Greatest Physicists #1 – Isaac Newton

The first and greatest physicist in my estimation is Isaac Newton, born in 1643. Lots of commenters absolutely correctly picked out Newton for the top spot, and had I picked anyone else (with the just barely plausible alternatives of Einstein or Galileo (and see his honorable mention for details)) I’d have been justifiably thought to be nuts.

Before Newton, there was no physics. There was science, but a systematic *mathematical* description of the laws of nature did not exist. Indeed it could not exist, mathematics itself had not yet developed to the point where it could be used to formulate the necessary laws.

Newton singlehandedly changed that with the invention of calculus and the formulation of the laws of mechanics. The motions of the planets and the motion of things terrestrial ceased to be a mystery and suddenly became things that could be calculated. Newton didn’t merely write the laws and leave their application and development for others – he went slashing through the unknown with a metaphorical machete. His three-volume brick of a work known as the Principia Mathematica derived everything from the resisting force due to fluid flow to to derivations of Kepler’s laws, to the motion of the earth’s moon and Jupiter’s moons and numerous other major discoveries. Any one of those would have made the reputation of a lesser man. His mechanics reigned supreme until Einstein, and even then Newton’s classical mechanics remain fine approximation for most everyday calculations. Certain other principles such as the conservation of energy, momentum, and angular momentum were either invented or heavily developed by Newton and they remain true even in relativity and quantum mechanics.

In pure mathematics he didn’t merely invent the basic ideas of differential and integral calculus. He developed the binomial theorem, worked in infinite series, and extended our understanding in various parts of geometry.

He invented the reflecting telescope. Galileo’s refractor was a pretty snazzy piece of brilliance, but Newton’s reflector has a large number of technical advantages as well as the ability to be made much, much larger at much smaller expense than the refractors. Today everything from the Hubble Space Telescope to the gargantuan land-based observatories is based on the use of mirrors to collect light.

This merely scratches the surface. Physics owes everything to Newton, who founded it and set it on a firm foundation of mathematical power and observational test.

Outside of science Newton was a bit of an odd bird. He as involved in alchemy, fringe theology, anti-counterfeiting detective work, a bizarre feud with the Leibniz (the independent co-inventor of calculus), and he may have been entirely asexual. Most of the greats had their idiosyncrasies, and given their skill I think we can overlook the excessively unusual.

He’s worth learning more about. For the technically sophicistiated and hale of heart, there’s Newton’s own The Principia for your reading. As an exploration of Newton’s life and work, there’s James Gleick’s Isaac Newton. Gleick, by the way, is one of my favorite science writers. As far as I can tell everything he’s ever written is great.

And that completes the list. There’s plenty of room for substitutions and switches, but I think what I’ve picked is probably close to an average opinion of who the greatest are. It was in many respects a close-run thing, there’s at least ten more who have their own very good arguments for inclusion. I’d like to continue this series without any ranking conceit into some of the remaining greats who weren’t specifically included on this list.

*With that, Built on Facts is taking a Christmas vacation. It won’t be post-free, and I’d like to be able to keep up the daily post schedule because I really don’t consider this work that has to be vacationed from. But as vacations tend to keep you on your toes (with fun!), I’m going to be missing a few days here and there. I hope you and all your friends and family enjoy celebrating the holiday with cheer and good will. Merry Christmas!
- Matt Springer
Built on Facts*