Monday, January 04, 2010

Science Hagiography, Google Style

Posted by Darin Hayton on 01/04 at 10:15 AM

Today (4 January 1643) is Isaac Newton’s birthday. Few people more clearly represent the spirit of modern science, at least in popular opinion, than Newton. The object of countless biographies, reinterpretations, popular and quasi-popular books, Newton’s cottage industry has spawned sub-disciplines and mathematical institutes (see, for example, the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematica Sciences). Among the lingering Newton myths claims that he “discovered gravity” when an apple fell on his head (Simon Schaffer offers a slightly different story in this YouTube video).

The most recent version of that myth can be found on Google’s home page today. Here are two screen shots before and after the apple falls.


The apple before it falls.(Source: Google)


The apple after it falls.(Source: Google)

Most people only remember Newton for his work on gravity, ensconced in his Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica.

Title page of Newton’s Principia

Sometimes celebrated as one of the most important books in the history of science, Newton’s Principia continues to attract the attention of scholars (and collectors—a copy sold last year for $194,500 at auction).

Along with his work on gravity and physics, Newton made considerable contributions to optics (there is a nice entry at the Royal Society’s Trailblazing site. The entry for 1672 includes a short biography and a link to Newton’s famous paper on optics). Newton also spent considerable time in the alchemical laboratory. The late Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs deserves most of the credit for bringing Newton’s alchemical experiments to the attention of historians of science and the broader public. Now historians of science have even gone so far as to begin transcribing Newton’s alchemical manuscripts and recreating his alchemical experiments (see The Chymistry of Isaac Newton).

For better or for worse, Newton (along with Albert Einstein) has to be considered one of the primary saints of science.

Tags: albert einstein, alchemy, hagiography, isaac newton, optics, principia mathematica