Dusk is the new dawn in age of accuracy

Newton's Apple

January 16, 2004

In the first two books of his Principia , Newton sets out the mathematical principles of forces and motions. In the third and final book, System of the World , Newton shows how to use the mathematical principles in natural philosophy. He begins by stating four rules, the last of which ensures that hypotheses shall not nullify observations: "In experimental philosophy, propositions gathered from phenomena by induction should be considered either exactly or very nearly true notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses, until yet other phenomena make such propositions either more exact or liable to exceptions" (to quote I. B. Cohen's translation).

During the 200 years that followed publication of the Principia in 1687, Newtonian mechanics was found to be "exactly or very nearly true".

But in the subsequent 100 years, increasingly accurate measurements and observations of very small and very large phenomena have revealed so many exceptions to Newtonian mechanics that physicists now feel an urgent need to incorporate the exceptions into a new "exactly or very nearly true" hypothesis. The glad confident morning of physics that followed publication of the Principia (once its contents were understood) has given way to a troubled and uncertain dusk.

Perhaps 21st-century nostalgia for the grandeur and beauty of Newton's System of the World goes some way to explain why books on Newton continue to be published and, presumably, bought and read; at least a dozen have appeared in the past few years, four of them in the past 12 months or so.

But Newton's character, alchemical studies, religious beliefs and social life, as well as his science, have enough in them to interest the general reader and the academic specialist.

The subtitle of Peter Aughton's book shows that he is writing about Newton in an English scientific context. Although he makes passing references to pre-Newtonian, non-English natural philosophers, the Anglocentrism of his account and his concentration on Newton's own times have the effect of obscuring just how far Newton's brilliant imaginative synthesis of mathematics and observation was derived from and exceeded centuries of painstaking observations and speculations by others.

Aughton has also chosen to ignore most of the scholarship of the past few decades, which has thrown light on the scientific revolution, the Royal Society and the work of members of the Royal Society such as Richard Towneley, Henry Power, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. Only a handful of the fewer than 50 references are dated later than 1980.

Aughton has written a traditional account of Newton's life and times, the particular value of which is in its descriptions of science and technology from a modern viewpoint. When writing about Newton's work on such matters as the diffraction of light, chronometers, telescopes and astro-navigation, Aughton writes clearly and with authority. The illustrations, many in colour and well reproduced, add to the book's appeal, and the general reader will not be challenged by any new or controversial ideas about the history of science, Newton, or his contemporaries.

Michael Cooper is emeritus professor of engineering surveying, City University, London.

Newton's Apple: Isaac Newton and the English Scientific Renaissance

Author - Peter Aughton
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 216
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 297 84321 4

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