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Isaac Newton as an author

December 14, 2011

newtonWhat a magnificent age we live in.  Cambridge University just released digital copies of Newton’s notebooks (under an inspiring subtitle taken from Newton’s undergraduate notebook:  “Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.”)  I have only just started beginning exploring them, but there are wonders fantastic in them.

We tend to think of Isaac Newton as a giant of science (even if stood on the shoulders – or feet – of others) and not as an author.  What a pity!  In fact, Newton’s literary output – scientific, alchemical, and theological – is fascinating in its own right.

There is a magnificent Norton Critical Edition anthology of Newton that gives real insight into the writings of Newton.  It is divided into nine sections:  Natural Philosophy, Scientific Method, Experimental Procedure, Optics, Rational Mechanics, Systems of the World, Alchemy and Theory of Matter, Theology, and Mathematics.

There is also an amazing translation of the Principia by Bernard Cohen (make certain that you get this Cohen translation and not one of the older, inaccurate, and incomprehensible translations.)

One might think that a year or two of college calculus and physics gives one all of Newton, but certainly that is not true – Newton’s approach to the calculus and the “mathematical principles of natural philosophy” are quite different than the way that the subject is taught today.  When Nobel Laureate S. Chandrasekhar read the Principia as a faculty member, he faced a number of difficulties; and ended up writing a commentary (which is quite misleadingly called Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader – I think that S. Chandrasekhar’s idea of “common reader” goes well beyond what you and I might call a “common reader.”)

Newton was mad and creative and tormented and brilliant – and as I peruse the digital copies of his notebooks, I feel that I am almost in his presence.  Remarkable work!

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 14, 2011 9:55 pm

    Newton was the mans.

    Nice post! 🙂

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