Christmas and Isaac Newton
Stevens F. Johnson
Christmas Break 2002 CE

Woolsthorpe Manor

In this column, I introduce an additional set of reasons why I believe we mere humans have reason to be thankful and rejoice this holiday season, beyond the usual traditional reasons. These "new" reasons have little to do with Christianity and faith per se, but are consistent, I contend, with the faith and hopes of most people today.

On Christmas day 1642, in the Manor House of Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, England, a boy was born so tiny that his mother later claimed he could have fit into a quart mug. His father had already died. By age 16, he had demonstrated sufficient scholastic promise as well as agricultural ineptness on the family farm that an uncle connected with Trinity College at Cambridge secured for him a position there that today we might describe as a work-study student. He graduated in 1665 just as another bout with the Plague hit London. Cambridge was shut down for the duration, and he returned to the family farm for most of the next two years. It was during this period of full leisure and quiet that he discovered and understood scientific concepts so grand and universal that their effects continue to shape the development of Science and Society to this day.

Isaac Newton. Notice the long hair.

About whom am I speaking? Isaac Newton, of course. (NOT Sir Isaac Newton, as I will explain later.) What were his accomplishments for those years? His discovery of the Binomial Theorem, the Rainbow of Colors within White Light, the Theory of Universal Gravitation and his famous Three Laws of Motion that explains the motions of the planets as well as terrestrial objects, and the basic principles of Differential and Integral Calculus (without which the mysteries of gravity and motion would have remained mysterious). When he returned to Cambridge in 1667, he was only 24, but had achieved so much that only a small fraction of which would have been enough to secure for him a substantial reputation in the history of Science!

Isaac Newton was the last of what I refer to as the Big Five (The others being Nicholas Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei) that comprised the bridge between the old Medieval Science (which was mostly Ancient Greek Science as preserved by the Arabs while Europe was in Dark Ages) and what we now call Modern Science. John Maynard Keynes, economist and noted scholar of Newton, described him as "the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago." Yet, he has the reputation as "the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason." [Keynes]

A prism spreading the colors of white light.

The reputation is with good reason. Newton considered the whole Universe a riddle, something to be solved "by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt..." [Keynes] However, he did not go about this riddle-solving in an arbitrary manner. He followed his own strict set of Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy. Loosely paraphrased, they are:

1. Assume no more causes to natural events and things than are true and sufficient to explain their appearances. That is, "[t]o this purpose the philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes." [Isaac Newton]
2. Hence, the same natural effects at different times and places must be accorded the same causes. For example, man and beast breathe in the same way and for the same reasons; rocks and stones are formed in the same ways in Europe as in America. [My words, Newton's examples]
3. The intrinsic properties of objects, as determined by scientific experimentation, should be classified as universal properties of all such similarly situated objects everywhere. That is, careful observation and experimentation is the sole basis for scientific classification of natural phenomena and we are not to infuse additional properties not so recordable. [Again, my words, Newton's meaning]
4. Propositions inferred from the results of experiments should not be ignored by reason only of contrary hypotheses that have not been experimentally verified. Instead, such propositions should in turn be experimentally tested. "This rule we must follow, that the argument of induction may not be evaded by hypothesis." [Newton]

Newton's first reflector telescope. He invented the reflector out of frustration with the chromatic aberration of lenses that allowed him to discover the colors of white light.

(By the way, the term Philosophy as used by Newton is short for Natural Philosophy, the phrase used then to signify the study of Physics. The word Physics did not replace Natural Philosophy until the nineteenth century.)

So what does all this stuff about Newton have to do with Christmas? Before answering that question, consider the consequences of his work.

What Newton accomplished not only set the mathematical foundation for Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry, but also set the rules by which we have been methodically and purposefully expanding the knowledge and understanding of those fields and others of Science, and for those outside of Science. (I must point out that Galileo, properly described as the original Mathematical Physicist, first established most of the rules for modern Experimental Science and for being the first to use Mathematics to describe and record the results of scientific experimentation. Newton, however, was the first to fully blend mathematical theory and experiment, and to show us how to do it.) The two fields I want to emphasize here are Applied Science in general, and Applied Physics in particular (otherwise known as Engineering), and Modern Government (otherwise known as Constitutional Democracy).

Isaac Newton set the process for us to take advantage of our accumulated knowledge and skill. Although Engineering was already a technical field of expertise long before Newton, what it was then would be described today as Civil Engineering and/or Military Engineering (The later being a redundant term, since the term engineer originally stems from a description of what military engineers typically did: Designing engines of war.). Until Newton, almost all design and construction of structures were done on a trial-and-error basis and using the experience (via trial-and-error) of those that came before them. Modern Engineering, by contrast, is much more deliberately a task of design at an earlier stage, and the testing of preliminary models and methods, as well as the final product, much more mathematical and reproducible. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is directly attributable to Isaac Newton and his immediate philosophical descendants, for otherwise, it would have taken place later, longer, and much more haphazardly.

The great technological advances of the twentieth (and now twenty-first) centuries are a continuation of this tradition. The great conveniences we have now (cheap and safe Transportation, cheap and safe Power and Heat, the Opportunity and Leisure and Health to learn and appreciate what earlier generations could not if they were not landed gentry or aristocracy, ...) is a legacy of Isaac Newton. The Wealth this offers us also allows us to more equitably share our bounty, to help others less fortunate, and to educate the less learned, so that they may too share the chances of happier and more peaceful Lives.

Visual summary of Newton's experiments and theories.

Constitutional Democracy was invented in the Western Hemisphere by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin (both Scientists of repute in their day) and many other founding fathers of the United States, who did so deliberately with Science in mind. They took to heart what Newton has instructed us: Accept the realities of Human Nature, both the good and the not-so-good, as they persist, and do not attribute qualities to those that do not demonstrably have them. They designed (as political engineers) a government, in a durable document we know as The Constitution, that could take advantage of the good qualities of Humans, could dampen and resist the effects of their bad qualities, and would refuse to depend upon those qualities that do not reproducibly exist in Humans or Others. Further, they inserted Mechanisms that would allow us to modify this new construct as we learn more about the World and ourselves (and as it and we may change). (In Controls Engineering, we describe this as the feedback loop of a machine.) All this they did knowing it was merely an experiment (a BIG experiment) with themselves as the subjects. It was (and still is) an experiment born of frustration with all previously known forms of government.

I would say, even for all the near-collapses (we have had at least five of them in two hundred years, by my count), corruption, abuse of power, neglect of the Constitution, and pressure from within as well as without to suspend our democracy, as they continue even to today the experiment has been quite successful. As a consequence, we have the Freedoms and Opportunities to live our lives as we see fit without undue interference from others whose only reason to interfere is because they think they can and should, so long as our personal version of a Good Life does not similarly interfere with those of others. And look at how many other countries have copied the idea, even if they modify it for their own situations. To date, I believe Winston Churchill said it best about Democracy: "It is the worst form of government, except for all the rest."

The reasons of the last four paragraphs are the secular reasons I believe we should be celebrating Christmas. Do not misunderstand me, however. I do not advocate worshiping Newton himself. He does not deserve it (see below) and he would be among the first to agree. But he is probably the single most influential person for whom we can thank (or blame, if you still have too much Puritan blood in you) for the physical and political comfort we enjoy today. It is no accident that a few years ago, the History Channel, when listing the top one hundred most influential Persons of the past thousand years, placed Newton second only to Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the Printing Press. (Note: Seven of the top ten of the History Channel's list were Scientists, Engineers, or Inventors) I'm not sure I agree that Gutenberg was more influential than Newton, but if anyone could beat him for the Number One Spot, Gutenberg would be my choice. Still, Gutenberg did not realize the significance of his Invention, did not know how to make full use of it, and did not know how to take advantage of it for the benefit of himself and his family. Newton, on the other hand, though born a pauper, died a very rich man, a result of careful, prudent, and patient investments. He may well be the real source of the complaint, "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"

Newton and the famous falling apple.

Newton's life can be split into two periods, what I call Newton I (which accumulated almost all his scientific achievements) and Newton II (the Sir Isaac Newton of tradition). Newton I was a suspicious, private, secretive, and difficult person who could hold a single problem in his mind for hours, days, or weeks at a time (without interruption of food, company, or sleep) until it was solved. He refused to publish much of anything after one early controversy involving a fellow member of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, an intellect second only to Newton himself. When he did go out in public, he would appear much like the stereotypical hippy of the 1960's: unkempt, sloppily dressed, unlaced boots, and with long unruly hair. One could say he was the original campus hippy. His work of the Plague years on the farm were not published until more than twenty years later, while in his mid-forties, and only then at the urging and expense of Edmund Halley (of Halley's Comet fame) after a chance conversation about the source of the Motion of the Planets that Halley, Hooke, and Christopher Wren (the famous Architect of St. Paul's Cathedral) had been unsuccessfully contemplating.

Title page of Newton's Principia Mathematica.

Even during these twenty years or so, his interests went beyond Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics. He spent almost as much effort on Alchemy and Chemistry as on Physics. He was a very devout Christian, but after teaching himself Greek and Hebrew and translating the Bible from the original text, concluded privately that the Trinity was a contrivance invented by the Church with no supporting evidence in the Bible, and hence not worthy of his belief. This was a very dangerous belief to hold in England at that time, since Unitarianism was the only brand of Christianity that was specifically exempted from the Toleration Act of 1689. At the very least, he would have been kicked out of Cambridge if anyone had known. Indeed, "it is a blot on Newton's record that he did not murmur a word when" his successor to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, John Whiston, went public about his Unitarian beliefs and was subsequently relieved of his professorial duties, for "opinions which Newton himself had secretly held for upwards of fifty years past." [Keynes] (It may have been prudent, though. As late as 1696, a man was hanged in England for refusing to believe in the Trinity.)

Stephen Hawking, present occupant of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics.

Newton II began to emerge a few years after the publication of the Principia Mathematica in 1687, after a brief nervous breakdown around the time of his fiftieth birthday in 1692. He was elected to Parliament, representing Cambridge, and was eventually appointed Master of the Mint in 1699 by King William III (At least I think it was William III. Keeping track of the Kings and Queens during this period are difficult for a foreign commoner as me. I don't think I'm alone. Churchill said of this time, "A queer, unnatural interlude in English history ..."), where he presided over (and organized) the complete reminting of the national currency. In 1703, he was elected President of the Royal Society, a post he held until his death in 1727. During this time, he lived with his niece and "becomes one of the principal sights of London for all visiting intellectual foreigners, whom he entertains handsomely." [Keynes] In 1705, he was knighted by Queen Anne for his services to Science (the first knighthood in English history for Science) who "thought it a happiness to have lived at the same time as, and to have known, so great a man." [E. N. Da C. Andrade] When he died, the greatest of honors were accorded him. His pallbearers included "the Lord High Chancellor, two dukes and three earls--which meant something in those days--and the place allotted for his monument had been previous refused to the greatest of our nobility." [Andrade]

Although not a perfect personality, Isaac Newton is surely worth our remembering on Christmas. At least almost as much as anything or anyone else, we are what we are today as a society because of his "leisurely" efforts those two years back on the farm more than three centuries ago.

The bulk of the tidbits of this note come from Volume One of The World of Mathematics, James R. Newman, editor (Tempus, 1988), Volume One of The World of Physics, Jefferson Hane Weaver, editor (Simon and Shuster, 1987), and the Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists, David Millar, et al, editors (Cambridge, 1996).

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2002 Stevens F. Johnson and the Department of Physics/Science, Bemidji State University. All rights are reserved unless explicitly stated otherwise.
Thanks to the anonymous contributors of most of the figures and pictures. Your contribution to the intellectual enlightenment of those who have read this article is greatly appreciated.