Light and Colors and Isaac Newton’s Very First “Scientific Paper”

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The general public has long associated the name of Isaac Newton, the greatest “natural philosopher” (scientist) of all time, with the colors of the rainbow and that intriguing optical device, the prism. Very few people, however, appreciate the fact that science historians credit his 1671/72 journal publication, titled a New Theory About Light and Colors, as the first true example of what is now referred to as a “scientific paper.” Today, hundreds of such “papers” are added weekly to our trove of scientific knowledge. Being the first to publish one’s findings as a paper in a scientific/academic journal is the accepted way to claim priority for important scientific discoveries in today’s academic world. Newton, as usual, set the example of how science should be done with his publication which appeared in the journal of London’s prestigious Royal Society, the Philosophical Transactions.

Note: Beware the olde English style where “f” often represents “s” !

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Establishing the Tone for Scientific Disclosure

In his brief thirteen-page account, Newton contributed far more than merely a template on how to publish scientific discoveries, although it is justly famous for that, alone. The paper’s content revealed one of the great discoveries in the history of science: That “white” light is, in reality, composed of many colored light components all normally superimposed upon one-another to give the impression of “white,” or uncolored light! The phenomena of the prism with its ability to display the colors of the rainbow were well-recognized, but not understood, prior to Newton. Prevailing theories suggested that the prism-glass somehow “colored” the white light incident upon it. It had occurred to no one prior to Newton’s publication that “white” light might be composed of colors inherent in it, and that the prism merely bends, or “refracts,” the different colored components to varying degrees, thus producing the brilliant “color-fan” display that is seen. Newton proved his point in his milestone paper by combining logic and hypothesis with irrefutable experimentation – the core of a true scientific “paper.”

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Newton understood that the beautiful rainbows that grace the sky when the sun shines through the clouds of a rain-shower are produced by the myriad of water-droplets, each serving as tiny refracting prisms in the sky, dispersing the spectrum of color, far and wide. Newton’s experiments with prisms and a shaft of daylight entering his darkened chamber through a peep-hole in the “shade” were actually performed several years earlier, in 1665/66. His findings were part of his annus mirabilis, or “miracle year” of discovery, a year spent lying-low from the plague which was then sweeping London. It was during that year spent at his mother’s small farmhouse in outlying Woolsthorpe that he carried out these experiments along with others which formed the kernel for his unprecedented advancement of physics and mathematics in the years to come.

Newton Constructs the First Reflecting Telescope;
His First Brush with Fame

The events leading to the publication of Newton’s paper in 1671/72 are interesting and pertinent. His discovery that the colors inherent in “white” light are bent, or refracted, to differing degrees by glass prisms had illustrated to him why more powerful telescopes suffered from “color fringes” around their magnified images. The glass objective focusing lens of a telescope, like a glass prism, also refracts the different colors inherent in the incoming image to varying degrees, hence the “color fringes” surrounding the magnified image at the eyepiece. Armed with this new insight into a common optical problem, Newton decided to build, with his own hands, the first-ever “reflecting” telescope. This then-revolutionary approach utilized a suitably curved mirror-surface to focus the incoming light. Unlike refraction, reflection angles are independent of light color, or “wavelength.” The usual color fringes created by “chromatic aberration” were, thus, eliminated in a reflecting telescope. Newton built his small demonstration reflector while a fellow at Cambridge University where he had completed his initial degree work in 1665.

Reports of Newton’s intellect as well as his reflecting telescope soon reached the prestigious Royal Society of London which received from Newton, not only a requested demonstration of his new “invention,” but a donation of the instrument itself. The normally reticent and reclusive Newton was clearly seduced by the enthusiastic response accorded him and his telescope by the finest scientific minds in London; this flattery produced, from him, the enthusiastic promise to the Society of a special “surprise” to come. That surprise was the almost-immediate submission of his scientific paper on a New Theory About Light and Colors to the society’s secretary, Henry Oldenburg. Right on the heels of that paper – his very first scientific publication – came his second, an account of his reflecting telescope – also in the society’s Philosophical Transactions.

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Fame Brings Storm Clouds for Newton:
Enter Robert Hooke, Newton’s Lifelong Adversary

 Newton’s uncharacteristic euphoria over the initial reception accorded him and his telescope by the Royal Society was short-lived. One of the charter members of the prestigious scientific society which was founded in 1662 under King Charles, the Second, came forth to challenge Newton’s paper on light and colors. Robert Hooke, an acknowledged expert on optical science, began an exchange of letters with Newton which finally caused Newton, in considerable frustration, to abandon all such scientific correspondence with people he considered to be incorrigibly “uninformed” or devious – with Hooke at the head of the list. Hooke was to remain there until the end – literally. In the meantime, Newton reverted to his ingrained reclusive personality, remaining very reticent to publish any of his other momentous accomplishments. It is generally believed that Newton’s second milestone book in physics, the Opticks, which defined the science of light and optics, was intentionally withheld from publication by him until 1703…the year of Hooke’s death! Newton was more greatly annoyed by gadfly “questioners” like Hooke – “smatterers,” he called them – than he was worried about defending the merits of his own work – which took much of his time. For more on Newton, Hooke, and Newton’s greatest work, the Principia of 1687, see my earlier post of October 27, 2013: The Most Important Scientific Book Ever Written: “Conceived” in a London Coffee House. It can be found in my blog archives for October, 2013.

For More on Isaac Newton:

 When I put on my “hat” of complete personal objectivity and proceed to conjure-up the most important person in recorded human history (excluding religious), Isaac Newton comes up number-one with Albert Einstein, a near-second. Their histories, both personal and scientific, are unquestionably among the most interesting and most significant.

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If this and other posts of mine have seriously whetted your appetite to know more about Isaac Newton, I recommend the challenging, but definitive biography, Never at Rest, by the late Newton scholar, Richard Westfall.

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