Tag Archive: Newton

Destroying authoritarianism in science

For there never was a more successful theory, or a better tested theory, than Newton’s theory of gravity. It succeeded in explaining both terrestrial and celestial mechanics. It was most severely tested in both fields for centuries. The great physicist and mathematician Henri Poincaré believed not only that it was true – this of course was everybodys belief – but that it was true by definition, and that it would therefore remain the invariable basis of physics to the end of man’s search for truth. And Poincaré believed this in spite of the fact that he actually anticipated – or that he came very close to anticipating – Einstein’s special theory of relativity. I mention this in order to illustrate the tremendous authority of Newton’s theory down to the very last.

Now the question whether or not Einstein’s theory of gravity is an improvement upon Newton’s, as most physicists think it is, may be left open. But the mere fact that there was now an alternative theory which explained everything that Newton could explain and, in addition, many more things, and which passed at least one of the crucial tests that Newton’s theory seemed to fail, destroyed the unique place held by Newton’s theory in its field. Newton’s theory was thus reduced to the status of an excellent and successful conjecture, a hypothesis competing with others, and one whose acceptability was an open question. Einstein’s theory thus destroyed the authority of Newton’s, and with it some­thing of even greater importance – authoritarianism in science. [91]

Newtonian induction

The common explanation for the appearance of the colours was that they were added by impurities in the prism to the pure white light. Newton thought that the colours were already present in the white sunlight. But what set Newton apart was that he devised and performed an experiment to test his hypothesis. …

Green light into the prism equals green light out. That implies that the colours themselves are pure. The prism is not subtracting or adding anything. That means that Newton’s hypothesis was shown to be correct. …

Newton was one of the first to interrogate Nature using the principles of what we now call the scientific method. In other words, he observed the world, came up with theories to explain what he saw, then tested them with experiments to see if he was right. The power of this approach is that it aims to remove preconceived ideas and, in doing so, deliver a more accurate description of the natural world.  [7:40]

On the shoulders of giants

The reverence that philosophers show for the historical sources of ideas is very perverse, you know. In science we do not consider the discoverer of a theory to have any special insight into it. On the contrary, we hardly ever consult original sources. They invariably become obsolete, as the problem-situations that prompted them are transformed by the discoveries themselves. For example, most relativity theorists today understand Einstein’s theory better than he did. The founders of quantum theory made a complete mess of understanding their own theory. Such shaky beginnings are to be expected; and when we stand upon the shoulders of giants, it may not be all that hard to see further than they did. But in any case, surely it is more interesting to argue about what the truth is, than about what some particular thinker, however great, did or did not think. [157]