Friday, January 22, 2010

New Newton News

There's a fantastic little book out there called Sum, which is a collection of essays about what the afterlife might be like. The essayist carries what can often seem like wonderful and harmless scenarios for the afterlife, and carries them out to sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart warming, sometimes heart breaking conclusions.

In one scenario, people who have died enter a waiting room before they can enter the great beyond. They remain in the room for as long as people on Earth say their name. For people with large families, their names carry on through a few generations and then die out. For those with no family or friends, the wait ends after their funeral. A man who's name has become attached to a local legend retold by tour guides goes crazy wishing for the end of it all. And then there are the very famous people, some who have been there for centuries or millennia, who may very well be there until the end of civilization.

This scenario makes me happy because it means I'd get to meet some amazing people when I die. Including Isaac Newton, who will no doubt be trapped in that waiting room for a good long time. The guy was just too darn influential. We celebrated his birthday a few weeks ago - well over 250 years after he shed this mortal coil and stopped coming to the parties. And this month, the Royal Society produced an online version of previously unavailable pages from a biography of Newton, written shortly after his death.

The pages, written by Newton's friend and colleague William Stukely, address the famous "Newton and the Apple" story. The folklore says that an apple fell on Newton's head and sparked his thoughts about gravity; as if God or nature were literally smacking him on the head to say, "it's right in front of you!"

Unlikely as that exact story seems, the biography suggests that it was, in fact, a falling apple that gave Newton inspiration to pursue his study of fundamental laws. The BBC conducted an interview with Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at Oxford University's Trinity College, UK, who had this to say:

"We needn't believe that the apple hit his head, but sitting in the orchard and seeing the apple fall triggered that work.

"It was a chance event that got him engaged with something he might have otherwise have shelved."

It's incredible to think that when Newton came up with his ideas, it wasn't just a scientific breakthrough but a philosophical one. People didn't believe that there were universal laws, but rather, that God managed most things on an individual basis. Furthermore, people didn't think it possible that the motion of the planets (such large, heavenly things!) could behave the way they did because of the same laws that governed a falling apple (so small!). Newton's time in the purgatorial waiting room is well deserved, I just hope he doesn't mind being there for a long, long time.
(Image courtesy of Royal Society)

1 comment:

  1. Newton's laws of motion, gravity are so well known that even school children are aware if them and this familiarity creates the understanding that now there are no problems in teaching / learning these basic topics. However, this turns to be a misunderstanding, when one learns the philosophy of Prof. Dennis Sciama, (a well-known British astrophysicist) who used to say that Einstein's G.R. originates in the logical incompleteness of Newton's laws of motion. However, as a physics educationist, I would like to go one step ahead and say that that incompleteness itself has not been properly understood. Ref: my essay in memory of Prof. Dennis Sciama / COSPAR IB # 152 / 2001. In support of it, I use two paradoxes, one of the is concerned with the fall of Newton's apple. It is described briefly below.

    Newton's law of gravitation is used for understanding two motions, the gravitational potential energy and the planetary motion. In the potential energy, the motion is along line of action of force but in the planetary motion the instantaneous motion is perpendicular to the line of action. So following questions gather in mind. i)Why one and the same force can give to two "totally" different ways of motion? Why moon is not falling on earth? Why earth is not falling on sun? As these questions have not been considered as yet, there are no convincing answers also. Physicists always depend on initial conditions but, from the point of view of "physics education" this approach is not correct, as I argued it in the GR9 Conference (Jena, East GERMANY) in July 1980. More information can be given on request, received through the editor or on dvsathe@gmail.com

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