Saturday, December 20, 2014

Merry Newtonmas!

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

Godfrey Kneller's 1689 Portrait
  Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642. He invented calculus.  He established physics as a unified study of both terrestrial and celestial motion. He also offered a new proof of the Binomial Theorem (also called "Pascal's Triangle").  He presented an algorithm for rapidly finding square roots.  He invented the reflecting telescope.  He demonstrated that "white" light is comprised of colors.  He was President of the Royal Society, the national scientific association of Great Britain.  He was elected a Member of Parliament to represent Cambridge.  As Master and Warden of the British Royal Mint, he rescued Britain's economy from imminent disaster.  Any one of Newton's accomplishments would have left a historical record.  He did them all – and more.

Celebrating December 25 as “Newtonmas” is a complex field with many point sources.

Newtonmas enjoyed air time on The Big Bang Theory episode “The Maternal Congruence” on December 14, 2009. Richard Dawkins suggested it in The New Statesman for December 13, 2007.  That article did not celebrate Newton but only hurled projectiles at the traditional Christmas story.

Half Penny Tokens from Middlesex 1791
On December 16, 2011, USA Today carried a feature by their Religion columnist, Kimberly Winston, “On Dec 25 atheists celebrate a different holiday”. That article identified some of those independent beginnings. 
"I just made it up back in the 1990s as a joke, just to promote items we were selling," said Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society… "Everybody was giving me a hard time for calling our party a Christmas party so I said, 'Alright, I am calling it Newtonmas.” … Matt Blum, who wrote about Newtonmas in a 2007 post on Wired magazine's GeekDad blog, says his high school physics teacher marked Newton's birthday with experiments and "physics carols."(USA Today article here)
 However, Winston erred in claiming that an “1892 issue of Nature magazine bestows the carol credit on some Victorian-era English scientists.”  That article was about Japanese physics students.  “A New Sect of Hero-Worshippers” (Volume 46. No. 1193. Page 459. 8 September 1892) is available from the publisher for $18 if you are not a member, or can be found in Google Books. 

According to the article, three students at Tokyo University started Newtonmas in their dormitory before 1890.  “But as the undergraduates developed into graduates and assistants, the professors themselves were drawn into the field, a more suitable assembly hall was found in the University Observatory.”  By 1890, the Newtonkai (Newton Association;  = kai = “all”) was moved to the Physical Laboratory. There, they played games symbolic of great mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers: Newton’s apple, Franklin’s kite, a naked doll for Archimedes …
Replica of Newton's Reflecting Telescope
Moreover, Nature injected editorial doubt into the report.  Nature maintained that few scientists would know that Newton was born on December 25, 1642, (Old Style), accepting the date as January 5, 1643.   
Celestron 130 EQ Newtonian 
I offered Newtonmas in a radio script for WKAR-FM East Lansing in the early 1980s (1982-1984).  In that script, 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 cited the poet, I emphasized the word Pope – and then announced that Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642, the same year that Galileo died. 

Over the years, I sometimes sent out "Newtonmas cards" to our friends, most of whom we knew from college classes in computer science and related fields.  Our physics professor, Alan Saaf, occasionally called the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder a “Newton Burger” (1.0 N ~ .224 lb-f). I do not recall Dr. Saaf ever saying “Newtonmas” but he could have.
UK 1 Pound Note 1978-1982
When USA Today’s Kimberly Winston asked me about my inspiration, I confessed that it was a lark. She asked me about the present popularity and, frankly, I pointed to Kwanza which is an invented holiday, and also to Festivus from the Seinfeld comedies. We are allowed such bagatelles in our culture now. We could not have done this in 1642.


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