe- O
0 the scientific revolution was more clearly
matics and approach to solving many rooted in the underlying forces or laws
physical problems remain as vital today L O N DIN I, that can be expressed mathematically
as in his time. Newton acknowledged that he stood "on
o Juffu SocietatisRegi.e ac Typis Jofephi Strcater. Profiat apud
And the Principia has influenced not plures Bibliopolas. AnooMDCLXXXVII. the shoulders of Giants" who developed
only science but Western culture in gen- this approach. But, writes Paul Theer-
eral. Newton's ideas fostered the develop- man, curator of the Smithsonian exhibit,
ment of social sciences, they played cen- Thefrontispieceof Newton'sPrincipia. "Newton was no mere disciple; his genius

JULY4,1987 11
eclipsed that of any scientist of his era." question of whether light was a particle
In its depth, scope and approach,the or a wave. He had the insight to suspect
Principiacontains an understandingof that lightand matterwere unifiedin some
the workingsof the universethat goes far way, says Wilczek, and because matter
beyondthatof previousworks.Moreover, was thought to consist of particles, he
Newtonshowed that manyof the existing ultimatelyembracedthe particle theory
ideas were incorrect- Descartes had the - even though he had evidence for the
notion, for example, that the planets periodicity of light and even though his
move not in a vacuum but in a sea of own observations of light were the basis
materialthat swirls in huge vortices. of the wave theory that prevailed for the
In addition to Newton'sthree laws of next two centuries until the advent of
motion and universal law of gravitation, quantummechanics.
the Principia,which he wrote in only 18 Today, says Wilczek, "we know that
months, contains work on hydrostatics, matterhas wave-likepropertiesand light
the motion of solids in resisting media has particle-likeproperties,and they are
and the propagation of sound waves. capable of being described in the same
Newton's crowning achievement, how- language."If Newton'squestioning about
ever, was the applicationof his abstract the natureof light had been pursued, he
mathematicallaws to the real universe; E A W adds,"weprobablywould have had quan-
he explained the orbits of planets, the tum mechanics long before we in fact
irregularmotion of the moon, the paths did."
of comets and the ebb and flow of the
tides. He predicted that the earth is according to Wilczek,an-
flattened at the poles, an idea that was 1 SAA?U 1T i'WTLYN.
..l\ewton, or struggled with what
confirmed by a French expedition to are now three major themes of
Laplandin 1736.Based on Newton'swork, contemporaryphysics. By showing that
Halley made his famous prediction that gravitationalattraction applied equally
the comet of 1682(Halley'scomet) would inality,the carefularrangement,elegance well to an apple fallingtowardearth as to
returnto view in 1758. and astonishing lightness" of Newton's the moon orbiting our planet, Newton
proofs. "Every time I looked at what expressed the ideaof uniformity,in which
c( ike most classics in science, Newton did, I felt like a schoolboy ad- the same physical laws and building
Newton'sPrincipiais more hon- monished by his master," says blocks occur everywherein the universe.
ored than read,"says Cohen,a Chandrasekhar,who along with Cohen However,says Wilczek, Newton did not
science historian at HarvardUniversity and others recently attended a Washing- believe in this idea absolutely,as he did
But among those scientists who have ton-area symposium on Newton spon- not want to limit the power of God to
studied the work firsthand,there is tre- sored by the Universityof Marylandand makethe rules differentin differentareas.
mendousadmirationnotonly of Newton's the SmithsonianInstitution. Wilczeksays Newton also anticipated
results, but also of how he arrived at Scientistsand historiansare also taken the concept of transformations, which
them. They say that Newton's proofs, with the intellectual range of Newton's holds that particles can be created and
which are largely geometric constructs achievements. He made important con- destroyed. In Newton'stime and years
peppered with concepts of calculus, are tributions to pure and applied mathe- after, scientists believed that observed
extremely clever. Nobel-prize-winning matics. He studied chemistry and heat changes in matterwere due to rearrange-
astrophysicist Subrahmanyan and designed scientific instruments. In ments of immutable particles. But be-
Chandrasekharof the Universityof Chi- his book the Opticks, he showed that
cago says he comparedhis own proofsof white light is composed of rays of dif-
Newton'spropositionswith those of New- ferentcolors that pass througha prismat S~~~~
ton's and was "astonished at the orig- differentangles. Althoughhe considered
his optics experimentsa failurein that he
was unable to develop a mathematical JIC~~~~
basis for them, says Cohen, the Opticks
R ensured a premier place in science for
experimentationand greatly influenced
the later study of electricity, magnetism
and chemistry by BenjaminFranklinand
Likemanyscientists of his day,Newton
was also fascinated by alchemy Accord-
ing to RichardS. Westfall,a historian at
IndianaUniversityand authorof Never at
Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (1983,
CambridgeUniversityPress), Newtonleft
behind about a million words on the
subject. He also had an intense, but From the viewpoint of modern scientists,
Johannes Kepler had discovered that plan- private,interestin religiousstudies, says for whom calculus is second nature, New-
ets move in elliptical orbits. Newton Westfall,and was among the first scien- ton'sproofs are surprising because they are
showed that the force of attraction between tists to grapple with the unavoidable largely geometrical. In Book I, Proposition
a planet P,traveling in an ellipse, and a sun problems associated with the rise of I of the Principia, Newton begins a line of
S, located at one focus of the ellipse, varies modern science in a society centered in reasoning that shows that a body con-
as the square of the distance between the Christianity tinually drawn to some center of force (S),
two. In this way he proved that a central "Itis remarkablehow modernNewton's will move along a curve and that a line
gravitational force from the sun governs point of view was," says Wilczek. For drawn from the center of the body will
the paths of the planets. example, Newton struggled with the sweep through equal areas in equal times.

cause light could be made to disappear IP;P- W -i-,w
w- w' w w-w I
(by being absorbed in a black cloth, for
example), Newton may have suspected p~~~~~~~~~~~
that the constituents of mattertoo could
be created and destroyed, says Wilczek.
A third idea of modern physics is that
the materialcontent of the universe, and
not only the motion and behavior of
matter,is governed by the physical laws.
Newton's thinking on this point, says
Wilczek,was complicatedby his theology
In the end, while he envisioned a clock-
likeuniverse,runningby a set of laws, he
seems to have left the initial conditions,
such as the materialmakeupof the uni-
verse, up to God.

TiT that makesa man of such genius?

IAi/A powerfulcombinationWilczek.
of talent
V - ' -b WWbWW
and character, says @V7W
"Newtonhad a fantastic dedication'"he
says; he was the kind of person who 0~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"wouldsit with a problem,missingmeals
without even noticing."
Butwhile his tenacity and strong per-
sonality may have helped direct his sci- * 4
entific genius, it did not make him a
pleasant person to deal with. "Newton
was an intense and solitary man"who
abhorred criticism, says Theerman. He
had heated run-ins with Robert Hooke
over optics, with John Flamsteed, Eng-
land'sAstronomerRoyal,overthe control
of astronomicaldata, and with the Ger-
man mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm
Leibniz over which of them invented
calculus (historians say the two men
invented calculus independently of one
His behavior in these disputes was
reportedly driven by an obsessive and w0
irrationalrage. After an early entangle-
ment with Hooke and the RoyalSociety
he retreatedfrompubliclifeand brokeoff @> Sir ISd..AC VEffrTOAI (1642-1727)
all intellectual correspondence. If it
weren'tfor Halleyin 1684coaxingNewton
out of his shell and urginghimto write his This stamp commemorates another great work of Newtons, the Opticks (published in
solutions to some problems in orbital 1704), which pioneered the study of light and colors and validated the e-xperimental
dynamics,the Principia mightneverhave approach to science. While in his epitaph on Newton, Ale-xander Pope was apparently
been written. inspired by the Principia, his words are equally appropriate to the Opticks: "Nature
Newtonalso suffereda numberof nerv- and Natures~ laws lay hid in the night: God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light."
ous breakdowns.Duringone episode in
1693,he sent his friend John Locke a
wildly written letter accusing Locke of the English government called on New- ideas and to own fine editions of his
tryingto entanglehimwith women(New- ton as one of the 10 leading intellectuals works. In schools, Latin and English
ton never married). Some psychologi- of the time to solve the country's eco- versions of the Principiawere standard
cally oriented scholars have attributed nomic crisis. Newton was elected fare for students through the 19th cen-
Newton'sbehaviorto his childhood, par- Cambridge University's representative in tury Newton,notes Theerman,"became
ticularlyto the death of his fatherbefore Parliament, and later, president of the a potent symbol of the progress and
his birth and to the child's long separa- Royal Society He was made Warden, and popularity of science" and rational
tion fromhis motheraftershe remarried. then Master, of the Mint, where he over- thought, inspiring writers, artists and
Others have suggested that he was poi- saw the recoining of English currency and social thinkersof the last two centuries.
soned by mercuryand other toxic chemi- became the scourge of London counter- Todayscientists remainunwaveringin
cals during his extensive alchemicalex- feiters. According to Chandrasekhar, peo- their appreciationof and wonderat New-
periments. ple would stand for hours hoping for a ton's accomplishments. Chandrasekhar
glimpse of the carriage taking Newton to says that while he can imaginehow other
rn spite of his temperamentNewton his work at the mint. In 1705,he became importantscientists throughout history
was revered in his time. The publica- the first scientist to be knighted. might have thought and felt, he "cannot
I tion of the Principia brought him This adoration continued long after his imagine being Newton."To try, he says,
instantfameinternationally,especially in death in 1727.During the 18th century it would be akin "to someone climbing a
London society. Westfall notes that was fashionable for the social elite to little hill and askingwhatit mustbe liketo
shortly after the Principia's publication, familiarize themselves with Newton's be on the top of Mt. Everest." El

JULY4,1987 13