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Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Scientific Revolution

The book I recently finished, The Clockwork Universe-Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick, I may not have read were it not for the college course on the history of science and technology that I just took. Most history courses focus on political history, but I think to understand today's world knowing the contributions of some great natural philosophy thinkers of the 17th century is more important than knowing the kings of the Stuart Dynasty or the major battles of the 30 Years War, all of the same century.

Of these great thinkers, Isaac Newton was probably the most important. He is the link between the Medieval and the Modern world. During his "miracle years", 1664-1666, he invents calculus and calculates gravity's pull on the moon. His Principia in 1687 explained his law of universal gravitation, "a single force and a single law that extended to the farthest reaches of the universe. Everything pulled on everything else, instantly and across billions of miles of empty space, the entire universe bound together in one vast, abstract web."Although much of his work was fully understood by few of his contemporaries, his genius was immediately recognized. Alexander Pope wrote, "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night, and God said 'Let Newton be' and all was light."

And this genius of math and logic was as obsessed with God as any Medieval monk. Newton's motivation was to understand God and the universe that He created and probably believed that God created him for this purpose. He never traveled outside a small part of England, not even to see the sea although he was the first to explain the tides. He never married and died possibly a virgin at 84. He had a difficult and prickly personality and feuded with many people, most importantly Gottfried Liebniz, a German who was perhaps the second greatest thinker of that century. Liebniz independently discovered calculus at about the same time as Newton.

The feud between Newton and Leibniz was snide and petty and sometimes vicious. I find it somewhat comforting that these towering intellects behaved no better than the rest of us. The Clockwork Universe is an entertaining read as well as educational one.

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