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Isaac Newton

by Michael Nielsen on January 18, 2004

I’m currently about two thirds of the way through the audio version of James Gleick’s book “Isaac Newton”.

What I’m enjoying most about the biography is hearing about the goings-on at the Royal Society, newly formed in Newton’s day. What emerges from the book, in my opinion, is that the innovation in forming such a society was at least as important as Newton’s discoveries. You can see in the Society’s activities the beginning of peer review, of the journal system, of the need to do experiments reproducing others’ results, and of the need to cite others’ work appropriately.

It’s very interesting to read about the little intrigues that went on. Someone would publish a new result; Hooke, or Newton, or some other eminence would then claim “Oh, I obtained those results many years ago”. That’s all very well, but if someone obtains a result, and then puts the only record in their filing cabinet, Science does not advance. Only through publication in archived, widely accessible journals does Science advance. Many early members of the Royal Society seemed to understanding this instinctively, and they moved toward an institutional system in which work is not done until it is published.

From → General

  1. What I really took away from Gleick’s biography was how absolutely and totally amazing Principia was. Like you said, Newton did a lot of early work which wasn’t published. And it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether, while he intuitively had worked out a lot, he truely could do the calculations he claimed or not. But what is amazing about Principia is how he went down this laundry list of problems and then just methodically conquered each of the problems. Imagine being one of the first to read and understand Principia. It must have been like a giant blinders were lifted from you eyes and all of the sudden this program of rational inquiry, science, had a future after all!

  2. Dave:

    Something interesting about Newton’s writing of Principia was that he was 40-odd when he wrote it. Of course, many core ideas had been worked out years earlier, but Gleick is clear that much of it was worked out for the first time by Newton at that time.

    Not exactly the stereotype of a scientist as youngster! And encouraging for a theorist who just turned 30. (A theorist is “Better dead than living still, once past his thirtieth year”, according to the old poem.)

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