Built on Facts

Greatest Physicists #1 – Isaac Newton

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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

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    December 16, 2008

    The Principia‘s opening paragraph defines “mass” in Newton’s law of inertia,

    “It [mass] can also be known from a body’s weight, for – by making very accurate experiments with pendulums – I have found it to be proportional to the weight”

    The invariant ratio between inertial mass and gravitational mass is a postulate validated by empirical observation including Kepler’s third law. Lab experiments verify it to 1 part in 20 trillion difference/average for composition, physical and quantum spin, other observables. PSR J1903+0327 (arxiv/0805.2396), perfectly described by General Relativity, strong field ends all Equivalence Principle doubt… with one exception,

    Do left and right shoes fall identically? Is the vacuum isotropic towards opposite geometric parity atomic mass distributions? Nobody has performed a parity Eötvös experiment opposing single crystals of enantiomorphic space groups P3(1)21 and P3(2)21 quartz (avg. MW = 20.03) or cinnabar (avg. MW = 116.33).

    The only remaining allowed EP violation is physically shunned for being chemical. Gravitation theory only respects geomtery. Somebody should look.

  2. #2 Tim Gaede
    December 16, 2008

    Some have stood on the shoulders of giants. Newton really had no one to stand on.

  3. #3 beebeeo
    December 16, 2008

    You forgot the cat flap!!!

  4. #4 wfr
    December 16, 2008

    In later life, Newton was Warden of the British Mint. Among his contributions was the little-known invention of serrating the edges of coins. This made the shaving of coins for the silver (an illegal practice) detectable.

    It’s amusing to realize that the feel of the US quarter in my pocket is due to the crazy alchemist who invented modern physics.

  5. #5 Scott
    December 16, 2008

    Principia is available for free download from Google Books:
    http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=Tm0FAAAAQAAJ

  6. #6 Lance
    December 16, 2008

    I was first awed by Newton’s greatness during the freshman year of my physics undergraduate work when I realized that the two massive textbooks I would study over the next two semesters (calculus and mechanics) were primarily the work of just one man.

    Isaac Newton.

    WOW!

    Me not so smart.

  7. #7 razib
    December 16, 2008

    i liked gleick’s book too. newton: last of the sumerians, first of the moderns.

  8. #8 tcmJOE
    December 16, 2008

    I’d certainly agree with most of the list, but it’s pretty Quantum heavy (which, admittedly was a major revolution) and I kind of feel that Gibbs deserves a spot. Beyond that, I’d think Fermi and Landau are good competitors.

  9. #9 Savage
    December 16, 2008

    “…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.”

    Below from BBC News; 29 November 1999.

    “Albert Einstein has been voted the greatest physicist of all time in an end of the millennium poll, pushing Sir Isaac Newton into second place.

    “The survey was conducted among 100 of today’s leading physicists.”

    There sure are some nutty physicists around.

  10. #10 hmm
    December 17, 2008

    To be fair, Isaac Newton was also a closet alchemist, as well as being a paranoid, nasty man who used any means necessary to supress his rivals. It’s also said that “standing on the shoulders of giants” was actually the result of one such attack on his rival Hooke – who happened to be a hunchback. Newton was certainly a giant in his field but he was also an umpleasant, difficult person who did a lot to hold other people back.

  11. #11 ObsessiveMathsFreak
    December 17, 2008

    Newton came up with the conservation of momentum, but didn’t come up with the law of conservation of energy. That was Leibniz.

  12. #12 Savage
    December 17, 2008

    I’ve done some googleing and found that most scientist-rating polls came up with this: best mathematicians of all time; (1) Gauss, (2) Newton. Best physicists of all time; (1) Einstein, (2) Newton. Would it be correct then to say Newton was the best scientist of all time?

  13. #13 andy.s
    December 18, 2008

    So is that a wig, or did he really have a gray Farah Fawcett style hairdo?

    Hair is far more important than most people realize. How far do you think Newton would have gotten if he had hair like this guy

  14. #14 andy.s
    December 18, 2008

    Crap. HTTP always steps on my punch lines.

    I meant this guy: http://www.illinois.gov/gallery/showimage.cfm?ImageID=371&CategoryID=6

  15. #15 Tim Gaede
    December 18, 2008

    Matt,

    I think I may take up James Gleick’s book sometime.

    Enjoy your vacation!

  16. #16 Thony C.
    December 19, 2008

    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.

    Actually Newton did not invent the reflecting telescope, he merely constructed the first functioning one. The principle of the reflecting telescope was already known to Hero of Alexandria (ca. 10-75 BCE) and discussed by Leonardo at the beginning of the 16th century. The earliest know attempt to construct one was by the Jesuit scientist Zucchi (1586 – 1670) in 16616 however he was unsuccessful because of the physical problems involved in grinding and polishing mirrors. Mersenne (1588 – 1648) proposed various reflecting telescopes in his L’Harmonie universelle in 1636 but apparently never tried to construct them. James Gregory (1638 – 1675) published his plans for a reflecting telescope in 1663, three years before Newton constructed his first one, but like Zucchi was unable to solve the problem of producing mirrors of adequate quality. The Frenchman Laurent Cassegrain (1629? – 1693) published his design in 1672 the same year as Newton but also apparently never constructed his device. Newton great achievement was actually more as a craftsman than a scientist as he succeeded where all others had failed in actually grinding and polishing a functioning mirror for his telescope. The difficulty of this task is emphasised by the fact that it was first in 1721 that John Hadley (1682 – 1744) was able to repeat Newton’s achievement and begin to manufacture reflecting telescopes. With the exception of William Herschel (1738 – 1832) who constructed his own Newtons, the reflecting telescope of choice in the 18th century was the Gregory, which itself was replaced in the 19th century by the Cassegrain. Today small astronomical telescopes used by amateurs are mostly Newtons because there are relatively simple and cheap to produce; nearly all professional reflectors are variations on the Cassegrain. Also it should be noted that the refractor that the reflector replaced in the 18th century had long ceased to be the Dutch telescope as used by Galileo that had been superseded by the Keplerian or astronomical telescope.

  17. #17 lina
    February 23, 2009

    i need help

  18. #18 Donita Rose Obillo
    June 3, 2009

    he was so great…AMAZING!!!!

  19. #19 donita
    June 3, 2009

    Wow!!!!

  20. #20 glen
    April 12, 2010

    Maxwell deserves a mention not the greatest but brilliant

  21. #21 theOneWithoutAsecond
    May 16, 2010

    Newton was the greatest of all time, these Newton haters don’t understand that alchemy is the origin of modern chemistry.

    Einstein would never EVER make a top ten list of mathematicians, but Newton always does

    Newton is like Einstein + Hilbert in one, very top mathematician and very top physicist

    So which other human in all of history is both a very top mathematician and a very top physicist?

  22. #22 Artemis Rafti
    October 19, 2010

    theOneWithoutAsecond, there’s no denying that Newton was himself a great mathematician, but your comment about Einstein is pushing it a bit too far. General Relativity during its phases of development was entirely a mathematical problem. Einstein presented his problem to a bunch of geniuses including David Hilbert. In the end, Hilbert and Einstein both arrived at the equations of general relativity. You can’t say Einstein wasn’t a great mathematician, cause at that point, the problem was entirely mathematical.

  23. #23 Artemis Rafti
    October 19, 2010

    Isaac Newton is the giant of physics. Principia Mathematica is just absolutely groundbreaking. Newton, alone, described so much about the physical world in his book to the point where society was forever altered. The only man I would ever accept to be ranked higher than Einstein is Sir Isaac Newton. And that’s not even mentioning his contributions to mathematics, optics, and other fields.

  24. #24 anuruddha
    December 17, 2010

    he was evidence enough that mental abeeration gifts brilliance

  25. #25 Peter Acker
    June 24, 2011

    A) Newton has been my hero since high school. No questions are possible. Of course he is the greatest physicist.

    B) There is some misinformtion above concerning who was responsible for the mathematics behind General Relativity.

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  27. #27 body slim
    September 10, 2011

    Newton was the greatest of all time, these Newton haters don’t understand that alchemy is the origin of modern chemistry.

  28. #28 Wow
    September 14, 2011

    You’d be just as accurate to claim that glassblowing was the origin of modern chemistry.

    True, but hardly significant.

    What caused modern chemistry is the throwing out of all that alchemy mumbo-jumbo.

    So you’d be just as justified saying that alchemy was the cause of modern chemistry being repressed.

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  34. #34 Anonymous
    January 19, 2012

    yes

  35. #35 Anonymous
    January 31, 2012

    I am sorry, but I don’t think that Isaac Newton is actually a physicist. With all do my respect to the creator of the list, but its well known that Newton was actually a mathematician.
    Thank You

  36. #36 Anonymous
    January 31, 2012

    I am sorry, but I don’t think that Isaac Newton is actually a physicist. With all do my respect to the creator of the list, but its well known that Newton was actually a mathematician.
    Thank You

  37. #37 afrika mangosu
    February 7, 2012

    I am sorry, but I don’t think that Isaac Newton is actually a physicist. thanks

  38. #38 itsnobody
    February 17, 2012

    @Wow what do you mean? Alchemy being the origin of modern chemistry is nothing like claiming glass-blowing is the origin of modern chemistry.

    Chemistry is just like alchemy, except with the scientific method applied. Glass-blowing is more like engineering.

    Alchemists had developed procedures, frameworks, theories, and done experimentation. Do glass-blowers do that?

    What caused chemistry was alchemy + the scientific method + mathematics.

    People can laugh at Newton for doing alchemy but during Newton’s time chemistry had not been an established science. If Newton had lived during or after Lavoisier’s time he probably would’ve done chemistry.

    During Newton’s time both mathematics and science had been very undeveloped.

  39. #39 itsnobody
    February 17, 2012

    @Artemis Rafti The mathematics for General Relativity really comes from Riemann, so Newton would be more like Riemann+Einstein in one.

    Einstein didn’t invent the mathematics for GR he just applied already existing mathematics.

  40. #40 itsnobody
    February 17, 2012

    @Anonymous Why wouldn’t you categorize Newton as a physicist?

    Newton was definitely a theoretical physicist (using mathematics to model reality)
    Newton also did work in optics.
    Newton also invented lots of mathematics.

    If you don’t believe that Newton was a physicist then why would you categorize JC Maxwell or Einstein as physicists?

    A lot of Newton’s work is inaccurate, but during Newton’s time it would’ve been amazing if everything Newton did was accurate.

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