This August 21, 2017 a stripe of the continental US will experience a total lunar eclipse.
Will you be there to experience the totality?
Federal, State, and local authorities have already issued warnings. Some already declared official states of emergency. NASA tweets daily. You’d think the sky was falling. Since folks are raving about the music of the spheres this reminds me of a more important august day.
Dem Spiral Curves and Orbits
This particular August is the 333 year anniversary of Edmond Halley’s famous meeting and question to Isaac Newton about the motion of celestial bodies. Sir Isaac would have liked the 333 number.
Newton did answer Halley’s question about the nature of the orbits of planets directly and elliptically. It was after all Newton’s proof not Hooke’s. Newton did fail to find his earlier mathematical proof in his enormous piles of projects. Piles of projects may be the most insufferable habit of polymaths. Isaac promised to forward the proof along when found. Halley left perhaps a bit annoyed.
Few recall there was a cash prize. You thought Kickstarter was an innovation?
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 proved his result. However, Newton employed radical and different mathematical method than his initial proof. De Motu put Hooke in his place. This settled the matter (sort of). Halley published the result.
To Isaac this second proof was much more interesting than the first.
A Type IA Supernova
Halley was awestruck by De Motu. The work directly resulted in Halley’s accurate prediction of the Halley’s 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, Edmond Halley would have been unquestionably one of the brightest scientific stars 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 we see. That August 1684 meeting remains a singular, spectacular event in human history. Yes. More important than when Steve meet Woz.
Fly Into the Danger Zone
Newton saw the On Motion as a beginning not an end. It did the job to solve a moment of debate. Natural Philosophy was bigger. As is usual with discovery, people had asked the wrong question.
The unbelievable and thoroughly unexpected result of the meeting became known as the Principia. The Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) was more than a mouthful and fashioned by Newton in only 18 months. Incidentally, the work did not include Newton’s previous proof. Isaac claimed that proof was now simply obvious - the wrong question was asked in the first place.
The Principia remains almost incomprehensible to most of us to this day. The Principa is more than a brainful. A 1847 quote from William Whewell, a historian of science, helps explain the issues we all have with Newton’s geometrical synthesis.
“The ponderous instrument of synthesis, so effective in his hands, has never since been grasped by one who could use it for such purposes; and we gaze at it with an admiring curiosity, as on some gigantic implement of war, which stands idle among the memorials of ancient days, and makes us wonder what manner of man he was who could wield as a weapon what we can hardly lift as a burden.”
The Principia changed everything forever. Why?
Principia worked and proved itself useful almost everywhere all the time. Let’s imagine you’d found the mathematical Holy Grail. Ok. Leibniz had to translate Newton’s notation to make the math somewhat comprehensible to some of us. The Principia became more magical than Harry Potter.
The clockwork universe others imagined from Newton’s math and theory worked so well in so many disciplines and places it became the religion of science. To find fault or error in Newton’s thinking and conclusions became tantamount to heresy almost from the get go. Whether people actually understood Newton’s thinking is still in some doubt.
One can argue in many respects the Newtonian Event paralyzed some parts of science for 200 years as the same event created the “very foundations of science” itself. Today, we live in the still expanding dust clouds of that stellar event.
Today most members of the British Royal Society consider Newton more significant than Einstein. American and other formal scientific communities pretty much poll 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."
Later someone else would discover where accretion disk spin comes from because of Newton. There are planets before there are stars? Dooh.
In the Beginning
Isaac publically claimed this work was divine vision. He assured everyone the Principa was woefully incomplete and in places in gross error. He’s been proven correct.
Few today can actually believe he meant that. Truth be told Isaac did not consider Principa his life work or even his most important work. The ripples of his management of the British Mint certainly changed and how we think about money and the history of the world. Of course, all of that is a banal economic tale and far beneath the more superior forms of pure scientific thought. Those histrionics were not as important as other things to Isaac Newton. All were all sideline occupations or piles of projects in his life.
Not a Humanist for Good Reason
The modernized and humanist myth of the Sir Isaac Newton is an interesting quandary to consider. Secular humanists notably require by definition the sophistry that follows here. Many revere Newton. Many may say he was the smartest man in history. He was certainly a, or even the, maker of modern math and physics. He was the One who proved the core mathematical connections between so much in the physical universe.
Yet these same people now portray Newton’s personal priorities as a form of madness. These human foibles must be quirky idiosyncrasies caused no doubt by his time back there in the dark of history. They blame this on the “oppression” of the Church – that body of clearly evil, intellectual savages.
The post-modernist revisionist story states Isaac Newton was too smart to be a person of Christian faith. He only played the game and somehow managed to hide his true beliefs (they claim these to be their beliefs) for a very public lifetime. This obviously says more about their magical thinking, than anything substantive about Newton. They have no evidence in history at all save for the fact Newton did not want to be ordained. They will neglect to mention there were, shall we say, political ramifications to ordaination.
You may even believe the basis of their Christian Faith is the Enemy of Science narrative to be true. You should recognize the myth of a humanist Sir Isaac Newton is a significant fulcrum in this tale. The humanists have serious problems with Leibniz who they usually hope to avoid.
The Man, The Myth, and The Legend
I’ve heard and seen the (de)humanized version of Isaac Newton in multiple popular documentaries of late. You won’t have to search far on Netflix to find one. Almost any PBS Nova about space or physics will do. The series Cosmos is stuffed to the gills with the drivel.
You and your children were taught this humanist version of the Newton myth. The myth is taught is in physics and math classes. It is in the school textbooks. Isaac was a little “eccentric” and maybe “a little crazy” probably due to mercury poisoning. He had “nervous breakdowns” when he spent time studying the Bible. We must forgive him. He was so smart about everything else after all. The condescension towards his professed faith and purposes by his own word and testimony is palpable.
The testimony of a life so notable and consequential does not hide under a basket.
Newton was not a contradiction. He was a Man who understood and pursued the quest for the more that His God is. We have it in his own words,
“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, if not most, famous scientific institutions – “an enduring motto to the purpose of scientific thought and method”.
Isaac Newton puts himself in our place. It is a statement of humble faith. He talked the talk and walked to walk.
Isaac Newton paid attention to what is.
This is not a statement about human knowledge, human understanding, or some challenge to us for an “enlightened” humanist endeavor.
The Enlightenment and Isaac Newton had absolutely nothing to do with secular humanism.