February 26, 2020

Review: Magnificent Principia by Colin Pask

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Thank Newton for orbital mechanics. This week, we’ll take a look at the masterpiece that started all with Magnificent Principia by Colin Pask out from Prometheus Books. Sir Isaac published his Philosphiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica on July 5th, 1687. And although every high school physics student is (or hopefully, should be) familiar with the three laws of motion that it advanced, few have ever actually read the original work.

Like Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Einstein’s 1905 Annus Mirabilis papers on Special Relativity, the Principia is  one of the greatest works of the human mind that few have read, and even fewer understand.

In Magnificent Principia, author Colin Pask delves into the mind of Newton and gives us a blow-by-blow dissection of his seminal work. He doesn’t back away from the “mathiness,” but we’re happy to report that the author himself gives you advice beforehand on how to read the book and maneuver through it in a non-linear (non-Newtonian? OK, that’s a bad pun) fashion.

Like many physicists, Newton discovered and described something that was so fundamental that previous thinkers had scarcely paid attention to them, namely the concepts of force, acceleration, inertia and above all, gravity. But did you know that Newton also expounded on fluid mechanics in his Principia as well? Or that he dabbled in biblical numerology, alchemy and the occult? Of course, this wasn’t uncommon in Newton’s day, as other astronomical visionaries such as Kepler cast horoscopes to pad their meager incomes. Perhaps what was extraordinary for Newton was the fact that very little of his journeys into pseudoscience made their way into the Principia. He was truly a scientific genius in this regard, someone who held scientific thinking above all else.

The book also delves into the era and times of the Principia. The 17th century was a time of superstition and disease. The heavens bore no good will towards the residents of Earth, and many thought the appearance of bright comets to be harbingers of disaster and malady. Newton took advantage of the time that he spent sequestered during an outbreak of the plague to come up with the ideas later incorporated into the Principia. He also developed integral calculus, came up with theories of light and optics, and invented the reflecting telescope that we still call a Newtonian for good measure as well.

Quite an over-achiever, to be sure. Astronomy fans will find the chapters covering the motion of the planets and the Moon especially intriguing. Newton once remarked that “My head never ached but with my studies of the Moon.” Still, it was the wonderfully complex motion of our solitary natural satellite that gave Newton the key insights that he needed to formulate his laws of motion and gravity.

And these are laws we still use today, laws that are used to place spacecraft in the right place at the right time, billions of miles away.

Be sure to check out Magnificent Principia, whether you want a peek into the mathematical mind of a genius, or if you’re just interested in the history of one of the key works in astronomy and physics!



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