October 23, 2018

Review: Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe

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There. We said it.

So, you think you know Sir Isaac Newton? Some of the most fascinating tales of science and history lurk in the footnotes, down the tiny side avenues and rabbit holes that most traditional biographies only hint at. Rittenhouse passed out during a transit of Venus. Tycho had his nose shot off during a duel.

Of course, most science history books only tease us with these glimpses and asides in favor of the standard narrative of discovery. One recent book that breaks this trend is Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe by Florian Freistetter out from Prometheus Books.

Sure, you learned Newton’s laws of motion in high school science class. You’ve heard the apocryphal tale of the apple. But did you know that, as the head of the Royal Mint, Newton also actively persecuted counterfeiters? Or that he was not only a staunch critic of his contemporaries, but a firm defender of his own work?

The book portrays Newton at his idiosyncratic best, an abrasive character with a drive to understand the inner workings of nature and the universe at all costs. Newton was fascinated with the nature of gravity and light, and once famously stuck a needle in his eye (don’t try this at home) in order to better understand the nature of sight and light perception. Though these early experiments may seem frivolous at best and dangerous at worst, Newton did give us the first functioning design for a reflecting telescope that now bears his name, the Newtonian reflector.

The book also delves into the controversy over the invention of calculus and Newton versus Leibniz. A product of his time, Newton’s efforts in early chemistry were also tied up with its arcane roots in alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a material said to have the ability to transmute any substance into gold. The ruling powers of the day so feared Newton’s reputation that the King of England actually issued an edict against any such transmutation, lest it collapse the national economy overnight.

Newton also dabbled in the occult, and analysis of the Bible in search of hidden meaning and the history of early humanity. Newton also used his studies in the chronology of the Bible to extrapolate the date for the apocalypse in 2060. This fascinating aside gives a glimpse into a time that may seem strange to us today, an era when science and magic were still intertwined. Kepler, for example still practiced astrology, and took an entire year off from his studies of planetary motion to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft.

And while these aspects of Newton’s life and works may seem strange, it also paints a picture of how science with true predictive power and the scientific method emerged. Sure, we all memorized Newton’s three laws of motion in high school, but he also set physics on the right track, a quest to unify the fundamental forces of nature that continues today.

Be sure to read†Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe. You’ll never see Newton in the same light again.

Review: Magnificent Principia by Colin Pask

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Thank Newton for orbital mechanics. This week, weíll 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. [Read more...]

The Early Astronomers: A Brief History of Astronomy.

Ye ‘ole telescope…(Photo by Author).

(Editorís note: The following is an essay wrote by yours truly in the quest for a science teaching degree. Now that said degree has come to fruition, our writing can be immortalized forever in a re-vamped blog format).

Astronomy is one of manís earliest pursuits for knowledge. Once we began living in organized communities and brute survival and safety wasnít a constant and overriding concern, we began to look up and ponder our place in the cosmos and contemplate the workings of the heavens above us. [Read more...]