Monday, December 12, 2011

Merry Newtonmas!

The Birth of Modernity
"Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, let Newton be! and all was light."

A little boy born in a small village across the sea would grow up to bring light to the world

Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642, the same year that Galileo died.  Newton is perhaps best remembered for his work in physics, the Three Laws of Motion and his Law of Gravity.  To prove his physics, he invented the calculus.  He also invented the reflecting telescope.  His work in optics showed that white light is composed of colors.  This laid the foundation for the wave theory of light, though he advocated for light being a particle.  Newton demonstrated vector arithmetic.  He delivered an algorithm for conveniently computing square roots.  He offered an original proof for the Binomial Theorem (also called “Pascal’s Triangle”).  His image appears on coins and bank notes, which is appropriate since he was Master and Warden of the Mint, rescuing Britain’s money from looming disaster.  Sworn as a justice of the peace, he circulated in disguise among criminals to pursue counterfeiters.  He served in Parliament, representing Cambridge.  He was president of the Royal Society, England’s crown chartered association for scientists.  Alone, any of Newton's achievements would have left his imprint in history.  Together, they give shape to a complex and powerful intellect. 
Middlesex token 1792

Today, we ignore his religious writings, the extent of which actually eclipsed his scientific production.  His heretical Arian beliefs foreshadowed modern Unitarianism, but he swore under oath to be a Trinitarian so that he could teach at Cambridge. 

Newton’s colleagues called him fearful, cautious, suspicious, insidious, ambitious, excessively covetous of praise, and impatient of contradiction. Even his relatives and his true friends were modest in their praise of Newton. Physically sound in his life, he died at 84. He had lost only one tooth, still had much of his hair, and read without glasses. Yet, he was a hypochondriac, suffering from illnesses and diseases that he treated with medicines he made for himself.  

Newton's Reflector built by Himself
Newton’s many biographers illuminate different aspects of his life.  To Richard S. Westfall, he was “never at rest.”  Michael White called him “the last sorcerer” a soubriquet first suggested by John Maynard Keynes.  Newton did bring his alchemical knowledge to the Mint to test the gold plate for coinages; and he also conducted time-and-motion studies to improve efficiency.  But David Berlinski closed his story when Newton was appointed to the Mint, calling the last 30 years of his life “uninteresting.”  Yet that is where MIT professor of science journalism, Thomas Levenson, begins his narrative.  Richard P. Feynman once sought to treat his students to a complete demonstration of Newton’s proof of Kepler’s Laws and found that he could not: thanks to the calculus, we have forgotten much geometry. 

The fundamental industrial technology we take for granted is possible only because of Newton.  Moreover, his work launched the Enlightenment, offering a rational and experimentally-testable explanation for both celestial and mundane motion.  This suggested that all natural phenomena, including human events, could be understood by the same scientific method.   
Merry Newtonmas, everyone!
The Zebrowskis are part of small, but apparently growing, number of atheists, skeptics and other nonbelievers who make merry over Newton’s contributions to science and math—the discovery of gravity, the invention of calculus and the first reflecting telescope, to name a few.
Religion News Service 12/16/2011 here.

Merry Newtonmas 2012 here.


Berlinski, David. Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World. New York: Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Craig, Sir John. Newton at the Mint. Cambridge: University Press, 1946.
Craig, Sir John. "Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiters."  Notes and Records of the Royal Society (18), London: 1963.
Craig, Sir John. “Isaac Newton - Crime Investigator,” Nature 182, (19 July 1958), pages 149-152.
Keynes, Milo. “The Personality of Isaac Newton,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society (49), London: The Royal Society, 1995.
Levenson, Thomas. Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist (Boston;New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 336 pp. $25
Marotta, Michael. “Merry Newtonmas,” Newsgroups: rec.collecting.coins, Date: Mon, 25 Dec 2000 11:49:41 GMT
Marotta, Michael. “Sir Isaac Newton: Warden and Master of the Mint”
Newman, E. G. V. "The Gold Metallurgy of Isaac Newton." The Gold Bulletin Vol 8. No. 3, London: The World Gold Council, 1975.
Westfall, Richard S. Never at Rest: a Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
White, Michael. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. Reading, Mass.: Helix Books, Perseus Books, 1997., The Newton Project, Professor Rob Iliffe Director, University of Sussex, East Sussex - BN1 9SH Web site pages of the British Royal Mint.

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