His Amazing List of Contributions
They Changed Social and Scientific History
(They dispelled many superstitions and false dogmas,
(2014 Sep blog post)
A few more 'contributions' ... and web links ... may be added, occasionally.
Home > Blog menu > This page on Isaac Newtons' amazing contributions to rational human knowledge
In retirement, I have had a chance to read many books on science and mathematics that I did not have a chance to read in my working years after getting an advanced degree in mathematics.
When I read (circa 2012) books like 'Journey through Genius' by William Dunham (a mathematician), I started getting an idea of some specific mathematical contributions of Isaac Newton. But I did not get a good idea of his applications of mathematical techniques.
About a year after reading that book, I was reading a biography of Isaac Newton by James Gleich. When I got to pages 134 to 139 of that book, I was struck by the list of scientific contributions that Isaac Newton made.
To realize what sweeping contributions Newton made, one needs to be aware that, at that time (around 1660 to 1720), the state of human knowledge in many areas was more superstition and false dogmas than fact-based knowledge. For example:
Early in his scientific career at Cambridge, Newton had written a work on Optics that stirred up a lot of resistance to some of his views on the nature of light. He did not enjoy having to defend his views. After that experience, he tended to keep most of his scientific investigations to himself.
Eventually, Edmond Halley (after whom Halley's comet is named), encouraged Newton --- through much flattery and coaxing --- to publish many of his discoveries in a work known briefly as 'Principia Mathematica'. Halley even paid for its printing when Newton did not feel so inclined.
Some of Newton's Contributions/Discoveries
Here are some of Isaac Newton's contributions --- many of which I have gleaned from pages 134-139 of James Gleich's book on Isaac Newton.
As Newton himself said, he stood on the shoulders of giants. For example, he used data from predecessors such as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to develop and verify his observations and techniques. And he used mathematical techniques based on the work of others, such as Euclid, Archimedes, Wallis, Barrow (his mentor at Cambridge), and others.
Often you read of Newton being famous for Newton's 3 laws of motion --- but I think it is much more impressive and meaningful to be aware of the following feats he accomplished.
And he even presented results on fluids. (On his family farm, he was known to be interested in observing the flow of water around rocks in a brook. He made sketches of fluid flow in his notebooks. Apparently, these were early signs that he would be motivated to deduce how gravity and the properties of fluids could be used to explain some fluidic motions.)
The 'Books' of 'Principia' :
In the book 'Six Great Scientists' by J. G. Crowther (1995), on pages 120 to 121, I found a nice overview of the 3 books of the 'Principia'. "The whole work contains about a quarter of a million words, and is divided into three books."
Crowther's account of Isaac Newton's life points out that, in the mid-1500's, King Henry the 8th of England "removed England from the domination of the Catholic Curch" and thus King Henry "created the conditions in which her scientists could work, free from the persecution of the Vatican."
Unlike Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes, Newton did not have to fear publishing researches, while he was alive, that might lead the Vatican to torture or kill him.
Newton grew up as Cromwell and the Puritans overthrew the English kings --- and he lived through the restoration of the monarchy and James the 2nd trying to re-establish Catholicism in place of the Anglican and other protestant religions.
Fortunately, James II was not able to reinstate Catholicism as the only religion --- neither at Cambridge University nor throughout England. (Interestingly, Newton had a hand in turning back both those attempts --- first at Cambridge University, and later nation-wide, as a member of Parliament, representing Cambridge.)
Crowther's account points out:
The effects of Newton's Principia was "staggering. Hitherto the universe had been regarded as a vague, palpitating, mysterious object. Now it was revealed as operating according to known laws, so that every little feature of it could [theoretically] be precisely calculated."
"The whole universe [well ... except for the weather, earthquakes, volcanos, tsunamis, lightning, viruses, bacteria, parasites, and various insects such as mosquitoes and ants] was brought under the subordination of the human intellect, so that the mind of man seemed suddenly to be enormously extended, and raised in dignity. It strengthened the confidence in human powers, and contributed to the optimism which characterized the Age of Reason, and helped to inspire the French Revolution and the rise of modern scientific civilization."
"No wonder Newton appeared to his contemporaries as almost superhuman." And no wonder that, when Newton died, England gave him burial honors that were usually reserved for royalty and national military heroes.
For further information :
For further info on the many types of contributions Newton made to the body of human knowledge, here are some links to Google web searches on keywords related to his various contributions.
Note that in the process of providing 'laws' from which details of all these natural phenomena could be deduced, Newton drastically reduced the amount of superstition and hocus-pocus in the world --- in particular, reducing the number of human abuses/deaths due to Inquisitions.
The Vatican Censorship Continues
You would think that more than 300 years after Newton's amazing set of deductions, and after Newton proved that Giordano Bruno and Galileo were certainly much more 'on the mark' about the nature of 'the heavens' than the Pope and his bishops, the Vatican would have learned a lesson about interfering where physicists tread.
NOTE: The Sun out-weighs the Earth by about a million times, and the Sun 'slings' the Earth around far more than the Earth does any slinging of the Sun.
But NO. 'The Church' still seems to think it needs to provide its infallible guidance to physicists. In 2014, I was reading Stephen Hawking's book 'The Illustrated Brief History of Time', and I read the following astounding paragraph (page 145). I quote Hawking directly to make sure I convey exactly what he said.
Note, in particular, the sentence in bold, below.
Hawking wrote "... in 1981, my interest in questions about the origin and fate of the universe was reawakened when I attended a conference on cosmology organized by the Jesuits in the Vatican. The Catholic Church had made a bad mistake with Galileo when it tried to lay down the law on a question of science, declaring the sun went round the earth. Now, centuries later, it had decided to invite a number of experts to advise it on cosmology. At the end of the conference, the participants were granted an audience with the Pope. He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God."
Hawking continued "I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference --- the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation. I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo ..."
I am not really shocked at this Pope/'Church' behavior. The new pope 'Francis' in 2013 was almost immediately announcing that we are all sinners in need of the Church's redemption. (I do not feel that I am a major sinner, and I certainly do not feel that I need to confess my paltry sins regularly to one of the Pope's priests.)
And another reason I am not really shocked is that when my wife wanted our daughter to be baptised in the Catholic church, I was informed by the local priest that our less-than-one-year-old daughter was already a sinner who needed to be baptised to absolve her of her sins. Nice racket they have going. Declare even new-borns to be sinners and in need of 'the Church'.
And another reason I am not really shocked is because the Church continues its shocking behavior in its Church-directed 'musical chairs' with pedophile priests (moving them around from one diocese to another). This odious activity by 'the Church' hierarchy continues scarcely abated in 2014.
The Newton versus Leibniz Debate on the inventor of 'Calculus'
Newton essentially invented the basic techniques of 'the calculus' in order to prove his many results on gravitational effects.
For more than 300 years the debate has raged on (or simmered) --- over whether Newton or Leibniz invented 'the calculus' --- because Leibniz published first.
I contend that Leibniz probably deserves a lot of credit for presenting calculus in a way that was eventually more popular than the 'fluxions' and 'fluents' of Newton.
BUT Newton certainly seems to have provided a WEALTH OF APPLICATIONS of 'the calculus' --- APPLICATIONS that blew away a multitude of superstitions and falsehoods of the day.
The list of Newton's applications of the methods of 'calculus' to astronomy and gravitational attraction on Earth --- and even applications to fluids --- appears to dwarf any applications of 'the calculus' that Leibniz may have written down.
Leibniz not totally independent of Newton
In addition, it is known that Leibniz had visited England and had communicated (both in person and by letters) with many in England who knew of some of Newton's published and unpublished works --- for example, Henry Oldenberg and John Collins.
Leibniz even had some communications with Newton --- although Newton was not very generous with details in his written communications with Leibniz, especially in their later letters.
Leibniz probably got some hints and inspiration from some of those communications. So I don't think anyone can validly argue that Leibniz invented 'the calculus' totally independently of Newton.
The human side of Newton (and his contemporaries)
It is sad to read that Newton spent a lot of time in his last years of life in putting down Leibniz as an inventor of 'the calculus'. After Leibniz died, Newton even gloated over 'breaking the heart' of Leibniz.
There were plenty of applications and developments of calculus to be worked on. Newton did not publish a 'be all and end all' work on 'the calculus'.
It certainly seems that Newton could have been more magnanimous. It appears that he was only human after all --- insecure and even petty in some ways.
It seems that Newton was not alone in the 'poor behavior' department, among English 'natural philosophers' of the time. Newton had many run-ins with Robert Hooke and John Flamsteed, who also demonstrated pettiness, jealousy, and other not-very-admirable human traits.
The English mathematician John Wallis is said to have encouraged Newton to assert a claim as inventor of 'the calculus'. Although this seems to be mean-spirited by Wallis, it is rather surprising that Wallis was such a supporter of Newton, for if Newton's works had not been published, Wallis would probably have stood out as England's leading mathematician of the period. Some of Newton's mathematical results were built directly on work of Wallis.
It seems that Wallis was a champion of English mathematicians over German, French, and other mathematicians --- so much so that those nationalistic feelings over-rode any feelings of jealousy that he may have been tempted to have toward Newton.
In 2014, I saw a YouTube video inteview of Neil deGrasse Tyson in which he was asked who he thought was the greatest physicist (so far). He said Newton --- because of his many deductions from his codification of the laws of gravity and motion --- and the influence of those deductions on the course of human history.
When you see a list of Newton's many deductions (like the list above), it is hard to disagree with Tyson's choice --- even though there have been some amazing additions to the body of physical (astronomical and atomic) knowledge in the 20th century and beyond --- such as Einstein's contributions, on both the cosmic and atomic levels.
Some planned additions to this page
If I can find a nice summary list of the 'propositions' of Newton's 'Principia Mathematica' (or any of his other works), I plan to make the list(s) available via this page.
It is said that Newton derived many of his results using more algebraic methods than the heavily geometric methods that he used in the Principia. It is reported that he decided to use more geometric methods for his published proofs, because that is what scholars would be more likely to accept. So Newton followed the rigorous example that Euclid set in the 'Elements'. Newton presented his results as a sequence of propositions or theorems for which he supplied proofs with copious geometric diagrams.
If I can find a re-write of most of the important results of the Principia in a more modern form (like dy/dx and delta-x notation, and Cartesian x-y-z coordinates) I plan to make any such modernized forms of the Principia available via this page.
And if I can find his geometric proofs rendered in a more modern and more understandable form, I will make that kind of presentation available via this page. After all, a common story that you see in biographies of Newton is that one Cambridge student, upon seeing Newton, said, "There goes the man that writt a book that neither he nor anybody else understands." Fortunately, there were many, like Halley, who were eager to read the book and understand it.
Until I can find modernized versions of the Principia, there is a 1729 translation of the Principia (from Latin to English), done by Andrew Motte. There is a summary of Motte's translation of the many sections of the 3 books easily seen at en.wikisource.org. A re-write of Motte's translation was started by Florian Cajori around 1929. In 1999, a new translation of the Principia was published, with commentary, by Professor I. B. Cohen of Harvard.
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Page was posted 2014 Sep 24. Changed 2014 Oct 16.