Wednesday, March 22, 2017

3 surprises from Isaac Newton’s biography

Recently I finished reading “The life of Isaac Newton” by Richard Westfall. It is a fairly detailed account of Newton’s life. We study Newton’s theories from our school days. We would have heard the story of “falling apple” multiple times. Newton’s fight with Robert Hooke and his friendship with Halley was familiar with me. So I wasn’t expecting any major surprises from this biography. And yet, I realized there were several surprises in store for me. Here are 3 major surprises:

Systematic challenge book: Nineteen year old Newton left his hometown Lincolnshire to join Trinity College at Cambridge as a student in June 1661. Barring two extended visits during the plague years, this was to be his home for the next eighteen years. Soon Newton started reading the work of intellectual giants of his time like Descartes, Galileo, Boyle and many others. However, he didn’t stop at just reading. Sometime in 1664, Newton created 45 headings in a notebook under which he would categorize the notes from his reading. The headings included – nature of matter, place, time, and motion, cosmic order, tactile qualities such as rarity, fluidity, softness, violent motion, light, colors, vision etc. He titled the book “Quaestiones quaedam Philosophaea” – “Quaestiones” for short. His notes would not be just copies of the interesting lines from the books he read. They would have a questioning tone.  For example, he would ask “Whither ye rays of gravity may bee stopped by reflecting or refracting ym, if so a perpetuall motion may bee made of these two ways.” He considered “Quaestiones” important enough that he later composed an index.

By the winter of 1664-65, Newton made a list of “Problems”. Initially he put down twelve and then modified the list to make it twenty two problems put under five categories. This list would occupy Newton for the next year. What surprised me is the systematic manner in which Newton created and maintained his challenge book.

Universal gravitation as a slow hunch: The story of falling of an apple and how it led to the discovery of the universal law of gravitation is one of the most famous stories in the history of science. It shows how a simple observation can lead to a deep insight. Westfall goes to some length in the book to dispel the myth behind the story. Yes, Newton did possibly have an insight when he observed a falling apple in 1666. However, he worked on the theory of gravitation for almost next twenty years. In fact, he systematically extended the scope of gravitation to moon, then to other planets, then to comets and then to everything.  By 1680, Newton still held the view that the gravitational force is specific to the solar system which contained related bodies.  He corresponded with Flamsteed, Director of Royal Astronomical Society, and obtained data about the motion of Jupiter’s satellites, on the effect of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and also on the comets. For two years, between 1684 to 1686, he almost locked himself up to focus on the problem of gravitation. Eventually, he was convinced of the universality of the law and he finished writing Principia in 1686. What surprised me in this case is the way Newton step-by-step extended his theory to include more and more objects by using real data from observatory over two decades.

Obsession with self-image:  Newton didn’t like criticism. And he fought with almost everyone who questioned him.  Once he believed in an idea, he went all out to get whatever he can to show that he was right. If it meant stealing data so be it. Once he considered a person to be his enemy, he made life very difficult for the person. This became even more prominent once he became the President of Royal Society and the manager of the Mint. For example, he stole data from Flamsteed’s astronomical observations and didn’t let anyone else access it for years. During his later years, he became obsessed with getting his portraits done. As a President of the Royal Society, he established a practice that the mace (a spray) be placed on the table only when the president was in the chair. Newton’s obsession with his self-image surprised me.

Reading the biography, I wondered if Isaac Newton was a beautiful mind with creativity, madness and no awakening. Who knows?

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