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Thursday, November 27, 2003

Isaac Newton

I recently read James Gleick's short (190 pages) biography of Newton simply called Isaac Newton. I thought it was perfect for giving you a capsule view of his life and his research that went into his two famous books, the Principia and Opticks.

Gleick paints a picture of Newton as someone who couldn't stand criticism and so hid many of his ideas about the nature of light and "the calculus" for many years. He also does a good job explaining Newton's other (and arguably principle) passions for alchemy, prophecy, and Arianism (the belief that the Trinity is an invention of the church and that God is not distinct in three persons) that were not widely known until the 20th century.

I liked the book because it didn't go into great biographical detail and doesn't try to do much psychology but concentrates instead on his research and relationship to the scientific establishment of the day (the Royal Society in England had just been formed during Newton's youth).

A couple of other things that were interesting to me included the fact that Newton was the first to propose that white light was the combination of the other colors that were separated by a prism or raindrop instead of the idea that the prism somehow created the colors. He also noted the various angles of refraction for the colors of light. I'm sure this information passed by me in some course somewhere but I had forgotten it if it did.

Also I didn't realize that the idea that the force exerted on an object was inversely proportional to the square of the distance was being discussed at the time although Newton derived it independently. But it was Newton who then generalized the idea to include planets and comets and therefore proposed universal gravitation.

Finally, Gleick lays out the controversy between Newton and Leibniz regarding the discovery of the calculus. Newton clearly had priority by over 25 years (Newton did not use calculus in his Principia even though he could have since he wanted the book to be understood based on existing and accepted mathematical principles) but failed to publish first. However, 2 small points that I found interesting were that Newton, in correspondance with Leibniz, and sensing that he was about to be scooped, wrote him a letter in which part was encrypted. Newton then took the code and dated it in a sealed letter so he could later decode it and prove his priority. Second, Netwon used totally different symbols than Leibniz but it is Leibniz's symbols (for integrals for example) that ended up winning the day by the 19th century and that we used today (another fact I probably heard before).

Now if I could just remember anything about calculus from college other than that you can use it to compute the area under a curve and rates of change........

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