Newtonian Natural Physics

We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances

This is a quotation of Sir. Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the physics scientist that – despite many brilliant accomplishments of his genius – put into place a series of flawed notions regarding the essence and relationships among space, time and light. The starting point of Newton’s system was Galileo’s idea of rest within the inertial frame of reference.

Newton accepted Galileo’s theory of relativity and he tried to calculate the position of the first point in space near the sun that would be at absolute rest.

Newton began with the Pythagorean assumption that nature can be reduced to mathematical relationships. He was so taken with Euclid’s organization of the Elements of Geometry that he used a similar format, starting with definitions and proceeding to formulate his law upon them. In doing so, he scaffolded with Aristotelian logic and added Galileo’s method. Always with the scientific attention required to check theory with observed facts in order to arrive at the infinitesimal calculus. In Principia Newton presented his insights in the language of mathematics.

The scientists and events that would subsequently influenced Newton’s ideas on the subject of absolute rest were two related discoveries.

The first one, let him an obvious question:

– “What yardstick can the speed of light be measured against, if according to Galileo every object in the sky is in motion relative to all the other objects?”

How does this particular question raised in the mind of Newton?  Well we should remember that,  in 1676, the Danish astronomer Christensen Roemer demonstrated that light travelled across space at finite speed.

Moreover in 1678 was the time of Christian Huygens’s proposal that light traveled through space as a wave transmitted by an invisible substance called the luminiferous ether.

Huygens believed that light was corpuscular, made of tiny particles that shot through space in straight and single file rays. Regarding this particular view, the opinion of Newton was a complete disagreement but he accepted one specific point: the idea of an invisible  ether. Why so? In his time scientists needed to be very careful on the proposal of theories on gravitation and on the nature of light’s speed…

Newton was smart, and he used the concept of ‘ether’ to convey his newly discovered gravitation as well as answer on the question raised by Roemer’s calculation of the speed of light. But he made just a tiny mistake assigning to the ether one basic property: absolute rest. Why he choose to built and integrate his theory starting by that claim? Let’s infer that Newton believed that while the fixed stars, sun, planets, and moon executed the choreography in their ballet , the ether provide the “platform” of the theater Naturae they were performing. The “superiority” of this platform allow the observer to have a privileged vantage point that remains at absolute rest; at all times. This is why in the second volume of Principia he says that time and space were absolutely immutable:

Absolute, True and Mathematical Time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to any thing external. And absolute Space, in its own nature, without regard to any thing external, remains always similar and immovable.

Other scientists contemporary with Newton, notably Leibniz and Hooke, disagreed with his assessment, that in fact revealed itself to be wrong.

Newton’s mistakes faded before his accomplishements. So he could emerged as the intellectual figure everyone knows, the one of who instituted a new way of thinking about the world. His Principia controverted the authority of the Bible, because Newton’s compared the universe to a huge and mechanized ticking clock, set in motion by the deity.

Isaac Newton’s work on lunar theory found in a first ed. Principia, c.1700. From the Newton Papers @CamDigLib

Time, according to this scheme, flowed inexorably at a constant rate through a uniform and homogeneous space. When light was a mysterious essence that travel in an erratic way like a drifter. These metaphor led thinkers to exalt the principle of causality before and determinism in the later eighteenth century.

Newton’s was a scientist that give his whole life to the discovery of a new way to think about the world, and think about it, such do an artist that instead of following the multiple desires of the society libido and Es think on his own way to develop a “vision” based on a new path that allow him to “see” and imagine the elements that are overtime beyond us.

Maybe an artist allow himself to use a different pair of “glasses”, that work as a sort of instrument that instead of allowing a better eye vision and perception for the eyes help the “mind” to enlarge its boundaries. Such do a physicist that see beyond mathematical formulae the ballet made every time by stars, sun, planets and the moon following the time and space’ symphony.


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