Tag: Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton Scientific Revolution Essay

This morning an odd Google alert showed in my inbox.

At first glance, this Google alert seems normal. But then you notice the “Complex Systems Lab.”
At first glance, this Google alert seems normal. But then you notice the “Complex Systems Lab.”

At first glance, there’s nothing strange here. But looking again, I noticed that the webpage was “Complex Systems Lab.” The link directed me to http://complex.upf.edu/?ma=isaac-newton-scientific-revolution-essay.

The hijacked home page for Complex Systems Lab.
The hijacked home page for Complex Systems Lab.

What is a essay writing/selling site doing at an EDU site? So I typed in the base URL, complex.upf.edu, which looks like a legit website for a biophysics lab in Barcelona (though the “falling snow” is a bit old school in an uncool way).

Complex Systems Lab’s actual home page alongside the highjacked version.
Complex Systems Lab’s actual home page alongside the highjacked version.

Turns out that the cached version of the page is filled with Isaac Newton mumbo jumbo. Interesting.

This prompted me to wonder: How much would an essay on Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution cost? Well, turns out, that depends.

If I want a college level, 5-page research paper that uses 5-sources, and I’m willing to put up with the “Best available” writer, and I am willing to wait 3 days, it will cost me $120.00

The basic essay includes, free of charge, the “Best available” writer.
The basic essay includes, free of charge, the “Best available” writer.

The “Best available” apparently doesn’t know the difference between college and collage, but what do you expect for a “Free of charge feature!”? If I want a native English speaker, however, that will cost me another $36.

I have to pay a premium for a native English writer.
I have to pay a premium for a native English writer.

Native English speakers apparently don’t care about spaces after punctuation, but now I’m just nitpicking. Most intriguing is the “Plagiarism report.”

For $9.99 your essay comes with an “official plagiarism report.”
For $9.99 your essay comes with an “official plagiarism report.”

What exactly is “an official plagiarism report”? And why would somebody pay $9.99 for one? Is this a self-preservation issue? And is the company admitting that its writers normally plagiarize papers? And why would I pay for a report when the company’s “plagiarism guarantee” assures me that essays have not been plagiarized?

Every essay is guaranteed plagiarism free. I guess they have a hierarchy of vices.
Every essay is guaranteed plagiarism free. I guess they have a hierarchy of vices.

And what would I do with the “official plagiarism report,” brandish it when my professor accuses me of plagiarizing? I would love, LOVE to witness that conversation. I imagine it going something like:

Prof.: Something about this paper seems off. Although I haven’t found direct evidence of it, I would like to ask you: Did you, perhaps, plagiarize your paper on Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution?
Student: No. I didn’t. And here’s the official report to prove that I didn’t.
Prof.: [face-palm]

I think I might have to purchase one of these papers just to see one. I will, of course, pay for the official plagiarism report, which I will frame and hang on my wall.

Isaac Newton was Autistic, or Not

Isaac Newton was Autistic or Not

A cottage industry has developed around placing long-dead geniuses at various points on the Asperger’s spectrum. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are the most frequent victims of this particular form of retrospective diagnosis. Recently and without any apparent reason, the Orange Country Register joined the fun with the article “Six of the world’s great minds may have been autistic, professor says.” Along with Newton and Einstein, the OC Register adds Darwin, Jefferson, Michelangelo, and Warhol (ok, not a “long-dead” genius but dead all the same).

The OC Register’s article adds little, except maybe a medicore interpretation of one iconic portrait of Newton (admittedly, even this version is better than I could produce, which is why I don’t paint portraits of anybody).
The OC Register’s article adds little, except maybe a medicore interpretation of one iconic portrait of Newton (admittedly, even this version is better than I could produce, which is why I don’t paint portraits of anybody).

These articles raise various questions in my mind: What do we learn from this? What do we learn about the person? What do we learn about the condition? What do we learn about the past? What do we learn about the present? Why do we bother? But I don’t actually spend much time on those questions because I always get stuck on the previous question: How do we know? Retrodiagnosing any condition or disease or illness is fraught with difficulty, e.g., lack of evidence, misleading information,[1] inconclusive results. The impediments seem even more significant when trying to interpret a mental condition that requires intensive and sustained clinical observation, especially when the evidence is drawn from biographical information. Oliver Sacks worried about this problem,[2] as did Glen Elliott.[3] Unfortunately, the OC Register omitted the qualifications that Sacks, Elliott, and even Simon Baron Cohen (the expert cited in the article) had expressed elsewhere.

I confess: I don’t really understand why people bother retrodiagnosing illnesses of any sort. I suppose if the point is to destigmatize conditions today, that is a worthwhile goal. But I’m not convinced that retrodiagnosing people from centuries back is the most appropriate, defensible, or effective way to accomplish that goal.

Speaking of things I don’t really understand: I don’t understand why the OC Register didn’t cite its sources. Or why the OC Register thought it was ok to borrow so much from various people and not give them credit. And by “borrow” I mean quote or closely paraphrase to the extent that would prompt a discussion about plagiarism if a student here at Haverford did it.

A quick look at some of the sources the OC Register seemed to have used for its article. Maybe there’s a different source, that traces back to these. If so, it would have been helpful if the OC Register had cited that intermediate source.
A quick look at some of the sources the OC Register seemed to have used for its article. Maybe there’s a different source, that traces back to these. If so, it would have been helpful if the OC Register had cited that intermediate source.

It seems clear that the OC Register article was based on an article in the New Scientist from back in 2003, “Einstein and Newton showed signs of autism,” and a post at Autism Mythbusters, “Famous Autistic People” (which does give URLs for its sources).

I “understand” that we are in a “sharing economy” (or some such expression), but that does not justify plagiarizing (even if accidentally) other people’s work. Even by the loose standards of citation that seem to rule the internet, the OC Register seems to have committed some sort of mistake here.


  1. I say misleading because observations are always made within a particular theoretical framework that a) makes a particular phenomenon worth noting and recording, b) gives meaning to that phenomenon, and c) provides the language and criteria used to record that phenomenon. And rarely are any of those issues stable over time, even and most problematically when they seem to be.  ↩

  2. Sacks made this point at the end of his article “Henry Cavendish: An early case of Asperger’s syndrome?” Neurology 57 (2001). He was convinced that there was sufficient biographical information in Cavendish’s case to suggest a link. But was quite skeptical of a claims for Einstein and Newton, whose eccentricities he chalked up to “a devouring or isolating capacity” inherent in genius itself. The original is behind a paywall.  ↩

  3. Elliott raised his concerns in the New Scientist version of this article, which the OC Register borrowed freely from but without the careful qualifications. See “Einstein and Newton showed signs of autism.”  ↩

Moving beyond Heroic Geniuses

Historiann recently reflected on the preponderance of best-selling history books written by men and about men: last year 21 of the 23 best-selling history books were written by men. As she pointed out, audiences never seem to tire of biographies recounting the heroic man who has somehow contributed to our modern world. While she focused her attention on biographies of the “Founding Fathers,” much of what she said applies equally to history of science, e.g.,

…These biographies are also invested in a particularly modern kind of subjectivity, that of the heroic individual who bends history to his will. He’s a man of singular genius, one whose fortunes aren’t made by his family, commuity, or the times in which he lived.

…Traditional biographies like these commemorate only some kinds of power and politics, and avoid the rest.… Stories about the sagacity, virtue, and political genius of our so-called “Founding Fathers” sell like hotcakes.

History of science often defaults to stories about the heroic individual who bends nature to his will, the man of singular genius, whose achievements weren’t made possible by his family, his community, or the times in which he lived, but often despite that family, that community, or those times. Such stories commemorate certain kinds of power and knowledge while ignoring or explaining away others.

Two recent but very different examples—one popular one scholarly—illustrate these points. “These 5 Men Were Scientific Geniuses. They Also Thought Magic Was Real” marvels at the genius of Galileo (and Kepler) despite their lingering belief in astrology, at Newton’s (and Boyle’s) despite their dabbling in alchemy, at Paracelsus’s despite his reliance on natural magic.[1] These “geniuses” contributed to modern science despite their community and the times in which they lived. Internet audiences cannot get enough of these posts—this one has been shared nearly 10,000 times in four days.

Newton and the ascent of water in plants” offers a more scholarly example. Here a modern scientist celebrates Newton’s work as a “perceptive” or “prescient” version of what he knows/does today:

It should come as little surprise that Newton’s genius was capable of presciently imagining the germ of an idea explaining the ascent of sap in plants some two centuries before botanists came up with it for themselves.

The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.
The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.

The author has extracted from Newton’s notebooks a single paragraph, which he then interprets as a forerunner of his own research. Here the lure of commemoration prevents the author from considering this paragraph as part of a larger notebook that includes all sorts of other, less laudable (at least from our perspective) forms of knowledge—e.g., just a few pages earlier Newton cites the Bible in his reflections on the earth:

Its conflagration testified 2 Peter 3d, vers 6, 7, 10, 11, 12. The wiked (probably) to be punished thereby 2 Pet: 3 chap: vers 7.

The succession of worlds, probable from Pet 3c. 13v. in which text an emphasis upon the word wee is not countenanced by the Originall. Rev 21c. 1v. Isa: 65c, 17v. 66c, 22v. Days & nights after the judgment Rev 20c, 10 v.

Instead, the modern researcher sanitizes Newton’s thought, trimming from as if irrelevant those bits that don’t contribute to his modern science. Moreover, the ideal of the lone genius requires that Newton’s knowledge sprang from his head alone:

Reclusive and secretive, it’s doubtful he [Newton] gained botanical inspiration from conversations with others at Cambridge University interested in plants. Although his contemporaries were certainly thinking about plant anatomy and function around the same time.

The desire to celebrate the heroic genius struggling alone to discover truths about the world stems, at least in part, from the role that discovery plays in science and histories of science. Although discovery is often considered a forward-looking process, it is rather a retrospective judgement by scientists that seeks to assert a set of values and commend current research and researchers by linking them to exemplary practices.[2] It is no accident that “Newton and the ascent of water in plants” begins by praising Newton as “one of the greatest ‘natural philosophers’ that ever lived” and concludes by associating him with “another founding father of plant physiology.”

What would it look like to tell non-heroic histories of science? Can we make such histories compelling so that people would listen?


  1. The post radically misrepresents the historical practice of astrology and its place in early modern thought. The entries are Linnaeus and Brahe are too confused to merit comment.  ↩

  2. For more on discovery, see “Discovery in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure ↩

Weekly Roundup: History of Science Videos & NSF Report

The History Channel Distorts History

A number of the videos at the History Channel’s “Enlightenment” page deal with the history of science—on Isaac Newton, the Scientific Revolution, and a series Beyond the Big Ban: Copernicus, Beyond the Big Ban: Galileo and Beyond the Big Ban: Newton. Some gesture to interesting points, e.g., the interaction between science and religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, but most repeat heroic tales and neat stories of discovery through flashes of brilliance. Unfortunately, the History Channel didn’t enlist the expertise of many historians and fewer historians of science (the eminent Owen Gingerich makes two cameo appearances). Scientists, however, are well represented. I wonder how different these videos would have been if they had consulted more scholars with expertise in the history of early modern science.

Newton the Genius

In Newton’s Apple: Science and the Value of a Good Story Ned Potter is right: telling a good story is more important, perhaps more important than being accurate. His comment about lists of great scientists underscores his point:

Search online for any list of history’s greatest scientists and you’ll find the same names: Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Louis Pasteur, and so on. The order may change, but the name on top will almost invariably be that of Isaac Newton.
We can argue over such lists — they’re mostly harmless fun — but we can agree that Newton earned his place there.

I don’t think such lists are “mostly harmless fun.” Such lists tell a good story and reinforce a particular image of science, one that misleads and distorts its history and development. They are built on the pillars of the lone genius waging war with the weapons of rationality, empiricism, and experiment to overcome church, benighted society, and ignorant political leaders. Potter’s own description of Newton conforms to this model. Newton alone, in his spare time, invented reflecting telescopes and calculus, and explained light and colors. Only as an aging genius, in his later years, Newton fiddled with alchemy and Biblical chronology.

He published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. In his spare time he designed the first reflecting telescope, laid the foundations for calculus, brought us the understanding of light and color, and in his later years – it would be disingenuous to leave this out – tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.

Newton turns out not only to have been a genius in science but also in self promotion.

NSF, Astrology, and the Pig-Ignorant American Public

The release (or at least the summary of the release) of the latest NSF survey on attitudes about science and technology has prompted the standard handwringing and fretting. Of particular concern is the fact that 1 in 4 Americans Don’t Know Earth Orbits the Sun. Yes, Really, which echoes One in four Americans unaware that Earth circles Sun. The Telegraph jumped on the bandwagon with One in four Americans ‘do not know the Earth circles the Sun’ and The Space Reporter sprinkled a little history onto its summary of broadcast soundbites and published factoids, Study finds nearly 25 percent of Americans don’t know the Earth orbits the sun.

Another predictable worry is the “More than half of US millennials think astrology is a science,” repeated in Science News and Slashdot and then with some added commentary (and the standard ambiguities and imprecisions in terms like “horoscopes” and “astrology”) at Mother Jones. Richard Landers worries about possible design flaws in the NSF’s study: NSF Report Flawed; Americans Do Not Believe Astrology is Scientific.[1]

All this anxiety is part of a more general claim that Americans struggle with science, respect scientists, survey finds.

The NSF report generating all this incredibly repetitive and generally uncritical “news” is the most recent Science & Engineering Indicators 2014 – (NSF), a biennial report that “highlights some major developments in international and U.S. science and engineering.” The part of the report that has attracted the most attention is chapter seven and the various Appendix Tables (astrology that most resilient of science’s hobgoblins enjoys its own table, Appendix table 7–13). What if we look at chapter seven of the NSF report a different way?

Sure, on average, respondents answered only 65% of the “factual” questions correctly, but that percentage has been steadily increasing, up from 59% in 1992 (according to ‎Appendix table 7–8).

Respondents were asked the following questions about science (“Don’t know” responses and refusals to respond were counted as incorrect):
Physical science—

  1. The center of the Earth is very hot — 84% got this right.
  2. The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future — 83% got this right.
  3. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? — 74% got this right.

    • 3a. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (Asked only if the respondent answered correctly that the Earth goes around the Sun.) — 55% got this right.
  4. All radioactivity is man-made — 72% got this right.
  5. Electrons are smaller than atoms — 53% got this right.
  6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves — 47% got this right.
  7. The Universe began with a huge explosion — 39% got this right.

Biological science—

  1. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl — 63% got this right.
  2. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria — 51% got this right.
  3. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals (a footnote indicates that only 1,152 of the 2,256 respondents were asked this question) — 48% got this right.[2]

Biologists should probably be worried that respondents seem to know less about biology than they do about the physical sciences.

The Appendix tables are full of other interesting information that has not attracted any attention while the media fixate on the astrology-loving geocentrist Americans. Apparently only 33% of respondents have a grasp on “scientific inquiry,” as demonstrated by their (in)ability to answer two probability questions and either a question about theory-testing or a question about why its better to use control groups in drug tests (see ‎Appendix table 7–11).[3] 70% of respondents claim not to know much about the causes of environmental pollution, according to another table. Another table indicates that males and females would be “happier” if their sons and daughters chose to be engineers rather than scientists.

Parental happiness about child’s career as
Scientist Engineer
Male Daughter Son Daughter Son
Male 81% 82% 86% 88%
Female 80% 79% 82% 83%

Engineers are, no doubt, “happy” to learn of this parental esteem.

Despite science purportedly being an international collaborative project, the NSF’s 2014 Science & Engineering Indicators digest of the report makes it a nationalist concern:

Many other nations, recognizing the economic and social benefits of such investment, have increased their R&D and education spending. These trends are by now well-established and will challenge the world leadership role of the United States [page 2].

This rhetoric recalls the debates recently last year in England about investing more in domestic R&D. Kieron Flanagan wrote a nice piece in The Guardian about the problems of framing debates about science and basic research in terms of national boundaries, Does the UK need to spend more on basic research?.


  1. Perhaps we should also worry about the term “scientific,” which is notoriously difficult to define.  ↩

  2. A subset of these questions was used in determining the trends in “factual knowledge” reported in Appendix table 7–8:  ↩

    • The center of the Earth is very hot.
    • All radioactivity is man-made.
    • It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
    • Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
    • Electrons are smaller than atoms.
    • Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
    • The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.
    • Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
    • How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?
  3. “Scientific inquiry” here could be applied to most rigorous, rational, evidence based activities.  ↩

Social Newtonianism again

Social Newtonianism seems to be on the rise. Recently Newton’s three laws of motion were used to describe traffic in Manila and before that Newton’s third law of motion was used to assess risk in banking investments, which I wrote about here.

Now we see an executive coach applying Newton’s “three laws of motion to people and organizations.” While it seems unlikely that social systems can be understood through such reductive simplification, if you are going to invoke Newton’s laws of motion, at least get the laws right. The executive coach bungles Newton’s second law into “Newton said that the amount of force multiplied by the amount of acceleration must be equal to the mass for movement to occur.”

I suppose it is less important for an “credentialed executive coach” to get the science correct than it is to sound science-y.