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The Loneliest Genius

Isaac Newton spurned social contact but also relied on it for his greatest work.


Describing his life, shortly before his death, Newton put his contributions this way: “I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but, as 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 undiscovered before me.”

One thing Newton never did do, actually, was play at the seashore. In fact, though he profited greatly from occasional interaction with scientists elsewhere in Britain and on the Continent—often by mail—he never left the vicinity of the small triangle connecting his birthplace, Woolsthorpe, his university, Cambridge, and his capital city, London. Nor did he seem to “play” in any sense of the word that most of us use. Newton’s life did not include many friends, or family he felt close to, or even a single lover, for, at least until his later years, getting Newton to socialize was something like convincing cats to gather for a game of Scrabble. Perhaps most telling was a remark by a distant relative, Humphrey Newton, who served as his assistant for five years: he saw Newton laugh only once—when someone asked him why anyone would want to study Euclid.

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Newton had a purely disinterested passion for understanding the world, not a drive to improve it to benefit humankind. He achieved much fame in his lifetime, but had no one to share it with. He achieved intellectual triumph, but never love. He received the highest of accolades and honors, but spent much of his time in intellectual quarrel. It would be nice to be able to say that this giant of intellect was an empathetic, agreeable man, but if he had any such tendencies he did a good job suppressing them and coming off as an arrogant misanthrope. He was the kind of man who, if you said it was a gray day, would say, “no, actually the sky is blue.” Even more annoying, he was the kind who could prove it. Physicist Richard Feynman voiced the feelings of many a self-absorbed scientist when he wrote a book titled, What Do You Care What Other People Think? Newton never wrote a memoir, but if he had, he probably would have called it I Hope I Really Pissed You Off, or maybe, Don’t Bother Me, You Ass.

Today we all reason like Newtonians. We speak of the force of a person’s character, and the acceleration of the spread of a disease. We talk of physical and even mental inertia, and the momentum of a sports team. To think in such terms would have been unheard of before Newton; not to think in such terms is unheard of today. Even those who know nothing of Newton’s laws have had their psyches steeped in his ideas. And so to study the work of Newton is to study our own roots.

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Newton’s penchant for solitude and his long hours of work were, at least from the point of view of his intellectual achievements, great strengths. If his retreat into the realm of the mind was a boon for science, however, it came at a great cost to the man, and seems to have been connected to the loneliness and pain of his childhood.

He had come into the world on December 25, 1642, like one of those Christmas gifts you hadn’t put on your list. His father had died a few months earlier, and his mother, Hannah, must have thought that Isaac’s existence would prove a short-lived inconvenience, for he was apparently premature and not expected to survive.

More than 80 years later, Newton told his niece’s husband that he was so tiny at birth that he could have fit into a quart pot, and so weak he had to have a bolster around his neck to keep it on his shoulders. So dire was the little bobblehead’s situation that two women who were sent for supplies a couple miles away dawdled, certain that the child would be dead before they returned. But they were wrong. The neck bolster was all the technology needed to keep the infant alive.

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If Newton never saw the use of having people in his life, perhaps that was because his mother never seemed to have much use for him. When he was 3, she married a wealthy rector, the Reverend Barnabas Smith. More than twice Hannah’s age, Smith wanted a young wife but not a young stepson.

One can’t be sure what kind of family atmosphere this led to, but it’s probably safe to assume there were some tensions, since, years later, in notes he wrote about his childhood, Isaac recalled “threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them.”

The lonely but intensely creative life he led as a boy was preparation for the creative but tortured and isolated life he would lead for most of his adult life.

Isaac did not say how his parents reacted to his threat, but the record shows that he was soon banished to the care of his grandmother. Isaac and she got along better, but the bar had been set pretty low. They certainly weren’t close—in all the writings and scribbles Isaac left behind there is not a single affectionate recollection of her. On the bright side, there are also no recollections of his wanting to set her on fire and burn the house down.

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When Isaac was 10 the Reverend Smith died and he returned home briefly, joining a household that now included the three young children from his mother’s second marriage. A couple of years after Smith’s death, Hannah shipped him off to a Puritan school in Grantham, 8 miles from Woolsthorpe. While studying there he boarded in the home of an apothecary and chemist named William Clark, who admired and encouraged Newton’s inventiveness and curiosity. Young Isaac learned to grind chemicals with a mortar and pestle; he measured the strength of storms by jumping into and against the wind, and comparing the distance of his leaps; he built a small windmill adapted to be powered by a mouse running on a treadmill, and a four-wheeled cart he would sit in and power by turning a crank. He also created a kite that carried a lit lantern on its tail, and flew it at night, frightening the neighbors.

Though he got along well with Clark, his classmates were a different story. At school, being different and clearly intellectually superior brought Newton the same reaction then as it would today—the other kids hated him. The lonely but intensely creative life he led as a boy was preparation for the creative but tortured and isolated life he would lead for most—though happily not all—of his adult life.

As Newton approached the age of 17, his mother pulled him out of school, determined that he should return home to manage the family estate. But Newton was not cut out to be a farmer, proving that you can be a genius at calculating the orbits of the planets, and a total klutz when it comes to growing alfalfa. What’s more, he didn’t care. As his fences fell into disrepair and his swine trespassed in cornfields, Newton built water wheels in a brook, or just read. As Richard West- fall, a Newton biographer, wrote, he rebelled against a life spent “herding sheep and shoveling dung.”

Fortunately, Newton’s uncle and his old schoolmaster from Grantham intervened. Recognizing Isaac’s genius, they had him sent off to Trinity College in Cambridge in June, 1661. There he would be exposed to the scientific thinking of his time—only to one day rebel and overturn it. The servants celebrated his parting, not because they were happy for him, but because he had always treated them harshly. His personality was, they declared, fit for nothing but the university.

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In 1661 Galileo’s Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences, of Mechanics and of Motions was just over two decades old and, like his other works, hadn’t yet had much effect on the Cambridge curriculum. Which meant that in exchange for his service and his fees, Newton was treated to lessons that covered everything scholars knew about the world, as long as those scholars were Aristotle: Aristotelian cosmology, Aristotelian ethics, Aristotelian logic, Aristotelian philosophy, Aristotelian physics, Aristotelian rhetoric … He read Aristotle in the original, he read textbooks on Aristotle, he read all the books in the established curriculum. He finished none of them, for, like Galileo, he did not find Aristotle’s arguments convincing. Still, Aristotle’s writings constituted the first sophisticated approach to knowledge that Newton was exposed to, and even as he refuted them, he learned from the exercise how to approach the diverse issues of nature, and to think about them in an organized and coherent manner—and with astounding dedication. In fact, Newton, who was celibate and rarely engaged in recreational activities, worked 18 hours per day, seven days a week. It was a habit he would adhere to for many decades.

Dismissive of all the Aristotle studies that made up the Cambridge curriculum, Newton began his long journey toward a new way of thinking in 1664, when his notes indicate that he had initiated his own program of study, reading and assimilating the works of the great modern European thinkers, among them Kepler, Galileo, and René Descartes. Not a terribly distinguished student, Newton nonetheless managed to graduate in 1665, and to be awarded the title of scholar, along with four years of financial support for additional studies.

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Then, in the summer of 1665, a terrible outbreak of plague afflicted Cambridge, and the school closed down, not to reopen again until spring, 1667. While the school was closed, Newton retreated to his mother’s home in Woolsthorpe and continued his work in solitude. In some histories the year 1666 is called Newton’s annus mirabilis, or miracle year. According to that lore, Newton sat at the family farm, invented calculus, figured out the laws of motion, and, after seeing a falling apple, discovered his universal law of gravitation.

True, that wouldn’t have been a bad year. But it didn’t happen that way. The theory of universal gravitation wasn’t as simple as a single bright idea that could be had through an epiphany, it was an entire body of work that formed the basis of a whole new scientific tradition. What’s more, that storybook image of Newton and the apple is destructive because it makes it seem as if physicists make progress through huge and sudden insights, like someone who’s been hit on the head and can now predict the weather. In reality even for Newton progress required many hits on the head, and many years in which to process his ideas and come to a true understanding of their potential.

One reason most historians doubt the story of the miraculous epiphanies is that Newton’s insights into physics during the plague period came not all at once, but over a period of three years—1664 to 1666. Moreover, there was no Newtonian revolution at the end of that period: In 1666, Newton was not yet a Newtonian. He still thought of uniform motion as arising from something internal to the moving body, and by the term “gravity,” he meant some inherent property arising from the material an object is made of, rather than an external force exerted by the earth. The ideas he developed then were only a beginning, a beginning that left him baffled and floundering about many things, including force, gravity, and motion—all the basics that would eventually constitute the subject of his great work, The Principia Mathematica.

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On his return to Trinity College in the spring of 1667, Newton worked feverishly in two very different fields—optics and mathematics, in particular algebra. The latter paid off handsomely in that he was soon looked upon as a genius by the small community of Cambridge mathematicians. As a result, when the influential Isaac Barrow quit his prestigious post as “Lucasian professor of mathematics”—the position Stephen Hawking would hold a few centuries later— Barrow effectively arranged for Newton to take his place. The salary was magnificent by the standards of the era: Newton’s university was now willing to grant him 10 times what his mother had been willing to pro- vide—£100 per year.

Newton’s efforts in optics didn’t work out as well for him. While still a student he had read recent works on optics and light by Oxford scientists Robert Boyle (1627-1691), who was also a pioneer in chemistry, and Robert Hooke (1635-1703), a “crooked and pale faced” man who was a good theorist but a brilliant experimenter, as he had shown in his work as Boyle’s assistant. The work of Boyle and Hooke inspired Newton, though he never admitted it. But soon he was not only calculating, he was experimenting, and he was grinding glass and making improvements to the telescope.

Newton attacked the study of light from all angles. He stuck a needle-like bodkin in his eye and pressed with it until he saw white and colored circles. Did light come from pressure? He stared at the sun for as long as he could stand it—so long it took him days to recover— and he noted that when he looked away from the sun colors were distorted. Was light real or a product of the imagination? To study color in the laboratory, Newton made a hole in the shutter of the single window in his study, and let in a sunbeam. Its white light, philosophers thought, was the purest kind, completely colorless.

Hooke had sent such light through prisms, and noted that from the prisms came colored light—transparent substances produce color, Hooke concluded.

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Bored by mathematics and furious with the criticism of his optics, Newton had virtually cut himself off from the entire scientific community.

Such observations led Newton to a theory of color and light, which he worked out between 1666 and 1670. The end result was the conclusion—it infuriated him when Hooke called it a hypothesis—that light is made up of rays of tiny “corpuscles,” like atoms. We know now that the specifics of Newton’s theory are wrong. The idea of light corpuscles would be resurrected by Einstein a few hundred years later—today they are called “photons”—but Einstein’s light corpuscles are quantum particles and don’t obey Newton’s laws.

Though Newton’s work on the telescope brought him fame, the idea of light corpuscles was met in Newton’s day, as it would be in Einstein’s, by great skepticism—even hostility in the case of Robert Hooke, whose theory had described light as consisting of waves. What’s more, Hooke complained about Newton creating mere variations on the experiments Hooke had previously performed, and passing them off as his own.

Years of skipped meals and sleepless nights investigating optics had for Newton led to an intellectual battle that quickly became bitter and vicious. To make matters worse, Hooke was a brash man who shot from the hip and composed his responses to Newton in just a few hours, while Newton, meticulous and careful in all things, felt the need to put a great deal of work into his replies. In one instance, he spent months.

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Personal animosity aside, here was Newton’s introduction to the social side of the new scientific method—the public discussion and disputation of ideas. Newton had no taste for it. Already one who tended toward isolation, Newton withdrew.

Bored by mathematics, and furious with the criticism of his optics, by the mid 1670s Newton, in his early 30s, but with hair that was already gray and usually uncombed, had virtually cut himself off from the entire scientific community, and would remain cut off for the next decade. But there was another cause for his new, almost total isolation: Over the prior several years he had gradually turned the focus of his 100-hour work weeks to two new interests, and he wasn’t anxious to discuss either of them with anyone. For good reason—those interests were decidedly outside the mainstream: the mathematical and textual analysis of the Bible, and alchemy.

Newton believed the Bible promised that the truth would be revealed to men of piety, though certain elements of it might not be apparent from a simple reading of the text. He also believed that pious men of the past, including great alchemists like the Swiss physician Paracelsus, had divined important insights, and included them in their works in a coded form to hide them from the unfaithful. After he derived his own law of gravity, he even became convinced that Moses, Pythagoras, and Plato had all known it before him.

That Newton would turn his ideas into a mathematical analysis of the Bible is understandable, given his talents. His work led him to what he considered to be precise dates for the creation, Noah’s ark, and other biblical events. He also calculated, and repeatedly revised, a Bible-based prediction for the end of the world. His final prediction was that the world will end sometime between 2060 and 2344.

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In addition, Newton came to doubt the authenticity of a number of passages, and was convinced that a massive fraud had corrupted the legacy of the early church to support the idea of Christ as God—an idea he considered idolatrous. In short, he did not believe in the Trinity, which was ironic, given that he was a professor at Trinity College. It was also dangerous, for he would almost certainly have lost his post, and perhaps much more, had word of his views gotten out to the wrong people. But while Newton was committed to reinterpreting Christianity, he was very circumspect about allowing his work to be exposed to the public—this despite the fact that it was this work, his work on religion, and not his revolutionary work in science, that Newton regarded as his most important.

Newton’s other passion in those years—alchemy—also consumed an enormous amount of time and energy, and those studies would continue for 30 years, far more time than he ever devoted to his work on physics. They consumed money as well, for Newton assembled both an alchemy laboratory and a library.

In his alchemical investigations, Newton maintained his meticulous scientific approach, conducting a myriad of careful experiments, and taking copious notes. And so the future author of the Principia—often called the greatest book in the history of science—also spent years scribbling notebooks full of laboratory observations such as these:

Dissolve volatile green lion in the central salt of Venus and distill. This spirit is the green lion the blood of the green lion Venus, the Babylonian Dragon that kills everything with its poison, but conquered by being assuaged by the Doves of Diana, it is the Bond of Mercury.

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Why did Newton drift so far off course? When one examines the circumstances, one factor jumps out above all others: Newton’s isolation. Just as intellectual isolation led to the proliferation of bad science in the medieval Arab world, the same thing seemed to be hampering Newton, though in his case, the isolation was self-imposed, for he held his beliefs private regarding religion and alchemy, not willing to chance ridicule or even censure by opening the discussion to intellectual debate. There was not a “good Newton” and a “bad Newton,” a rational and an irrational Newton, wrote Oxford philosopher W.H. Newton-Smith. Rather, Newton went astray by failing to subject his ideas to discussion and challenge “in the public forum,” which is one of the most important “norms of the institution of science.”

Allergic to criticism, Newton was equally hesitant to share the revolutionary work he had done on the physics of motion during the plague years. As a result, 15 years into his term as Lucasian professor those ideas remained an unpublished, unfinished work. In 1684, at the age of 41, this maniacally hardworking former prodigy had produced merely a pile of disorganized notes and essays on alchemy and religion, a study littered with unfinished mathematical treatises, and a theory of motion that was still confused and incomplete. He had performed detailed investigations in a number of fields, but arrived at no sound conclusions, leaving ideas on math and physics that were like a supersaturated solution of salt, thick with content, but not yet crystallized.

The seed that would grow into the greatest advancement in science the world had ever seen sprouted after Newton met with a colleague who happened to be passing through Cambridge in the heat of late summer in 1684. In January of that fateful year, astronomer Edmund Halley—of comet fame—had sat at a meeting of the Royal Society of London, an influential learned society dedicated to science, discussing a hot issue of the day with two of his colleagues.

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Decades earlier, employing planetary data of unprecedented accuracy collected by the Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johannes Kepler had discovered three laws that seemed to describe the orbits of the planets. He declared that the planets’ orbits were ellipses with the sun at one of the foci, and identified certain rules those orbits obey—for example, that the square of the time it takes for a planet to complete one orbit is proportional to the cube of its average distance from the sun. In a sense, his laws were beautiful and concise descriptions of how the planets move through space, but in another sense they were empty observations, ad hoc statements that provided no insight about why such orbits should be followed.

Halley and his two colleagues suspected that Kepler’s laws reflected some deeper truth. In particular, they conjectured that Kepler’s laws would all follow if one assumed that the sun pulled each planet toward it with a force that grew weaker in proportion to the square of the planet’s distance, a mathematical form called an “inverse square law.”

That a force that emanates in all directions from a distant body like the sun should diminish in proportion to the square of your distance from that body can be argued from geometry. Imagine a gigantic sphere so large that the sun appears as a mere dot at its center. All points on the surface of that sphere will be equidistant from the sun, so, in the absence of any reason to believe otherwise, one would guess that the sun’s physical influence—essentially, its “force field”—should be spread equally over the sphere’s surface.

Now imagine a sphere that is, say, twice as large. The laws of geometry tell us that doubling the sphere’s radius yields a surface area that is four times as large, so the sun’s attractive force will now be spread over four times the square footage. It would make sense, then, that at any given point on that larger sphere, the sun’s attraction would be one-fourth as strong as before. That’s how an inverse square law works—when you go farther out, the force decreases in proportion to the square of your distance.

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Newton’s lectures seemed strangely difficult. It was later discovered why: He had simply shown up at each class section and read from his rough drafts of the Principia.

Halley and his colleagues suspected that an inverse square law stood behind Kepler’s laws, but could they prove it? One of them—Robert Hooke—said he could. The other, Christopher Wren, who is best known today for his work as an architect but was also a well-known astronomer, offered Hooke a prize in exchange for the proof. Hooke refused it. He was known to have a contrary personality, but the grounds he gave were suspicious: He said he would hold off revealing his proof so that others, by failing to solve the problem, might appreciate its difficulty. Perhaps Hooke really had solved the problem. Perhaps he also designed a dirigible that could fly to Venus. In any case, he never did provide the proof.

Seven months after that encounter, Halley found himself in Cambridge, and decided to look up the solitary Professor Newton. Like Hooke, Newton said he had done work that could prove Halley’s conjecture. Like Hooke, he didn’t come up with it. He rummaged through some papers but, not finding his proof, promised to look for it and send it to Halley later. Months passed and Halley received nothing. One can’t help but wonder what Halley was thinking. He asks two sophisticated grown men if they can solve a problem, and one says “I know the answer but I’m not telling!” while the other says, effectively, “the dog ate my homework.” Wren held onto the reward.

Newton did find the proof he was looking for, but when he examined it again he discovered that it was in error. But Newton did not give up—he reworked his ideas, and eventually he succeeded. That November he sent Halley a treatise of nine pages showing that all three of Kepler’s laws were indeed mathematical consequences of an inverse square law of attraction. He called the short tract De Motu Corporum in Gyrum (On the Motion of Bodies in an Orbit).

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Halley was thrilled. He recognized Newton’s treatment as revolutionary, and he wanted the Royal Society to publish it. But Newton demurred. “Now I am upon this subject,” he said, “I would gladly know the bottom of it before I publish my papers.”

For the next 18 months, Newton did nothing but work on expanding the treatise that would become the Principia. He was a physics machine. It had always been his habit, when engaged by a topic, to skip meals and even sleep. His cat, it was once said, had grown fat on the food he left sitting on his tray, and his old college roommate reported that he would often find Newton in the morning just where he had left him the night before, still working on the same problem. But this time Newton was even more extreme. He cut himself off from practically all human contact. He seldom left his room, and on the rare occasions he ventured out to the college dining hall, he’d often have just a nibble or two while still standing, and then quickly return to his quarters.

At last Newton had shut the door to his alchemical lab and shelved his theological investigations. He did continue to lecture, as was required of him, but those lectures seemed strangely obscure and impossible to follow. It was later discovered why: Newton had simply shown up at each class session and read from his rough drafts of the Principia.

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Newton might not have pushed his work on force and motion forward very much in the decades since he was voted a fellow at Trinity; but he was, in the 1680s, a far greater intellect than he had been in the plague years of the 1660s. He possessed far more mathematical maturity, and from his studies in alchemy, more scientific experience.

Ironically, one of the catalysts for Newton’s breakthrough was a letter he recalled receiving five years earlier from Robert Hooke. The idea Hooke proposed was that orbital motion could be looked at as the sum of two different tendencies. Consider an object (such as a planet) that is orbiting in a circular path around some other object that is attracting it (such as the sun). Suppose the orbiting body had a tendency to continue in a straight line, that is to fly off of its curved orbit and shoot straight ahead, like a car whose driver has missed a curve in the rain. This is what mathematicians call going off in the “tangential direction.”

Now suppose, also, that the body had a second tendency, an attraction toward the orbit’s center. Mathematicians call motion in that direction “radial motion.” A tendency toward radial motion, said Hooke, can complement a tendency toward tangential motion, so that, together, these two tendencies produce orbital motion.

It is easy to see how that idea would have resonated with Newton. Recall that, in improving on Galileo’s Law of Inertia, Newton had proposed in his “Waste Book” that all bodies tend to continue moving in a straight line unless acted upon by an external cause, or force. For an orbiting body, the first tendency, to move off the orbit in a straight line, arises naturally from that law. Newton realized that if you add to that picture a force that attracts a body toward the center of the orbit, then you’ve also provided the cause of the radial motion that was Hooke’s second necessary ingredient.

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But how do you describe that mathematically, and in particular, how do you make the connection between the particular mathematical form of the inverse square law, and the particular mathematical properties of orbits that Kepler discovered?

Imagine dividing time into tiny intervals. In each interval, the orbiting object can be thought of as moving tangentially by a small amount, and, at the same time, radially by a small amount. The net of these two motions is to return it to its orbit, but a bit farther along the circle than where it had started. Repeating this many times results in a jagged circle-like orbit. However, if the time intervals are tiny enough, the path can be made as close to a circle as one might wish, and if the intervals are infinitesimal, the path, for all practical purposes, is a circle.

That is exactly the description of orbits that Newton’s new mathematics—the calculus—allowed him to create. He put together a picture in which an orbiting body moves tangentially, and “falls” radially, creating a jagged path, and then he took the limiting case in which the straight line segments of the jags become vanishingly small. That effectively smooths the jagged saw-tooth path into a circle. Orbital motion, in this view, is just the motion of some body that is continually deflected from its tangential path by the action of a force pulling it toward some center. The proof was in the pudding: Employing the inverse square law to describe centripetal force in his mathematics of orbits, Newton produced Kepler’s three laws, as Halley had asked.

Showing that free fall and orbital motion are both instances of the same laws of force and motion was one of Newton’s greatest triumphs because it once and for all disproved Aristotle’s claim that the heavens and earth form different realms. If Galileo’s astronomical observations revealed that the features of other planets are much like those of the earth, Newton’s work showed that the laws of nature also apply to other planets and are not unique to planet earth.

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The momentous idea that gravity is universal seems to have dawned on Newton gradually, as he worked on revisions of the early drafts of Principia. Previously, if scientists suspected that planets exerted a force of gravity, they believed the planets’ gravity affected only their moons, but not other planets, as if each planet were a distinct world unto itself with its own laws. Indeed, Newton himself had begun by investigating only whether the cause of things falling on earth might also explain the earth’s pull on the moon, and not the pull of the sun on the planets. Eventually, though, he began to question the conventional thinking and wrote to an English astronomer requesting data regarding the comets of 1680 and 1684, as well as the orbital velocities of Jupiter and Saturn as they approached each other. After performing some grueling calculations on that very accurate data and comparing the results, he became convinced that the same law of gravity applies everywhere and revised the text that he published as Principia to reflect that.

The strengths of Newton’s laws did not lie solely in their revolutionary conceptual content. With them he could also make predictions of unprecedented accuracy, and compare them to the results of experiments. For example, employing data on the distance of the moon, and the radius of the earth, and taking into account such minutiae as the distortion of the moon’s orbit due to the pull of the sun, the centrifugal force due to the earth’s rotation, and the deviations of the earth’s shape from a perfect sphere, Newton concluded that, at the latitude of Paris, a body dropped from rest should fall 15 feet and one-eighth of an inch in the first second. This, the ever-fastidious Newton reported, matched experiments to better than 1 part in 3,000. What’s more, he painstakingly repeated the experiment with different materials—gold, silver, lead, glass, sand, salt, water, wood, and wheat. Every single body, he concluded, no matter what its composition, and no matter whether on earth or in the heavens, attracts every other body, and the attraction always follows the same law.

Halley, proving his value not just as publisher and informal editor but also as marketer, sent copies of Principia to all the leading philosophers and scientists of the time. The book took Britain by storm, and word of it spread quickly in coffee houses and intellectual circles all around Europe. It soon became clear that Newton had written a book destined to reshape human thought—the most influential work in the history of science. And yet one of Newton’s most far-sighted observations was that the smooth pebbles and pretty shells of truth he had discovered were the beginning and not the end of our quest to understand the laws of nature, that despite the successes of his theory, a “great ocean of truth” was yet to be discovered—an ocean we would not begin to understand for another 200 years.

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Leonard Mlodinow received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of California, Berkeley, was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute, and was on the faculty of the California Institute of Technology.

Excerpt from the upcoming book: The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow Copyright © 2015 by Leonard Mlodinow. Published
 by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 Nautilus Quarterly.

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