Sir Isaac Newton: “I Can Calculate the Motions of the Planets, but I Cannot Calculate the Madness of Men”

Isaac Newton, the most incisive mind in the history of science, reportedly uttered that sentiment about human nature. Why would he infer such negativity about his fellow humans? Newton’s scientific greatness stemmed from his ability to see well beyond human horizons. His brilliance was amply demonstrated in his great book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in which he logically constructed his “system of the world,” using mathematics. The book’s title translates from Latin as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, often shortened to “the Principia” for convenience.

The Principia is the greatest scientific book ever published. Its enduring fame reflects Newton’s ground-breaking application of mathematics, including aspects of his then-fledgling calculus, to the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of explaining motion physics. An overwhelming challenge for the best mathematicians and “natural philosophers” (scientists) in the year 1684 was to demonstrate mathematically that the planets in our solar system should revolve around the sun in elliptically shaped orbits as opposed to circles or some other geometric path. The fact that they do move in elliptical paths was carefully observed by Johann Kepler and noted in his 1609 masterwork, Astronomia Nova.

In 1687, Newton’s Principia was published after three intense years of effort by the young, relatively unknown Cambridge professor of mathematics. Using mathematics and his revolutionary new concept of universal gravitation, Newton provided precise justification of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion in the Principia. In the process, he revolutionized motion physics and our understanding of how and why bodies of mass, big and small (planets, cannonballs, etc.), move the way they do. Newton did, indeed, as he stated, show us in the Principia how to calculate the motion of heavenly bodies.

In his personal relationships, Newton found dealing with people and human nature to be even more challenging than the formidable problems of motion physics. As one might suspect, Newton did not easily tolerate fools and pretenders in the fields of science and mathematics – “little smatterers in mathematicks,” he called them. Nor did he tolerate much of basic human nature and its shortcomings.

 In the Year 1720, Newton Came Face-to-Face with
His Own Human Vulnerability… in the “Stock Market!”

 In 1720, Newton’s own human fallibility was clearly laid bare as he invested foolishly and lost a small fortune in one of investing’s all-time market collapses. Within our own recent history, we have had suffered through the stock market crash of 1929 and the housing market bubble of 2008/2009. In these more recent “adventures,” society and government had allowed human nature and its greed propensity to over-inflate Wall Street to a ridiculous extent, so much so that a collapse was quite inevitable to any sensible person…and still it continued.

Have you ever heard of the great South Sea Bubble in England? Investing in the South Sea Trading Company – a government sponsored banking endeavor out of London – became a favorite past-time of influential Londoners in the early eighteenth century. Can you guess who found himself caught-up in the glitter of potential investment returns only to end up losing a very large sum? Yes, Isaac Newton was that individual along with thousands of others.

It was this experience that occasioned the remark about his own inability to calculate the madness of men (including himself)!

Indeed, he should have known better than to re-enter the government sponsored South Sea enterprise after initially making a tidy profit from an earlier investment in the stock. As can be seen from the graph below, Newton re-invested (with a lot!) in the South Sea offering for the second time as the bubble neared its peak and just prior to its complete collapse. Newton lost 20,000 English pounds (three million dollars in today’s valuations) when the bubble suddenly burst.

Clearly, Newton’s comment, which is the theme of this post, reflects his view that human nature is vulnerable to fits of emotion (like greed, envy, ambition) which in turn provoke foolish, illogical behaviors. When Newton looked in the mirror after his ill-advised financial misadventure, he saw staring back at him the very madness of men which he then proceeded to rail against! Knowing Newton through the many accounts of his life that I have studied, I can well imagine that his financial fiasco must have been a very tough pill for him to swallow. Many are the times in his life that Newton “railed” to vent his anger against something or someone; his comment concerning the “madness of men” is typical of his outbursts. Certainly, he could disapprove of his fellow man for fueling such an obvious investment bubble. In the end, and most painful for him, was his realization that he paid a stiff price for foolishly ignoring the bloody obvious. For anyone who has risked and lost on the market of Wall Street, the mix of feelings is well understood. Even the great Newton had his human vulnerabilities – in spades, and greed was one of them. One might suspect that Newton, the absorbed scientist, was merely naïve when it came to money matters.

That would be a very erroneous assumption. Sir Isaac Newton held the top-level government position of Master of the Mint in England, during those later years of his scientific retirement – in charge of the entire coinage of the realm!


For more on Isaac Newton and the birth of the Principia click on the link:

Jet Engines and Michelangelo’s “Moses”

What do these two “finished products” have in common?

how-to-build-a-rolls-royce-trent-1000-jet-engine-used-in-the-boeing-787_5[1]SI Exif
The “reason” side of us acting alone would likely prompt the quick response, “Not much!” After some careful thought, our “reflective” side could provide some convincing arguments to support the contention that these two seemingly diverse objects, one from the world of technology, one from the art world, actually have much in common. Here is the way I see it.

The famous “Moses” at Rome, sculpted in hard marble by Michelangelo, represents the epitome of man’s ability to represent life and human nature using artistic mediums. In Moses, the inherent artistic genius of Michelangelo is brought to full bloom by the countless hours of diligent study and practice he devoted to mastering the techniques of working with marble. One man’s extreme dedication to his artistic cause has given us such priceless art as Moses, the Pieta, and the Sistine Chapel just to name a few.

As with Michelangelo’s Moses, the modern turbojet engine used in today’s airliners is the epitome of a product which demanded extreme dedication to a cause – only, here, the dedication extends over decades, indeed centuries, as armies of thinkers, scientists, and engineers fought to understand nature and natural forces.

Michelangelo’s Moses began as nothing more than a rudimentary “chunk” of marble; correspondingly, man’s knowledge of the various technologies inherent in modern turbojet engine designs ranged from rudimentary to non-existent as recently as four hundred years ago – well after Moses emerged from his marble prison. Michelangelo at least had his toolbox of fairly refined chisels and sculpting tools with which to work. The early “natural philosophers,” as early scientists and technologists were called, had little with which to work. They initially faced a confusing scramble of nature’s puzzle-pieces requiring painstaking assembly into a larger picture before true technology was possible.

Even allowing for whatever handed-down knowledge the artist might have received from mentors and colleagues, I see Moses more as the ultimate tribute to a single man’s talent and determination. I see the modern turbojet engine (and virtually all other technological wonders) as the ultimate tribute to mankind as a whole – the cumulative outcome of generations who worked to build our technology hierarchies. The iPhone, the modern automobile, the internet – these and all such technology triumphs are a tribute to the human spirit and its desire to “know.”

Highly-Polished Works of Art!

Michelangelo sculpted Moses cut-by-cut, chip-by-chip. And when Moses’ rough form finally emerged from the block of marble, he polished the innumerable rough spots – over and over again until the rippling muscles in Moses’ forearms fairly glistened of sweat. Like Moses, the modern turbojet engine is a highly-polished work…of the technological art, but with a much-extended gestation period and many fathers!

We recently returned from a two-week trip to New England, made possible by the marvels of modern aviation…and, specifically, the turbojet engine. Whenever I travel, I am cognizant of this monument to man’s ingenuity and dedication. Today, these engines are called upon to power countless tons of aircraft, passengers, baggage and cargo into the sky, hour after hour, trip after trip, week after week, without hesitation and without the need for frequent maintenance. Today, jet engine performance and reliability are so highly refined that travelers rarely think twice about flying over the rugged, isolated regions of polar routes in a large aircraft with only two engines.

A Bit of Historical Perspective

Jet engines were not so reliable in early aircraft. As a young boy, I recall numerous accounts of early jet fighter planes going down due to “flameouts” where the continuous fiery combustion and expelling of combustion materials out the back ceases and all thrust is lost. That problem and other major issues have long been solved. Today’s engineering efforts are focused on fuel efficiency and performance/cost factors along with quieter operation.

I also recall the public interest and excitement when the first U.S. commercial jet airliner service began – in 1959. My family lived not too far from San Francisco International Airport at the time. We could see the earliest American Airlines Boeing 707 jetliners off in the distance on final approach to the airport. It is interesting, today, to recall the fascination and excitement attendant to the advent of the commercial jet age, especially in light of today’s tendency to take it all for granted – which is a shame. I am a firm believer that when society loses its sense of wonder and perspective, it has lost something vital and precious.

The fundamental principle of physics which explains rocket and jet propulsion was first formally identified by Isaac Newton in his scientific masterpiece of 1687 – his book known as the “Principia” (See my post of Oct. 27, 2013, “The Most Important Scientific Book Ever Written: “Conceived” in a London Coffee House).

The third of Newton’s foundational “three laws of motion” states:

For every action, there exists an equal and opposite reaction

Despite this revelation and other fundamental physical principles so expertly articulated by Mr. Newton in 1687, much more physics and many new technologies were required for the first baby-steps on the long journey necessary to produce “engines” capable of powering our human desire to travel. The critical mass of required knowledge had not materialized until the nineteen-thirties when Frank Whittle, an English engineer, built the first laboratory version of a jet engine; it was operating by 1937.


 An early Whittle engine

As with so many technologies, potential military applications provided great momentum to the product development cycle of the jet engine. The first airplane to fly powered solely by a turbojet was the German Heinkel 178, in 1939. In the 1944/45 time frame of World War 2, German engineering produced the Messerschmitt 262, the first jet-powered operational aircraft.


 Messerschmitt 262

While much faster than the propeller-driven aircraft of the Allies, the planes were too few, too late, and plagued with reliability issues (including its pioneering jet engines) for it to be a decisive weapon in the war.

The die was cast by the end of the war, however; the jet engine’s rapid maturation and future domination was inevitable. One of the technologies which quickly matured out of necessity was the science of materials which dealt with the  “strength of materials” and their physical properties. The multiple internal turbine-fans spinning at very high speeds are populated with hundreds of turbine “blades.” The metallurgy to insure that these relatively small blades withstand the extreme forces and temperatures they experience requires a sophisticated metallurgical knowledge.

An interesting aside: One of the very first “textbooks” on the strength of materials was written by Galileo Galilei in 1638. The first half of Discourses on Two New Sciences is Galileo’s pioneering analysis of material strength and reliability – one of the “two new sciences.” The second half consists of his milestone revelations on the developing science of motion physics. The latter work qualifies this book as one of the most important science books ever published, one tier below Newton’s Principia of 1687 – like all other books except Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

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The next time you are at an airport, you might make it a point to observe jet aircraft which pull into a gate, power down, and sit there awaiting the next flight. The engine turbine fans can be seen still spinning 45 minutes after power-down, thanks to the superb, ultra low-friction ball-bearing designs which support the rotor shafts. You might notice also a “curly-cue” spiral painted on the front of the fan assembly just inside the engine cowl. They are there to provide easy visual indication that an engine is powered-up and turning at very high RPM. The tremendous appetite of these engines for air creates enough suction at the front-end to actually ingest ground crew members who get too close. This has, in fact, happened many times over the decades. Like the whirling propellers on older aircraft, jet engine intakes pose a deadly hazard to the folks who work around them.

Engine manufacturers such as General Electric and the U.K.’s  Rolls-Royce have learned enough of nature’s secrets to manufacture this product with an almost inconceivable reliability and performance capability. There is one aspect of nature which has proven stubborn to control and deal with, however.

Modern Jet Engines are NOT for the Birds!

The greatest enemy of the jet engine appears to be …birds! Our science and engineering capabilities have not figured out how to prevent the ingestion of our fine feathered friends into the compressor blades of these engines; it happens all too often. Do you recall Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and his short trip into the Hudson River minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia in New York? No engine is tough enough to digest a large bird and spin merrily along as if nothing happened. Oh well, even Moses has always been susceptible to “chipping” if not handled carefully.

One final comment about the similarities drawn between Michelangelo’s Moses and the highly developed modern jet engine: I am certain that jet engine technology will continue to evolve and that the end-product will improve even beyond today’s high standard. I am not sure there will be anyone coming along anytime soon who will improve upon Michelangelo’s “design!”





Addicted to Books

For some, alcohol is the indispensable commodity. For others, it is drugs. For a number of us, books prove to be irresistible and foremost among those things in life that we cannot do without. It is fascinating to reflect on why that should be the case for millions of booklovers all over the world. The answers to such musings are many and varied, I suspect. The feelings of attachment can be very strong.

409px-Carl_Spitzweg_021[1] “The Bookworm” by Carl Spitzweg

When she was ill and dying, Jacqueline Kennedy reportedly asked to have some of her favorite books moved into her room. Presumably, she was not embarking on a final reading binge; she apparently wanted them near so she could spend just a bit more time with old and dear friends before the end came. I can completely understand that impulse, for a true bookworm becomes very attached to books.

 The Allure of Books

What is it about books? Where to start? For fiction fans, there is the pure entertainment factor and the escape from life’s hum-drum. The ability of a well-written story to whisk the reader away from today’s here-and-now troubles, even for a little while, is a powerful draw. The literary voyage can transport one anywhere, from the exotic capitals of civilized Europe, to the darkest jungles of Africa – even to the contradiction of Antarctica’s desolate yet serenely beautiful landscape of white. Time is equally capricious; the story can take place hundreds of years in the past, or, just as plausibly,at some time in the far distant future – as in science fiction. And what adventures await the reader/voyager along the way and at the final destination? Anything a creative writer can imagine is possible! Espionage and intrigue, great battles fought long ago, a journey to newly discovered planets – the list is endless.

The most effective fiction books, as with screenplays, are those that weave their spell using superb character development and portrayal. Human nature and societal behavior, as vividly displayed in text, is seemingly among the most inexhaustible of captivating themes. The great novelists all had superb skills in that regard; Charles Dickens always comes to mind for me.

Fiction allows the reader to live vicariously through the main characters – like Walter Mitty. Readers enjoy tagging along with characters who, perhaps unlike themselves, dare to live life to the fullest while dismissing danger, forsaking the conventional, and ignoring social taboos.

There is a large divide between fans of fiction and readers of strictly non-fiction books. Sure, there is often much overlap in interests, but I find that people tend to reside in one camp or the other. Followers of this blog have surely deciphered how I spend most of my reading hours. Although I am aware of missing out on something very good, I do not read much fiction. Why is that? I am in the vexing position of the kid in the candy store when it comes to reading – too many wonderful choices, both fiction and non-fiction. “Too many books, too little time” constitutes the short version of my plight. I have on my shelves, a small selection of excellent fiction; these are books I have obtained mainly because of their universal appeal as great literature and because of the fact that I know I would enjoy them. I really want to read The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Last of the Mohicans, etc. It is the fault of those not-yet read non-fiction books on my shelves that I have not gotten very far into my carefully selected fiction shelf. I will read them in due time, God willing.

 Fact Is Stranger than Fiction

At first that may seem a trite expression, but I find its declaration to be quite true. I gravitate toward true stories for two reasons: First, because they are true – they really happened to real people; second, because, often, “you just can’t make this stuff up” as the saying goes. Why read fictionalized history when the real thing is every bit as intriguing and the real-life protagonists are just as remarkable as any character imaginable? Well, that’s just my take!

The name of this blog is Reason and Reflection: Reason as in science, mathematics, and logical thought – knowledge; Reflection as in a fascination with the human side of life – wisdom. The name reflects my eclectic interests in pretty much everything – from science and mathematics to the nature of the human condition.

Books as Repositories of Knowledge and Wisdom:
This, for Me, Is the Ultimate Attraction


This concept, this view of books as precious repositories of mankind’s accumulated knowledge and wisdom, is the glue which forms such strong bonds to many booklovers. The ideas and discoveries which have changed the nature of human existence have virtually all surfaced, or at least survived, on pages nestled between the covers of books – books which silently preside over the years, the decades, the centuries, on library shelves….somewhere. After 1454 and the emergence of Gutenberg’s printing press, the holy-grail of such printed repositories has been the first editions which initially made the breakthroughs of great thinkers readily available to their fellow man. In rare cases, the “earliest available versions” of books are ancient, one-of-a-kind, hand-written texts which have managed to survive. The printed book is clearly the workhorse of this early “information age,” however. And many of the thoughts and discoveries disseminated in books have fundamentally changed man’s view of himself and his place in the cosmos. See my earlier post on Isaac Newton’s Principia (in the archives) from October 27, 2013, The Most Important Scientific Book Ever Published: Conceived in a London Coffee House.

 The Great Books: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience at Stanford University

Several years ago, Stanford University offered a course on “The History of the Book” through its continuing education program. I fortunately heard about it through my younger daughter, another great fan of books and reading. The several-week course convened on campus in the rare book library. Led by one of the university’s rare book librarians, the classes were structured as two hours of lecture and one hour of “show-and-tell.” The lectures were fascinating, and covered all aspects of “the book” from early forms of books and their construction to printing and collation (organization and page-numbering), bindings, and historical importance. Many of history’s greatest books were covered, from science to philosophy.

Principia 3rd 1726_1During the lecture phase, the instructor would produce, from his ever-present cart, a book to illustrate his point. The books he chose were often first editions of the most important books that exist. I cannot accurately recall them all, but a typical lot would reflect authors like Pliny, Copernicus, Vesalius, Galileo, Kepler, Hobbs, Newton, Adam Smith, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and so-on. After each lecture, the books on the cart were wheeled over to join others open for perusal on the long library tables. The class of approximately twenty adults was invited to roam about and personally examine, even “thumb-through,” some of the greatest books ever written – many of them present in their rare, first editions. The instructor was available to answer any and all questions, and there were many.

Often, when the class was over and we had filtered out of the rare book library and into the dark, pleasant coolness of the spring evening, my head was spinning as I contemplated what I had seen…and touched. We students had the privilege of holding, in our own two hands, the well-springs which revealed much of humanity’s accumulated knowledge and wisdom – centuries-worth, many in their original, first edition formats. The total value of such books on the rare book market, today, is very high; their true value: Priceless.

A Reference Library – Steps Away

I have, over many years, accumulated a reference library on science and the history of science. These are books that, while very affordable, are valuable resources on scientific milestones and biography. Since I enjoy writing on matters scientific, it is handy to have these books nearby.

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Above, you can see what happens when there are too many books and not enough bookshelves!

My wife loves books, too, and she has her own collection. She is a fan of the author/illustrator, Tasha Tudor, and this is one of her favorite items. Long live books!


The Key to Physical Attraction…It’s Called “Gravity” (and “Love”)

As unlikely as it may seem, the language of science has expressions in common with the language of love. The notion of  “physical attraction”  has roots in both. We humans are selectively attracted to others during our lifetimes, yet we are constantly attracted, in reality, to everyone and every thing in the universe as revealed by Isaac Newton in his masterwork of science, the Principia. Two marbles, one inch apart on a smooth table, exert an attractive force on one another which would tend to draw them together, except that the force is too small to overcome the rolling friction on the table. Yet, on the larger scale of the sun and planets, the forces of attraction between such massive bodies are immense.

Newton & Apple_1

 “Falling” in love may happen but rarely in our personal lives, yet we are, in fact, constantly falling – even though we are not conscious of the reality. All earth-bound denizens fall constantly… toward the sun as the earth orbits our nearest star. That motion, due to gravity, of continually “falling toward the sun” works in concert with a component of planetary motion tangential to the orbit to define the path of our earth around the sun. That tangential component of motion represents the inertial path the earth would take if the gravitational attraction to the sun suddenly ceased. The concept of  “gravity” has historically been one of mankind’s greatest comprehension challenges – one of nature’s great mysteries.

 Earth Orbit_1

Early man’s curiosity as to why things apparently fall toward the center of the earth was at least temporarily assuaged (for hundreds of years) by Aristotle’s assertion some two thousand years ago that the earth’s center was the “natural center of the universe,” hence the logical place for objects to congregate (prior to Copernicus in 1543, the sun and planets were assumed to revolve around the earth). The great mathematician/scientist, Johannes Kepler, in the early seventeenth century was an early disciple of Copernicus’s sun-centered solar system and one of the first to seriously contemplate what kind of natural, physical mechanism was at play to keep the planets moving around the sun as they do. He conjectured that perhaps some form of solar, “magnetic” winds or vortices swept the planets along in their almost-circular paths. It was generally believed, prior to Newton, that whatever phenomena, or “force,” that caused apples to fall to earth was distinct and different from the celestial forces that held the heavens together. For a long time, celestial motions beyond the moon were even attributed to divine influence and motivation.

It took the genius of Isaac Newton to declare, in his 1687 milestone book on science and mathematics, that earthly gravity and heavenly forces are one and the same – hence, universal. Indeed, Newton claimed that all objects of mass in the universe attract all other objects to greater or lesser degrees via the force of universal gravitation. He stated that the nature of gravity and the equation which describes how it works is applicable everywhere and at all times – a truly “universal” law of nature! Although Newton explained the scientific version of “physical attraction,” he wisely made no attempt to explain the underpinnings of the version expressed in the language of love. Nor will we! That remains as captivating and mysterious as ever and seemingly beyond the ability of science and mathematics to explain.

But Newton really did not explain what gravity is or why it acts the way it does; he admitted so in the 1713 second edition of the Principia stating: “Non fingo hypotheses,” which, translated from Latin declares, “I feign no hypotheses!” He was criticized by his peers for his advocacy of this mysterious force-at-a-distance; they asked, “How can a body like the sun transmit, through empty space, the tremendous forces necessary to steer the planets?” His contemporary critics should have called to mind that other mysterious force which travels through space – magnetism, in the form of the magnetic field – which also has the power to attract objects. Newton was sage enough and courageous enough to stick by his contentions even though he could not explain them all. Although his famous equation does not hint at why gravity works the way it does, it describes precisely how it works – well enough to be used by NASA for its precise orbital computer computations. Despite the tremendous success of his theory of gravity and his numerical analysis of it, Newton did not – could not at that time – grasp the true essence of gravity. This is a remarkable situation which aptly reflects the reality that science will continue to inexorably peel-back, layer by layer, the deepest mysteries of our existence. Sometimes, genius like Newton’s transcends the state-of-the-art and “the possible”…for a while.

 Albert Einstein Peels Back Another “Layer” of Gravity

It took Albert Einstein’s 1916 general theory of relativity to go Newton “one better” and unmask the true face of gravity. Planets including the earth go around the sun in almost-perfect circles (ellipses) and not off into distant space not due to an explicit force of attraction between themselves and the sun as Newton proposed; Einstein showed that they are merely following a “natural path” determined by the curvature of four-dimensional space-time around the sun. That curvature is caused by the presence of the sun’s mass. All bodies of mass curve space-time in their vicinity. Einstein advanced physics immeasurably by contributing this radically unique physical interpretation of all gravitational effects. The complexity of Einstein’s mathematics in the general theory of relativity required to demonstrate this conclusively dwarfs Newton’s simple equation for an attractive force as presented in the first illustration of this post. Nonetheless, Newton’s achievement regarding gravity remains one of the greatest milestones in the history of science.

The Makers of  Universes!

George Bernard Shaw’s famous toast to Albert Einstein who was sitting near him at a tribute dinner held in 1930 at the Savoy Hotel in London, is well-known and oft-referred to. After extolling the virtues of mathematicians and scientists who, through the ages, have built “universes” instead of merely fractious empires like Napoleon and others, Shaw concluded by saying, “Ptolemy [the early astronomer/philosopher] made a universe which lasted 1400 years; Euclid [the great mathematician and founder of modern geometry] also made a universe which has lasted for 300 years; Einstein has made a universe, and I can’t tell you how long that will last!” Einstein is shown in the grainy black and white film footage clearly letting-go a big belly-laugh. Science does move relentlessly forward – always with a great assist from mathematics. Look at where we are today. Love and science do go together: To love studying the history of science and its impact on humanity is to experience what I call the “joy of science.”

Despite the phenomenal track record science has compiled while continually advancing the state of our knowledge and well-being, the greatest of all mysteries may prove to be beyond the comprehension of science: Who is the ultimate maker of universes and what can we truly know about that?

One of Einstein’s famous quotations says it beautifully: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

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

Prism Spectrum_PS Invert

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” !


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.”


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.

 TLC_2_PS Invert

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.

The Most Important Scientific Book Ever Written: “Conceived” In a London Coffee House

In last week’s post of October 20, 2013 titled Starbucks and the Long Tradition of Coffee Shops, we reflected on the creative dynamics that are often nurtured in the relaxed, contemplative environment of these establishments. We cited the genesis of the Harry Potter empire and the birth of Isaac Newton’s scientific masterwork, the Principia as examples.


In contemplating how to best present the fascinating story of Newton’s great book in this follow-up post, I decided to press a somewhat lesser work into service (tongue-in-cheek) – namely, my own book, The Elusive Notion of Motion: The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein which relates the principles and the historical development of motion physics in terms the layperson can understand.

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Accordingly, the body of this post relating the “conception” of the Principia in a London coffee house is excerpted from chapter 5 of my book. The good news? This chapter excerpt, like most of the book itself, requires no significant background in science/math!For more information about my book and how to order it, click the following link:

My Motion Physics Book

Excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Elusive Notion of Motion:

Newton Applies His Newfound Science of Dynamics
to the Clockwork of the Heavens; Birth of the Principia
from a Coffee House Wager

 The third major contribution to science and civilization to be found within the pages of the Principia is Newton’s application of his new dynamics to the problems of celestial mechanics—the science concerning the behavior of orbiting/moving heavenly bodies. The genesis of the Principia is a fascinating story which began with a specific question pertaining to the motion of the planets. The question was posed in 1684 by three illustrious members of England’s prestigious Royal Society. Their inquiry initiated the gestation process for Newton’s masterwork. At that time, the trio, known for their habit of adjourning to London’s coffee houses for far-ranging discussions of science and philosophy, was considering an important issue. Edmond Halley (of comet fame), Sir Christopher Wren (the famous architect-scientist), and one Robert Hooke raised the following question: What would be the mathematical description of the path of an orbiting planet around the sun if the force of attraction on the planet from the sun were inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them? The actual motion of the planets, based on meticulous observations of Mars, was certainly already available, provided by Johannes Kepler in his famous book of 1609, Astronomia Nova—the New Astronomy. In it, Kepler proposed the first two of his three laws of planetary motion. From chapter 3, we see again that Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion are:

1. The planetary orbits around the sun are elliptical.

2. A planet sweeps out equal areas (over the ellipse) in equal times as it travels around the sun via a line drawn from the sun to the planet. A natural result of this fact is that a planet travels fastest when it is closest to the sun.

3. The mathematical squares of the times of revolution of planets around the sun is proportional to the mathematical cubes of their mean, or average, distances from the sun.

Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion were not so well known in 1684, but it seems plausible that at least his first law specifying the ellipse for planetary orbits was recognized by the trio of Royal Society members. The fact that they were postulating an inverse-square force for such orbiting planets implies an educated guess based, perhaps, partly on Christian Huygens’ recently published result quantifying centrifugal force for a mass moving circularly about a center. At that time, there were no accepted theories as to what held the planets in orbit or how any such force mechanism acted as a function of separation distance. The three laws of Kepler were most certainly known to the young, virtually unknown mathematician-philosopher at Cambridge University, Isaac Newton.

The challenge among the three friends was to prove that the ellipse was the correct path for bodies, subject to a supposed inverse-square force of attraction, something that Kepler was never in a position to do; his first law was determined using Tycho Brahe’s superb observational data and Kepler’s own meticulous curve-fitting calculations.

Robert Hooke promptly claimed that he could demonstrate the argument for an ellipse as the resulting orbit, but he fell far short of the mark when pressed by Wren and Halley to produce his proof. Halley then suggested that they contact the young man out at Cambridge University who had developed a local reputation for clever thinking and a command of mathematics. Hooke had crossed paths with Newton years earlier over the subject of optics and light. Their correspondence on those matters had been hostile, prompting Newton to generally avoid Hooke when possible during the intervening years. Halley took it upon himself to travel out to Cambridge in August of 1684 to meet with Newton. When asked the question concerning the expected orbit of a planet subject to a force proportional to the inverse square of the distance, Newton casually replied that it would be an ellipse. When Halley asked how he knew that, Newton stated that he had calculated it, whereupon the excited Halley pressed to see his proof. Newton shuffled his papers in a halfhearted attempt to find his derivation but sent the disappointed Halley home empty-handed with a promise to renew the proof and send it to him.


  Newton’s Mathematical Derivation of Kepler’s Second  Law of Planetary Motion

De Motu—Newton’s Embryonic Principia

In November of 1684, Halley received by messenger a small, nine-page treatise called De Motu Corporum In Gyrum (On the Motion of Bodies in Orbit).

When Halley perused the paper, he was dumbfounded, recognizing at once that not only had Newton provided the desired mathematical proof, but in so doing he clearly demonstrated elements of a new science of dynamics which, in their generality, would revolutionize science, astronomy, and mathematics. This treatise, De Motu, was, of course, the kernel of what would soon become the Principia, the greatest scientific book ever published. Halley hurried back to Cambridge and, with all his considerable influence and powers of persuasion, convinced Newton to deliver a manuscript copy to the Royal Society in London as soon as possible. At this point, Newton dropped other activities which then heavily centered on alchemy and, finally seized by the importance of the new endeavor, devoted himself completely to it. Expanding his treatise De Motu, Newton soon was working on a manuscript to be published in book form by the Royal Society. Newton worked feverishly on the book for over two years, fashioning a manuscript that would revolutionize both science and man’s potential for future discovery. The resulting manuscript was an incredible compilation of pioneering concepts and mathematical physics which no one else could have likely assembled in a lifetime, let alone two years.

When the time came to publish Newton’s book, the Royal Society had run out of funds due to recent large outlays for a book on fishes which had flopped and drained the organization’s coffers. Halley, being a man of science himself and realizing the great importance of Newton’s manuscript, took responsibility for the arrangements and the cost of publishing by personally guaranteeing funds. Halley was not at all financially flush at this time, so his personal gamble was great; seldom in recorded history has there been a better bet. Other than writing the book itself, Halley shouldered the burden of the entire enterprise, which included dousing a heated imbroglio between Newton and Robert Hooke. This crisis flared when Hooke again surfaced in Newton’s life just prior to publication, soliciting credit for a suggestion on celestial mechanics made in a letter he had sent to Newton back in 1679. That 1679 letter had been composed during a period of reconciliation by Hooke after earlier disputes with Newton over Newton’s publication on the nature of light in 1672. In this new letter, Hooke asked Newton to communicate any objections to his proposal that the motion of the planets could be visualized as the compound result of a tangential motion and an attractive force directed toward a central (to the orbit) body.

What Hooke was proposing here, he had published in his Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth, published in 1674. This theory he was asking Newton to critique was no less than the key to the orbital dynamics of heavenly bodies. He proposed that the motion of a planet around the sun—indeed, the motion of any orbiting body—is comprised (compounded) of both a tangential (to the path of the orbit), straight-line motion and a motion toward the central body which is produced by an attractive force between the two bodies. The inherent tendency to move in a straight line along a tangent to the orbit is, or course, due to the property of inertia as ultimately stated in Newton’s first law of motion. The fact that the orbiting body does not take a tangential path out into space but continually “falls” toward the central body is due to the force of gravitational attraction between the two masses, which curves the motion inward. Although Newton had not yet formulated his theory of universal gravitation, he and others such as Hooke were prepared to acknowledge that there could well be an attractive force between heavenly bodies which supported orbital paths. The point here is that Hooke cannot be credited with postulating universal gravitation prior to Newton because Hooke was not really cognizant of a universal force—governed by one consistent equation—for all bodies of mass at all locations in space. Rather, he more likely visualized any attractions between bodies of mass as peculiar to the particular system under consideration.

Although he missed the potential of universal gravitation, Hooke had instead likely been the first to describe and publish the key concept underlying orbital dynamics—his compounded orbital motion theory. Indeed, the argument can be made that, prior to Hooke’s communication, Newton had a fuzzy view of the situation. Newton tended to think of an inward force of gravitational attraction balancing an outward force or tendency which he and others termed centrifugal force. The accepted view of modern physics provides no credence for the concept of centrifugal force. Newton’s response to Hooke’s theory was ambivalent, initially. With his letter, Hooke undoubtedly jarred into action the Cambridge professor’s vast intellectual powers. Once Newton realized at some later point—undoubtedly rather quickly—that Hooke had possibly trumped him and nailed a crucial point defining orbital dynamics, it must have been a bitter pill. In retrospect, it took no less a mind than Newton’s to synthesize the patchwork of known physics into a comprehensive system of the world in the Principia of 1687. Certainly, Hooke, nor anyone else, could have even come close. One cannot fault Hooke for wanting mention in the Principia for, in his mind, contributing a key piece of the puzzle. Curiously, however, he apparently viewed as his claim to fame not his theory of compounded motions but rather the inverse-square (of distance) law for the sun’s attractive force on the planets. The latter concept had been mentioned also in his letter to Newton in 1679 and had been essentially an educated guess on Hooke’s part. Newton had mathematically deciphered the inverse-square force relationship years earlier than Hooke’s letter and was in no mood to give him credit for Hooke’s guesswork on that score. Newton’s fury at Hooke for claiming any form of credit might well be attributed to their generally tempestuous relations over the years, but the fact that Hooke trumped him on the key concept of compounded orbital motion could not have sat well with an ego like Newton’s. It is not likely that Newton would have been receptive to Hooke even if Hooke had more properly claimed credit for his compounded motion theory of orbits instead of the inverse-square law.

Lashing out at Hooke through Halley, Newton threatened to withhold the final part, or third book, of the manuscript, which prompted the harried Halley to exercise all of his considerable tact and diplomacy with Newton. Newton railed at Hooke and his interference, with Halley as intermediary, while claiming that natural philosophy (science) is such a “litigious lady” that one should beware of becoming mired in her clutches. Referring to such priority battles, he claimed to have experienced her (science’s) hostile nature formerly and now each time he “approaches” her.

No mention of original contributions by Hooke appears in the Principia. While Newton did not steal from Hooke, he displayed no finesse in the situation, preferring to lash out at the slightest offense, real or imagined. Much was at stake for Halley personally as well as for science in general, and he finally prevailed as first copies of the completed book left the publisher in July of 1687.

History owes a great debt to Halley for enabling the Principia. Over many years, Halley and Newton remained on very good terms, always respectful of each other. This fact pays generous tribute to Halley’s competence, character, and diplomatic personality, for very few people whose paths crossed Newton’s were able to maintain an amicable relationship with him over any extended period of time.

End of excerpt…and closing comment

For those whose curiosity is tweaked re: Newton’s masterpiece, the Principia, I encourage you to explore the many books (in addition to mine) which relate, in layperson’s language, the essence and importance of his achievement. His book, more than any other, provided a giant leap forward for science and mathematics. Its impact changed and still influences the way we live our lives – lives heavily determined by the technological advances Newton’s genius enabled…and it all began in the coffee houses of London.