Monday, December 12, 2016

Newtonmas 2016: Great Man or Social Forces?

December 25 is the traditional birthday of Sir Isaac Newton(1).  So, some fans and followers of physics, and perhaps some professionals, celebrate Newtonmas on December 25.  The TV sitcom, The Big Bang Theory brought the holiday to millions who had not heard of it.(2)  The question remains: Why celebrate Newton, rather than Descartes, Einstein, or many other scientists?
  • Sir Isaac Newton represented Cambridge at Parliament.
  • He offered an original proof of the binomial theorem, what in high school we learn as “Pascal’s Triangle.”
  • He developed an algorithm for rapidly approximating square roots.
  • He investigated light and demonstrated that “white” light is composed of discrete colors.
  • Based on his experiments with light, he invented the reflecting telescope.
  • He invented calculus.
  • He invented calculus as part of his general proof of the laws of motion, including the motion of bodies under the influence of gravity. He showed that motion on Earth is not different from motion in the heavens. That was a radical departure from 2000 years of philosophy.
  • He served as warden and master of the British Royal Mint for 30 years. His tenure began with his rescuing the British economy from near certain collapse. He had himself sworn as a magistrate so that he could investigate counterfeiting, going in disguise to pubs.

If he had done any one of those, he would have earned a place in history.  He did all of them. 

That brings up the problem of “the great man” versus “social forces.”  If Newton had died in infancy, as he was truthfully at risk, would someone else –Robert Hooke, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz – have filled the void?  Would we have waited until 1800 or 1900 for the next Newton to invent calculus and achieve all of those other heights?  Did we wait until 1680 because some previous Newton of 1300 died at birth? 

For all of Newton’s specific achievements, his greatest glory may be in being the exemplar of the Age of Reason and the gateway to the Enlightenment.  The Newtonian Revolution was not just about the orbit of the planets.  The American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution are consequences of the work of Sir Isaac Newton. The founders of our republic sought natural laws to inform their designs for a just and workable republic with a balance of powers.  As late at the 1830s, diametrically opposed philosophers August Comte and Herbert Spencer attempted to devise “social physics” as a science of human action. They each gave up on that label and settled for mere “sociology.”

(1) Note: Newton was born in 1742.  The English Parliament passed the Calendar Act in 1750 to take effect on 2 September 1752, which was followed by 14 September 1752.   Newton’s birthday (New Style) is January 4. Similarly, George Washington was born on February 11, 1732, which became February 22 when the calendar was set forward. The Gregorian reform of the Julian calendar realigned the solar year with the vernal equinox in order to keep Easter in the spring. 

(2) Note: The first Newtonmas was actually celebrated in Japan before 1890.  I recorded a Newtonmas message for the Community Commentator series of WKAR AM/FM, East Lansing, in 1982 or ’83. I sent Newtonmas cards to my friends off and on over several years.  Meanwhile, Kwanza was invented. Then, Seinfeld introduced “Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us.”  Organized atheists began offering Newtonmas as an antidote to Christmas.  Whether and to what extent Newton would have felt honored or horrified is open to debate. Counterfactuals can be unresolvable. 

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