When Halley Met Newton

Tags WATT, Newton, physics, math, Principa

Was that a more important meeting than When Harry met Sally or Steve met Woz? Certainly.

I calculated that this particular August is the 330 year anniversary of Edmond Haley’s famous meeting and question to Isaac Newton about the motion of celestial bodies. Sir Isaac would have liked my number, but that’s a bit too obscure for most. Newton answered Halley directly and elliptically, but failed at that moment to find his previous mathematical proof in his enormous piles of projects.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Three months later, Isaac produced a nine-page manuscript titled De Motu Corporum in Gyrum (On the Motion of Revolving Bodies). He’d proved his result, but employed completely different mathematical method than his first proof. To him this proof was much more interesting than the first.

A Type IA Supernova

Halley was awestruck by De Motu. This is probably why you know the name Halley. The work directly resulted in Halley’s accurate prediction of a comet’s return years later in the right part of the sky with the right path in the heavens. Awestruck is saying something considering that if there were no Newton, Halley would have been unquestionably the brightest scientific star of his age. The relationship between Halley and Newton is arguably the human equivalent of a Type 1A binary system. This type of star system produces most of the nova and supernova we see. That August meeting remains a singular, spectacular event in human history.

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Almost immediately Newton decided the De Motu was a beginning not an end. It did the job, but it was not enough. Simply put, Natural Philosophy was bigger – much bigger.

The unbelievable and thoroughly unexpected final result of this meeting (that had nothing to do with chance) became uncommonly known as the Principia. Newton’s formal title -Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) was more than a mouthful. To most of us it is still more than a brainful. The Principa is almost incomprehensible to most of us. Yet, it changed everything forever. Why?

It Worked

It worked almost everywhere all the time.

The clockwork universe others imagined from Newton’s math and theory worked so well in so many places it became a scientific religion. To find fault or error in Newton’s thinking and conclusions became tantamount to heresy almost from the get go. One can argue in many respects the Newtonian Event paralyzed some parts of science for 200 years as it created its very foundations. Today, we live in the expanding stellar dust clouds of that event.

Today most members of the Royal Society consider Newton more significant than Einstein. American and other scientific communities poll pretty much the same.

Who am I to disagree?
Everybody’s looking for something.

"Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done."

Because of Newton, someone else would later discover exactly where that spin comes from.

Isaac claimed his work was divine vision. He assured everyone it was woefully incomplete and in places in error. Few believe he really meant that. Isaac did not consider it his life work nor even his most important work. The ripples of his management of the British Mint certainly changed everything in other ways, but that is yet another tale. But even that was not as important as other things – another sideline occupation on the journey of his life.

Not a Humanist for Good Reason

The humanist and modernized version of Isaac Newton is an interesting quandary to consider. Many revere him. Many may say he was the smartest man in history. He was certainly the maker of modern math and physics. He was the One who found the connections between so much in the physical universe.

Yet the same people consider his personal priorities a form of madness; a quirky idiosyncrasy caused no doubt by his time in history and the “oppression” of the Church. The story goes Newton was too smart to be a person of Christian faith. He only played the game and somehow managed to hide his true beliefs for a very public lifetime.

Man, Myth and Legend

I’ve personal heard and seen this (de)humanized version of Isaac Newton on multiple popular documentaries in recent months. You won’t have to search far on Netflix or Hulu to find one. Almost any Nova about space or physics will do. Cosmos is stuffed to the gills with it. By now you may even believe the myth to be true that Faith is the Enemy of Science . You were probably taught this in physics or math class. It is in the school textbooks too. Often more print is directed to the myth than substantive fact. Isaac was a little “eccentric” and maybe a little crazy due to mercury poisoning. We should forgive him. He was so smart about everything else after all. The condescension of his faith and purpose by his own word is palpable.

Propaganda is not science. Propaganda attempts to revise history to popularize a world view. Its most obvious symtom - accusation without substance. The testimony of a life so notable does not hide under a basket.

Newton was not a contradiction. He was a Man who understood and pursued the more that God is.

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

This famous quote from Newton appears on lintels in many famous scientific institutions – “an enduring motto to the purpose of scientific thought and method”.

It’s not a statement of knowledge, human understanding, or a part of an “enlightened” humanist manifesto of the search for the glory of man. Isaac puts himself in our place. It is a statement of FAITH from a person of enduring faith and commitment. He talked the talk and walked to walk.

Isaac Newton paid attention to what is.

Best We Remember That in August Assemblies