Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merry Newtonmas 2013

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said, 'Let Newton be'  and all was light.
Alexander Pope

Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642, the year that Galileo died.  For most people, Newton is famous for his Three Laws of Motion.  Beyond that, those with additional education know him for creating the Calculus to prove his theories of celestial and terrestrial mechanics. In addition Newton invented the reflecting telescope as a result of his experiments with light.  And he also proved the general case for the Binomial Theorem (“Pascal's Triangle”). He served in Parliament, representing Cambridge, where he had been a professor of mathematics.  He served as president of the Royal Society of scientists. Few people except numismatists know him to have been the Warden and Master of the British Royal Mint for thirty years.  He had himself sworn as a justice of the peace so that he could pursue and prosecute counterfeiters.  Any one of those achievements would have made important to us today. That he accomplished all of that - and more - set Sir Isaac Newton apart even from the geniuses and polymaths recorded by history.

Newton's Reflecting Telescope
 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.

Yr humble servant Ic Newton
The Cambridge Digital Library, Newton’s Papers.

The full story of Newton’s tenure at the Mint is told in Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson.  Professor Levenson’s narratives in this book have the inclusive force of videos.  He puts you on the teeming streets of London, inside the sweat and smoke of the Mint, down the dank alleys and into the rowdy, bawdy taverns where criminals swap and wager.

The First Newtonmas?
 “Celebration of Newtonmas can be traced back to 1890. An 1892 issue of Nature records it thus (on page 459): 
At Christmas 1890, or Newtonmas 248, for the first time, the members of the Newtonkai, or Newton Association, met in the Physical Laboratory of the Imperial University, to hear each other talk, to distribute appropriate gifts, and to lengthen out the small hours with laughter and good cheer. The Society has no President : a portrait of the august Sir Isaac Newton presides over the scene.” (
In 1982-1984 I was recording “Community Commentaries” for WKAR-AM/FM in East Lansing.  One holiday season, I built up the imagery of a little boy born in a small village across the sea who would grow up to bring light to the world.  When I quoted the poet's eulogy, I emphasized the word Pope - and then announced that Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642, the same year that Galileo died.  Since then, over the years, I have sent out Newtonmas cards to my friends.  I also posted Newtonmas greetings to Usenet newsgroups for numismatics and physics. 

Middlesex 1793 Half Penny Token
"Payable in London Bristol & Lancaster"
Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society has been celebrating Newtonmas for about 25 years.  Richard Dawkins touted Newtonmas in 2007. Blogging for the New York Times on December 23, 2008, Olivia Judson suggested that we capitalize on the change in calendars since Newton’s birth.  When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in the United Kingdom and its colonies in 1752, Newton’s birthday moved from December 25 to January 4.  Pointing to the fact that Christmas runs until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, Judson suggested celebrating Newtonmas for ten days.  In 2009, Newtonmas was a scene in The Big Bang Theory.
"The Maternal Congruence"
December 14, 2009


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