Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Happy (belated) Birthday, Isaac

Isaac Newton was born 367 years ago as of yesterday. Other than Google, few people seemed to remember it. I assume that's because we tend focus on birthdays that are multiples of 5, so just wait for 2013, Isaac!

It's really too bad the folks at Google went with the old apple motif for Newton's birthday. After all, he did lots of wonderful, important, and despicable things , but everyone associates him with a made-up story about an apple hitting him on the head. They could have chosen any number of doodles to represent real aspects of his life. In addition to inventing calculus and revolutionizing physics, he was at various times an astronomer, an alchemist, a knight, a detective, a prosecutor, and a religious fanatic.

One of my favorite Newton stories is about the time when he served as warden for the Royal mint in England. In an effort to fight the rampant counterfeiting of the time, he went to taverns in disguise to listen in on conversations among criminals. After conducting his stealthy investigation, he later managed to be appointed justice of the peace to oversee trials of the very people he investigated. He cross examined hundreds of witnesses, and ultimately managed to get 10 counterfeiters sentenced to death. I can't help feeling a sorry for the unlucky criminals who had to face a ruthless genius like Newton in court.

Then there are the stories about his search for the alchemist's secret to turn lead into gold, and his bible-based calculation that the world will end no sooner than 2060. To be fair, Newton's true legacy is calculus and the amazing contributions he made to physics. But it's comforting, in a way, to know that even one of the greatest people to ever walk the Earth was less than perfect. It all just serves to make him that much more interesting.

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