MathPhysicsScience

Icons of Science: Sir Isaac Newton

Welcome to the alumni gallery I like to call: Icons of Science, where I shall discuss the work and influence of some of the best known people in the world of science throughout the ages, and, where I can find it, give credit where credit is due. Starting of with Sir Isaac Newton, easily in the top three most famous physicists of all time, we have someone with a notoriously bad personality, whose calculus we no longer use although he demanded it, and an alchemist, but we’ll get to all of that later.

Probably best known for ‘Newton’s law of gravitation’, Isaac Newton built upon the knowledge gained from Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion to determine how the movements of stars and planets around each other could in fact be caused by the same force that makes an apple fall from a tree. In fact, next time you hear someone talking about how macro and microevolution aren’t the same thing this scaling up of seemingly small effects to huge, impactful effects makes gravity a pretty good analogy to invoke.

Whether or not the story is true, the inspiring tale of an apple falling on Newton’s head and inspiring his idea of gravity is one of the most famous and simple science stories, and shows just how simple and elegant an idea that turned out to be as complex as gravity seems to be, can be. (We needed Einsteins general and special relativity to get a clearer picture, and even since then we have yet to find the graviton, a theoretical force carrier that would explain the force’s subatomic origins.)

There was far more to Newton’s work than just gravity however, one such story is probably the main reason why Isaac Newton is often seen as more infamous than famous, and that story involves calculus.

Calculus, which I’ve heard described to me before as ‘the mathematics of things that move’ (you can be the judge of whether that’s accurate or not), or at least infinitesimal calculus was developed independently by both Newton and a man called Leibniz, leading to some controversy as to who should get credit. You might think that a man of many achievements such as Newton was might have been content to let one slide to someone who arguably deserved it. You’d be wrong. The decision was made at the royal society and Leibniz was shunned aside and calculus belonged to Isaac Newton.

You might think that this decision, given the fact that it was made by a well-respected body of scientists, was about as fair as you could get in the context of the controversy and the time period… no, that’s not the case, because the head of the royal society was everyone’s favorite genius douchebag Sir Isaac Newton. Yeah, no biased at all…

The fact is that these days we use Leibniz’s version of calculus, so the last laugh, I suppose, is on the genius who came up with loads of other inventions and remains world-renowned to this day…

Newton’s work on optics, on the other hand, didn’t get the scientific inspiration that gravity and calculus derived from, instead it would seem that he used some of the same methods he used in alchemy to analyse white light. No matter how pseudoscientific the field however, this led to the discovery that white light is a combination of all colors in the visible spectrum, and that they could be separated into such using a prism.

Alchemy’s defunct now of course, but many well-respected scientists spent a whole lot of their life’s work on it. It has been said that it dominated much of Newton’s time, and certainly if the field had turned out to be fruitful the results would have been earth-shaking. In the end though, however much of a nice idea it was, evidence spoke against it, and in science that’s a death sentence for a hypothesis, even one as long practiced as alchemy.

I hope to come back with another icon of science in the future, so keep your eyes peeled. This time, I promise, we’ll be talking about someone more humble, I promise.

[image credits: stanford, crystallinks, national geographic]

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Cat Strickson

Cat Strickson

Cat, or Elly, or Eddy, or whatever name they're going by these days, is a British palaeontologist and fantasy author. It's a pretty awesome skill set, but it doesn't pay much right now. They enjoy science, history, vidyagames and all things SFF.

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