Tag: Isaac Newton

The Use and Abuse of Isaac Newton

Bitcoin’s recent rise has prompted an ever growing number of people to misstate and otherwise abuse Newton’s laws of motions. Predictions of a Bitcoin crash typically invoke “Newton’s Law of Universal Gravity [which] states that what goes up must come down” or some version of that “law”. The whole Newton’s law of “what goes up must come down” is a trope in reporting on any price surge, e.g., individual stocks, gold prices, S&P500, etc. Should we be concerned that Newton’s laws of motion don’t, in fact, say “what goes up must come down?”

Bitcoin is just the latest in posts and articles appealing to Newton’s laws. Seems every author wants to “understand” some complex economic, political, or social situation by applying Newton’s laws.

Newton’s third law is a favorite spot of abuse. Andrew Mitrovica writing about political resistance says:

In the cacophonous age of Donald Trump , Americans would do well to recall Isaac Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Americans would be wise not only to remember this axiom of physics and, indeed, politics, but they must be prepared to exercise it finally and emphatically, en masse, in defiance of a dystopian regime’s toxic actions at home and abroad.

Really? Newton’s third law is an “axiom of … politics?”

This use and abuse of Newton is not new, e.g., see “Newton’s Third Law states that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. He was talking about physics. But it’s equally applicable to less scientific stuff as well” from 2009. Stanley Bing then goes on to use Newton’s third law to describe (predict?) human behavior. While Bing got the law right, he like so many others misapplied. Newton’s laws describe the motions of macroscopic objects moving at relatively slow speeds, not the behavior of humans (or stock markets or currency exchanges or …).

Newton’s first law doesn’t escape flogging. Apparently Tom Lee of Fundstrat Global Advisors thinks Newton’s first law applies to stock prices (the original post is behind a paywall, so I rely on quotations from it):

Newton’s ‘law of motion’ applies to stocks in mid-September — 90% of time, if stocks up between 5% to 20%year-to-date (YTD), gains continue to year-end (YE).

Newton’s first law does not apply to stock prices (or gold prices or Bitcoin prices or the price of kale at your local organic grocery store).

Just to be clear: Newton’s laws of motion do not apply to any market. They apply to physical systems of everyday objects moving in everyday ways.

Will you please stop abusing Isaac Newton?

Newton Relics

In an editorial taking Kyrie Irving to task for his comments about the shape of the earth, “Between Kyrie Irving’s flat Earth and Isaac Newton’s apple tree, science remains a process of understanding,” Glenn Starkman and Patricia Princehouse remark:

We have an apple tree on the Case Western Reserve University campus grown from a twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity 350 years ago.
We’d love for Mr. Irving to come see our tree and look at what we’re doing. Decide for himself if we’re deluded.

I cannot understand how this comment about Newton’s apple tree adds anything to their op-ed. Their comment, however, takes scientific relics to a new level.

The Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University celebrates its Newtonian apple tree.

There is no shortage of Newtonian apple trees. Numerous colleges and universities claim to have an apple tree descended from the “original apple tree grown in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor:” Cambridge University Botanic Garden; University of Nebraska; William & Mary; The University of York; MIT; etc.[1] Most of these trees are growing in courtyards or gardens associated with physics and astronomy departments, not history departments. Why, I wonder, do so many science departments want to have and want to celebrate their Newtonian apple trees? I can’t help but see these trees as quasi-secular relics, i.e., as markers of prestige and physical ties to saint-like figures, as means of tapping into archetypal geniuses. As physical artifacts, these relics seem to reinforce hagiographic discovery narratives.[2]

The claim to have “an apple tree … from a twig of the actual apple orchard” seems, however, to take the quasi-secular relic a step further. Somehow the spatial proximity is sufficient and important—their tree descends from a tree in the “actual orchard.” Did some occult force emanate from “the original tree” and permeate the entire orchard? How far does the influence from Newton’s original apple tree extend? To all of Woolsthorpe? To all of England? And why emphasize the “actual apple orchard”? As opposed to what, the virtual apple orchard? I just don’t get it.

In this case, the twig underscores the myth that Newton was a genius who, in a flash of brilliance, understood the theory of gravity. In this case, the twig is a metonym for a discovery narrative. Although the basic contours of that narrative are familiar, less well known is the process by which that story was established.

Around 1727 a handful of sources refer to Newton and his experience with an apple. Robert Greene reported a version in his The Principles of the Philosophy of the Expansive and Contractive Forces…, claiming to have heard it from Martin Folkes. John Conduitt recorded a version in his draft of a “Memoir of Newton:”

…in the year 1665 when he retired to his own estate on account of the Plague he first discovered first thought of his system of gravity wch he fell into hit upon by observing an apple fall from a tree a heavy body fall to the ground…[3]

Conduitt repeated this claim in other drafts of his work.

About the same time we find the earliest printed version of the story, which seems to be in Voltaire’s An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (London, 1727). He claims: “And thus in our days Sir Isaak Newton walkign in his Gardens had the first Thought of his System of Gravitation, upon seeing an Apple falling from a Tree.” Six years later Voltaire published his Letters Concerning the English Nation (London, 1733), where he gives us more context for the story:

But being retir’d in 1666, upon Account of the Plague, to a Solitude near Cambridge: as he [Newton] was walking one Day in his Garden, as saw some Fruits fall from a Tree, he fell into a profound Meditation on that Gravity….”

Voltaire claims to have heard the story from Catherine Barton, John Conduitt’s wife. And Henry Pemberton gestured to the anecdote in his A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (London, 1728), though he omits any reference to the apple, mentioning only that Newton “sat alone in his garden.”

It is unclear how many independent sources there are for these early accounts. Greene refers to Martin Folkes. Conduitt doesn’t cite any source, though he might have heard it directly from Newton—the Conduitts were living with Newton at the end of his life. Pemberton doesn’t cite any source. Voltaire refers to Barton, who probably learned it from Conduitt. So maybe two independent sources, Folkes and Conduitt.

William Stukeley claimed to have heard the story of the apple tree directly from Newton.

Apparently around the same time William Stukeley heard the story directly from Newton, or so he claims. In his manuscript notes “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life” (1752) Stukeley claims that Newton had related the incident to him after dinner one evening in 1726:[4]

After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he [Newton], & myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood: “Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earths centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. Therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. If matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.” That there is a power like that we here call gravity which extends its self thro’ the universe….[5]

We might pause and wonder about this story. There is no record of the story for six decades and then, just before Newton dies, it appears in manuscript and print from people who could have heard it from Newton. Newton was at this time an 83- or 84-year-old man recalling events that happened perhaps as many as 60 years earlier. We certainly have reason to be skeptical of his account. 83-year-old men tend not to recall events accurately, and their narratives tend to toward exaggeration and teleology. Perhaps Newton was the exception—perfect, infallible memory and absolute fidelity to events—though given his experiments with mercury and other chemicals, we would be forgiven for questioning his memory. But we don’t and can’t know that he was. While we can’t confirm the story, its veracity is not its most important aspect.

We can confirm, however, that whatever brilliant insight the falling apple produced in 1666, it had no immediate discernible impact on his work. Two decades elapsed between the apple’s fall and Newton’s Principia mathematica, during which time he devoted considerable attention to alchemy and optics, as well as astronomy. Perhaps he fiddled with the mathematics for two decades. Perhaps he slowly through trial and error worked out the details, struggling to solve new difficulties as he worked to assemble the entire work, slowly working his way toward the system we encounter today in the Principia mathematica. Perhaps, though it seems unlikely, he sat down in some philosopher’s-stone fueled rampage and wrote down the entire Principia mathematica in one frenetic weekend of brilliance and productivity, and then sat on it for two decades. We don’t really know.

But highlighting the apple tree story—especially when the best you can say is that your tree descends from a “twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity”—effaces the arduous work, the mistakes and dead ends, the inchoate solutions, the revisions, and the tangible and intangible contributions other people made to bring the Principia mathematica to fruition.

While I’m not in Cleveland, I invite Glenn Starkman and Patricia Princehouse to talk to me. I’d be happy to explain historical expertise and history to them. I think we can find a great deal of common ground—and not just because we all struggle to refute the flat earth myth.

  1. A piece of the original was sent into space, Newton’s apple tree bound for zero gravity.  ↩

  2. On hagiographies and discovery narratives, see Who Really Needs Scientific Discoveries and Science Heroes?  ↩

  3. The text is available at The Newton Project—Fair copy of the Memoir of Newton. Search for “apple” to find the passage.  ↩

  4. Images of the manuscript can be seen at The Royal Society’s Turning the Pages, “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life.”  ↩

  5. You can find a normalized version of the text at Revised Memoir of Newton. Search for “apple” if you want to find the passage.  ↩

The Internet Discovers that Newton was an Alchemist

When Chemistry World reported on a Newton manuscript that CHF had recently purchased, it started a small epidemic of posts on Newton and alchemy. Within a few days hundreds of sites—ranging from sites like the Daily Kos and CNN to the Ancient Code and Facebook posts—had summarized, linked to, reposted, or transformed the original report.[1] Following the Chemistry World article as it spread across the internet reveals the process replication and transformation as the information drifted further from the original in time and space.[2]

Results from a Google search for newton's recipe alchemist's
When you restrict the results to the first month following Chemistry World’s report and you prune out duplicate results and other irrelevant hits, you still have hundreds if not thousands of hits for this story about Newton’s interest in alchemy.

Chemistry World

Chemistry World first reported on the manuscript in “Newton’s recipe for alchemists’ mercury rediscovered.” The manuscript contained Newton’s hand-written copy of George Starkey’s recipe for “philosophic mercury” as well as some of his own notes for distilling a volatile spirit. Since the 1930s this manuscript had been in private hands but will now be available to scholars thanks to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which had recently purchased it and will make scans and a transcription available through The Chemistry of Isaac Newton project. The Chemistry World article is rather dry, beginning with the title that certainly doesn’t excite interest—“alchemist’s mercury”? yawn. Importantly, the article doesn’t make grandiose claims, but sticks to a rather conservative: “Until now, the contents of this particular manuscript had not been made public.” Other than the title, there’s no language of rediscovery. No language of surprise at Newton’s interest in alchemy. CHF immediately excerpted and linked to the Chemistry World post.[3]

Original CHF webpage excerpting Chemistry World article.
The Chemical Heritage Foundation immediately summarized and linked to the Chemistry World report. Although CHF has since removed that post, it is still available from Web Archive.

A number of posts derived directly from the Chemistry World report. Summarizing the Chemistry World post, Gizmodo piled on with typical dismissal of Newton’s alchemy, “Rediscovered Manuscript Shows How Isaac Newton Dabbled In Alchemy.” Dabbled? As Jim Voelkel pointed out in the Chemistry World post, “the estimate of Newton’s alchemical output is something like a million words in his own hand. This [manuscript] is just another little page in a corpus of hundreds and hundreds of documents.” Gizmodo’s “dabbled” as well as the “he [Newton] resorted to the mysterious world of alchemy” reflects not Newton’s interests and efforts but rather Gizmodo’s desire to save Newton from the stain of alchemy:

Sir Isaac Newton may have been one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, but his contributions to chemistry leave much to be desired. … Newton and his fellow alchemists were simply doing the best they could given the dearth of scientific knowledge.

Gizmodo doesn’t want us to blame Newton for believing in alchemy. He was a great scientist, one of the greatest, who just happened to live in an ignorant, benighted time.

Other sites that would seem to have little or no interest in Newton or alchemy or history also picked up and summarized the Chemistry World post, e.g., Sputnik News’s “Eureka! Scientists Unveil Isaac Newton’s Recipe for Philosopher’s Stone[4] and Macedonia Online’s “Organization claims to have found Newton’s Recipe for Philosopher’s Stone.”

A week after the initial report, the Daily Mail posted a derivative of the Chemistry World article, “Isaac Newton’s recipe for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ rediscovered.” They reworked Chemistry World’s original so that it would appeal to their readers, as the subtitle indicates: “17th-century alchemy manuscript reveals ingredients it was thought could make people IMMORTAL.” Because the their readers care less about the finer alchemical details and more about immortality and transmuting lead into gold, and because Harry Potter had popularized the Philosopher’s stone, the Daily Mail foregrounded these themes.

The Daily Mail’s version then served as the source for numerous other posts on the Newton manuscript, e.g., a few days later Unexplained Paranormal Phenomena shamelessly copied the post in “Isaac Newton’s Recipe For Magical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Discovered.”

Filed under “WTF?” are the posts that appeared on various cooking sites the same day as the Daily Mail’s article, e.g., the Good Cooking Store’s “Isaac Newton’s recipe for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ rediscovered” and Cooknology’s “Isaac Newton’s recipe for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ rediscovered.”[5] These posts seem to have been generated by running the Daily Mail’s article through a simple algorithm that had a tenuous grasp on English. The algorithm replaced definite articles with indefinite articles and identified some bizarre synonyms. At times the synonyms read like a middle school student who, having discovered a thesaurus, transforms “human” into “tellurian.” At times the synonyms distort the text in strange ways as when “volatile spirit” becomes “flighty suggestion” or “minute example” becomes “notation instance.” I assume these sites have some automated process that scrapes certain sites for cooking related posts, transforms them, and reposts them in an effort to generate traffic and advertising income.[6]

Comparison of the Daily Mail and the Cooknology post.
I used DiffChecker to compare the Daily Mail’s version to Cooknology’s version. This screenshot highlights some of the systematic changes some algorithm made to produce the Cooknology version.

Live Science

Another major branch of posts appeared about a week after the Chemistry World article, starting with Live Science’s “Isaac Newton’s Recipe for Magical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Rediscovered.” Magic, immortality, mythical substances all figure in this version, as does implicit surprise that

though best best known for his study of gravity and his laws of motion, Newton also apparently wrote more than a million words of alchemical notes throughout his lifetime.

Despite contacting CHF and quoting Jim Voelkel a number of times, Live Science’s version offers much of the same content in slightly different form. The only new information indicated that the manuscript had come up for auction two other times, in 2004 and in 2009.

Soon Live Science version was copied verbatim by other sites, including Yahoo’s ”Isaac Newton’s Recipe for Magical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Rediscovered,” Rocket News’s “Isaac Newton’s Recipe for Magical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Rediscovered,” which amusingly included the copyright notice from Live Science prohibiting copying and redistributing of the content, “Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.” A few days later CBS posted their copy, cleverly disguising their borrowing behind a new title: “Manuscript reveals Isaac Newton’s recipe for magical ‘philosopher’s stone’.”

Once again, filed under “WTF?”, Live Science’s version also spawned an algorithm-generated version on cooking sites. Sebastian’s Fine Food, for example, copied CBS’s version of Live Science’s article: “Manuscript reveals Isaac Newton’s recipe for magical ‘philosopher’s stone’.” Again, the algorithm substituted synonyms and replaced definite with indefinite articles. But this time the algorithm doesn’t do as good a job of it. Some of the replacements make no sense. For example, “up” is replaced by “adult” as in “ended up working” that becomes “finished adult operative.” In another instance, “great interest” becomes “good seductiveness.” Is this some perverse way of driving internet traffic?

Comparison of the Live Science and the Sebastian Fine Food posts.
I used DiffChecker to compare Live Science’s version with Sebastian’s Fine Food’s version. This screenshot shows some of the 102 changes the algorithm made.

National Geographic and the Rest

Two weeks later through reputable outlets such as National Geographic, FOX News, and the Washington Post the story had permeated internet news sites. These three sites give the impression that they are brining something new to the story, but do little more than recycle much of the same content.

National Geographic’s “Isaac Newton’s Lost Alchemy Recipe Rediscovered” is entertainingly written—it opens with an enticing question: “Combine one part Fiery Dragon, some Doves of Diana, and at least seven Eagles of mercury, and what do you get? A key precursor to the Philosopher’s stone….” The speculation that Newton turned to alchemy to “possibly strike it rich” seems dismissive. We learn a bit more about George Starkey, but the focus remains vague surprise that “Newton—a father of modern physics and co-discoverer of calculus—was greatly influenced by alchemy and his collaborations with alchemists.” In addition to citing Jim Voelkel, the article quotes Bill Newman, who had been conspicuous for his absence in the other articles. In this version Newton’s alchemy is enlisted in the service of his science, especially optics.

The worry that such a scientific giant as Newton was engaged in junk science animates the Washington Post’s “Isaac Newton spent a lot of time on junk ‘science,’ and this manuscript proves it.” Dear Washington Post: alchemy was not “junk ‘science’” and this manuscript proves nothing. The Daily Beast borrows from the National Geographic’s and the Washington Post’s articles to worry about how alchemy (again dismissed as “junk science”) informed Newton’s presumably real science:

Newton, it was announced this year, had a secret obsession with the lowest of the pseudosciences: alchemy, or the pursuit of a “magic” substance that will change one element into another.
To think that one of humanity’s best minds would have written over a million words on something out of bad fantasy adventure writing is concerning—but maybe it shouldn’t be, because his research eventually led to something earth-shattering in another field.

For the record, dear Daily Beast, it wasn’t announced this year that Newton was interested in alchemy. It has been known for a long time. The article you cite points out that already in the 19th century Newton’s biographer was aware of his interest in alchemy. Scholars have written numerous books and articles on Newton’s alchemy. Bill Newman, whom you cite, has spent much of the last 20+ years working on Newton’s alchemy (even attempting to recreate a number of his laboratory practices and experiments). Maybe you just learned of it, but that’s just your own ignorance. And when did alchemy become the “lowest of the pseudosciences”? Both the Daily Beast’s and the Washington Post’s articles are full of problems and add little to the broader story.

FOX News’s “Isaac Newton and the ‘philosopher’s stone’: Manuscript reveals alchemy recipe | Fox News” is pleasantly bland, echoing what we’ve seen elsewhere and adding nothing new.

Three weeks after the Chemistry World post, purportedly reputable news and other specialized sites are spooning out bits from previous accounts as if they were some Newton-themed Smörgåsbord. These later posts, e.g., History.com, CSMonitor, Phys.org, CNN, Atlas Obscura, Smithsonian Magazing, contribute nothing to the conversation nor do they add anything to the information provided in their sources. These later posts seem to accomplish little beyond duplicating and remixing information widely available. By this point news has become merely repetition—the echo chamber of the internet is deafening.

Diagram showing the relationships between various versions of the Newton post.
This diagram shows five major branches of this story as it spread across the internet. The versions further down the diagram tend to recycle more and more of the same material. What distinguished these five branches was their reliance on Jim Voelkel as a source.

Postscript: I want to point out that this entire story was scarcely news worthy when it all began on March 17, 2016. Back in 2010 Discover Magazine was all worked up over Newton’s interest in alchemy and interviewed both Bill Newman and Larry Principe in “Isaac Newton, World’s Most Famous Alchemist.” But even then manuscripts demonstrating Newton’s interest in alchemy weren’t news. Five years earlier still, in 2005, NOVA had interviewed Bill Newman about Newton as alchemist and had created an interactive page that let you try to decode one of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts. More remarkable than Newton’s interest in alchemy is the internet’s failure to remember that long ago we discovered Newton’s interest in alchemy, as a quick internet search will reveal.[7]

  1. Search results for this report or some version of it edged up towards a thousand. Sure, on the Kardashian-Bieber scale that number is infinitesimal, but on the nerdy-academic scale, it is a rather impressive.  ↩

  2. Another way to describe this process is by reference to the old party game “telephone.” But the language of infection and epidemic seems so much more sophisticated and, well, science-y.  ↩

  3. For some reason, a couple weeks after CHF’s initial post, they switched the source of their excerpt from Chemistry World to National Geographic. They switched the same day National Geographic posted about the Newton manuscript. Perhaps CHF preferred the more dramatic prose in National Geographic’s version. Perhaps CHF assumed it looked better to appear in a major publication like National Geographic rather than the obscure, discipline specific Chemistry World.  ↩

  4. I don’t really know what these people are going on about. There are NO scientists mentioned in the article. In this story, scientists didn’t discover anything. Historians, maybe.  ↩

  5. These posts seem to have been rather ephemeral, even by internet standards. Within a few days these posts had disappeared.  ↩

  6. Clearly, recipe in the title of the Daily Mail’s post was sufficient to flag it as a cooking related post. These posts have since disappeared. Perhaps the sites have human editors that go through and remove egregious mistakes such as this one.  ↩

  7. I realize that in 2005 many of the authors of the most recent round of Newton-was-an-alchemist-?!? posts were probably still toddlers, but they should know how to perform a basic internet search. What good is their superior internet nuance and sophistication if they refuse to use it?  ↩

Isaac Newton & Muzzle Brakes

It seems to be “strange uses of Isaac Newton” week. Following up on the humorous Newton was a cyclist we now read in Field & Stream this strange patchwork of Newton factoids that casts him as the inspiration for muzzle brakes.

Field & Stream on Isaac Newton and Muzzle Brakes
Field & Stream on Isaac Newton and Muzzle Brakes

I confess, I really don’t understand how these two stories got intermingled here. Yes, Newton pressed a sharp object—although a bodkin can be a dagger-type instrument, here it was probably more like a large needle, but I suppose a knife is more recognizable to Field & Stream readers than a bodkin—into his eye socket when contemplating light and colors. And yes, Newton did formalize his third law of motion. But he didn’t press the bodkin into his eye “for exploration” (whatever that means) and in the process (of exploration? of pressing a knife into his eye?) think up his third law of motion. Those are two distinct episodes.

They are absolutely correct, however, Newton was a “very odd duck.”

Isaac Newton the Cyclist

Michael Hutchinson offers one of the more amusing and creative stories of Isaac Newton and his three laws of motion in a recent post for Cycling Weekly, Dr Hutch: Isaac Newton was a time trial list, and I can prove it.

Michael Hutchinson on Newton the cyclist.
Michael Hutchinson on Newton the cyclist.

And while this version may not have tradition behind it, if you’ve spent much time cycling it will make more sense than that whole apple falling from a tree story.