24 April 2012

Universal Gravitation and Isaac Newton

If you know nothing else about Isaac Newton, you probably know that he discovered gravity.

Er. Well. Like bad clip art, that statement is grossly somewhat over-simplified. People knew that apples fell to Earth. They understood that things fell down. What Isaac Newton did was mathematically prove that there was a force of attraction inherent in all large bodies. Or, as Wikipedia puts it, "every point mass in the universe attracts every other point mass with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them."

Oh, and Isaac Newton -- asocial mathematician, scientist-philosopher, closet alchemist, celibate professor, and eventual Master of the Mint -- looked more like this. (Link is a picture of Sir Isaac Newton, probably in his thirties. Looking like the badass mathematician he is.)

He was one strange dude. I didn't know anything about Isaac Newton (except the apple legend) before recently reading the biography Isaac Newton by James Gleick. Gleick thankfully doesn't go into great depth on the science and mathematics, although he does explain basic concepts of light, color, mathematics, and gravitation nicely. Gleick's main focus is on profiling the man whose ideas completely changed the world, a man who didn't care for company, who didn't want to become involved in scientific disputes, and who came up with his most astonishing mathematical ideas by the age of 24 while kicking his heels at home in the country while his school was shut down due to a plague. Yup, we have that plague to thank for Isaac Newton having the time to come up with some crazy awesome stuff.*  
*Also, there's nothing like thinking about what Isaac Newton did by the age of 24
 to make you feel insignificant and unaccomplished. Don't dwell on that.

The curious part is that he didn't want to become involved in scientific disputes. As someone with an interest in the sciences, who studied science, and who is familiar with the scientific method and the scientific ideas of freedom of information and peer review, I find the concept that one of the greatest figures in scientific history didn't want to have to defend his work extremely shocking. But here's what you have to understand about Isaac Newton: he wasn't out to become the greatest scientist ever. Science wasn't even defined as a field yet -- it was still lumped in with philosophy. The Royal Society in England was relatively new and their idea of sharing scientific knowledge was pretty new as well. Isaac, working alone and obsessively, was only out to further his own knowledge. He was doing things because he wanted to. He wasn't doing it for his country or his fellow scientists or the greater good. He was doing it for himself.

Sure, he became a bit unhinged later in life and then got a bit power-hungry. But he did lots of amazing things that we're all still benefiting from. We're all living in a Newtonian world now.

The take-away message here is that there's more to Isaac Newton than an urban legend about an apple, and Isaac Newton don't care what you think.

Now You!
Did you know anything about Isaac Newton besides the apple legend and his laws of science?