Friday, July 25, 2008

Newton, Apples, etc.

Ideas Great and Dumb is more about the ideas than the people who advanced them, but once in a while, it's fun to look at the individuals who contributed so much to our intellectual history.

Newton was certainly one of the most interesting characters in the history of science. There's a story that he once boiled his watch while staring at the egg. That would make him one of the first world famous total geeks.

It is true that Newton spent a year and a half at his family's estate in Lincolnshire when Cambridge University was closed due to plague in 1665. During that time, he discovered that white light can be decomposed into a spectrum by use of a prism, invented the reflector telescope, generalized the binomial theorem to work with any exponent, invented calculus, and demonstrated that the orbit of the moon around the earth is governed by an inverse square law of gravitation. Not bad for a school vacation. Upon Newton's return to Cambridge, his professor, Isaac Barrow, resigned his post and recommended Newton for the job.

Meanwhile, Newton's calculations for the moon's orbit were slightly off, due to his using an inaccurate number for the radius of the earth. Newton tossed the work in a drawer, and it remained there for 20 years. One day, Edmond Halley (namesake of the famous comet) approached Newton about the lunar orbit problem. Newton began rifling through his papers looking for the old work. This led to the observation that while all of Europe was looking for the law of gravity, Newton had lost it.

With Halley's prompting and support, Newton published his body of findings in a tome called Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or simply Principia, in 1687. That pretty much secured his reputation as one of the greatest scientific minds in history.

And the apple? As far as we can determine, that story is true. Newton's thinking about gravity was at least partly inspired by seeing an apple fall from a tree.

By the way, my particular inspiration for this rhyme, and to some extent the entire IGAD project, was a set of tapes from The Teaching Company called The Birth of the Modern Mind:The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries, by Alan Charles Kors.

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