Up-words - The Gravity King

Up-words- The Best of the Paper Issues of This way up 2002-10

November  2002

When Isaac Newton was eleven, he made a kite and tied fireworks to it before taking it out at dusk and flying it, much to his neighbour’s shock; they thought it was a comet and in those days, comets foretold disaster. How cosmic is that though; a kite with fireworks going off as it flew. Some accounts claim is was a lantern, which isn’t quite as exciting. The BBC’s recent Great Britons` series has had its moments, though not those you’d expect. Apart from the puzzlement as to why John Lennon is in the top 10 at all (at least on his own and not with McCartney) the main things has been how passionately various celebrity experts have fought their corner, making even the most mundane characters seem amazing. Like Oliver Cromwell; a fascinating figure who laid the foundation for parliamentary democracy but has languished in the historical sin bin because of one massacre. But, for a fanzine like this, Cromwell’s a bit dry.

Isaac Newton, on the other hand is like a pop star from before pop music existed; he’s a trailblazer who went crazy and spent a lost decade fiddling with alchemy yet ended up knighted and feted.

A man who worked out – well not entirely on his own but it takes a genius to stitch the clues together – what the Universe is all about and, for good measure, also invented telescopes and lots of other scientific things Iike calculus (thanks for that!) that I don’t understand at all. Not that it matters – I voted for him and here’s why. Born prematurely on Xmas Day 1642, he was so weedy he wasn't expected to survive and his mother later said he was tiny enough to "fit into a quart mug.” Isaac’s father had died a few months before he was born and when his mother, Hannah Newton, re-married two years later she just left her son behind with his grandmother even though she was only living a mile away.

As a child Newton on his grandmother's farm in the small village of Woolsthorpe, little Isaac Newton kept himself very busy. At school he studied mostly Latin but at home he studied everything. He particularly liked to build things such as kites,  water clocks, sundials, waterwheels, and even – yes - windmills. At King’s School in nearby Grantham, he stayed with friends of his mother who were druggists and also developed an interest in chemistry. Yet there was no sense of the intellect that would later surface; in fact he was a poor pupil, often spent lessons staring out of the window thinking of ideas for experiments which he would later try, such as the kite episode. Or his waterless windmill powered by a mouse on a treadmill. Unsurprisingly the other children found him odd and unfriendly but were in for a shock one day when he turned on a bully beating him into a pulp and then, displaying the nature of his character decide he had to beat him academically too. Pretty soon, he was top of the class. This pattern repeated itself throughout his life; he could never accept criticism and strained to better his rivals to the point where he ended up conducting bitter feuds, sometimes in public, which would also cause mental breakdowns on at least two occasions.

Isaac Newton invented this!

As a teenager, Newton was taken out of school by his mother   because her second husband had died and she now wanted him to help run the farm but he proved hapless at such a mundane task and instead spent his tile scribbling in notebooks on such topics as making gold ink, a phonetic alphabet, magic tricks and even medical recipes.
Much later, after he had attained wide fame for his many achievements, he was how he had managed to come up with so many brilliant discoveries. He replied: "By always thinking about them." But this constant thinking when he should have been concerned with farming matters drove his mother to agree to send him off to Cambridge where he was admitted as a "subsizar," a student who earned his way by working part time as a servant to other, wealthier students.

His first years at Cambridge were quiet and unremarkable. By the time he went there, the scientific revolution of the 17th century was happening in a melting pot of new ideas; Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes had all helped develop a new view of nature that operated under specific rules and mathematical principles. Yet at Cambridge everyone was still studying the old science -- the science developed by the ancient Greeks 2000 years before. Newton studied it too but his head was elsewhere as usual. He kept to himself and studied, avoided parties, and conducted lots of experiments in his room. In one he almost ruined his eyes by watching the sun for hours at a time to observe its colours. He had to spend several days in complete darkness before his eyes regained their normal vision.
Newton earned his degree in three and a half years and then made plans to stay on but those plans were interrupted by The Great Plague which had begun in London in 1664 spread to Cambridge by the following summer causing the University to be closed and Newton had to go back home. Yet it was this hiatus from 1665 –67 that became the platform for all his greatest work. He had time to do what he did best think and came up with this little lot -

Before Newton, scientists still believed Aristotle's ancient theory that white light is a simple, pure entity with no parts or multiple qualities. Newton proved differently. His work with colour began with experiments with prisms. At the time scientists believed that a prism changed the rays of the sun as it passed through creating the variety of colours that spilled out. They thought light started out white and was darkened by the prism to shades of blue, green, violet, and the rest.

Newton had a different idea -- he believed the prism didn't change the light, it only reflected what was there to start with. Sunlight was already a blend of different colours and each emerged as they were bent differently through the prism. He conducted different experiments that proved his point and then identified the various colours of light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Today, indigo and violet are considered as one (violet) but Newton separated them because he liked the idea of having seven colours to match the notes of the musical scale. He called this array of colours the SPECTRUM, which is what they've been called ever since.
realised that telescopes of his time were defective -- if they focused on one ray of light passing through the lens, say a violet ray, other rays would be out of focus, such as the orange rays. The solution, he decided, was to build a telescope that focused with a mirror instead of a lens. In a mirror, all colours are reflected the same and would focus together. With that inspiration, Newton built the first reflecting telescope.  Spectrum was indeed go!

With Newton, as with most scientists, one discovery always led to another. In this case, his work with prisms and lights led him to invent a new telescope. As he studied light he

Looks just like a 1970s album cover, doesn't it?

The second major discovery Newton made at this time was calculus that he called the "method of fluxions." He came up with simple analytical methods that brought together a whole range of different techniques that had been developed to solve problems such as finding areas, tangents, and the lengths of curves. Those methods became a powerful tool of problem solving in both mathematics and physics. And still nobody understands them!

This is the famous one - the theory of gravity. Sitting under a tree he watched an apple plummet to the ground and he had his Eureka! Moment though it helped he was thinking about the forces that keep the moon in orbit. This set him thinking whether it could be that the same force that caused the apple to fall to earth might be the one that holds the moon in orbit round the Earth? This led him eventually to the law of gravitation. Or something.
Whether the apple thing was true or not (and eggheads and historians have debated for yonks) there is no doubt about the three Laws of Motion that he did discover viz:

Law of Inertia: If a body is at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, it will remain at rest or keep moving in a straight line at constant speed unless it's acted upon by a force.

Law of Force. The speed or acceleration of a body is directly proportional to the force (F) and inversely proportional to the mass (M). The larger the force, the larger the acceleration; the larger the mass, the smaller the acceleration. This is his most important law. It is the one that leads to all other basic equations of dynamics and has served as the framework for natural science ever since.

The Other one (this doesn’t have a catchy name) The actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal and directly opposite or, more commonly put, "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." It means simply that the downward force of a book slammed onto a table is equal to the upward force of the table on the book. Mmm, simple enough then.
It was Newton who originated the term gravity, using the Latin word gravitas, which means "heaviness" or "weight." He also discovered centrifugal force - the force away from the centre - of a body moving in a uniformly circular path.
The tremendous insight that came with all his work on gravity was Newton's idea that the Earth's gravity extended all the way to the moon, offering a counterbalance to its centrifugal force. He was able to figure out that the centrifugal force of the moon (and any other planet) decreases as the inverse square of its distance from the centre of its motion. But you knew that….

In 1684 Newton took all these findings and published what's considered his greatest work entitled the `Principia`. Inspired partly by Halle (of Comet fame), Newton spent 18 months on what was a treatment of new physics and their application to astronomy. It’s full title was "The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy" or, as it's known today, "Principia." Almost ever boffin agrees that "Principia" is the greatest scientific book ever written and it’s been called “the fundamental work for all of modern science.”

In "Principia," Newton analysed the motion of orbiting bodies, projectiles, pendula, and free-fall near the Earth and demonstrated that planets were attracted to the sun and that all heavenly bodies mutually attract one another. He expanded his law of universal gravitation -- that all matter attracts every other piece of matter with a force proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. All the disparate theories that had gone before were this transformed into one unifying one.

Oddly, despite this, his academic career had been less than amazing; after the plague he returned to Cambridge and by the time he was 26 was a mathematics professor although by all accounts his lectures were not too good. But he was a genius so it didn’t matter, he preferred to work on his own ideas, hardly sleeping and eating poorly. There is an even a story that one person at Cambridge claimed to have only seen Newton laugh once. He would however indulge in public feuds with other experts, who dared criticise papers he wrote, notable Robert Hooke with whom he had a lifelong rivalry.

It was after one of these spats turned to fury that he went into a hiatus for several years, turning to his interest in alchemy and pottering about with it in seclusion. But all that changed when the `Principia` was published and Newton became as famous as a pop star would be today. But just like our most cherished pop stars, he was unpredictable and in 1693 Newton suffered another nervous breakdown. He began to send angry letters to his personal friends, accusing them of things that were completely imaginary. Then, he recovered again, retired from research and moved to London. Three years later, when he was 54, the government offered him a prestigious position as Warden of the Royal Mint and a short time later, Master of the Royal Mint. When he was 61, The Royal Society elected Newton president. They had offered him the post earlier but he refused to accept it until Society member and foe Robert Hooke had died.

Newton needed the wig to hide his un-naturally large brain
In later years, Newton did most of his work at home in the study above his bedroom and still indulged in feuds with other noted scientists. Many years later, it was suggested that much of his erratic behaviour was caused by exposure to mercury during his alchemy years; recent studies of a hair sample from Newton showed he had forty times the level of Mercury considered normal.  Knighted when he was 63, Newton lived until he was 84 and was
buried at Westminster Abbey, where the inscription on his tomb reads: "Let Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race."

Shortly before he died, he is quoted as having said "I have been but as a child playing on the seashore, now finding some prettier pebble or more beautiful shell than my companions, while the unbounded ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me."
Words: Adam Hope

An apple, yesterday


No comments:

Post a comment