ASTB03 – Assignment 3 – Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was an English physicist and mathematician, who also excelled in many other branches of science as well. He was the author of the Principia Mathematica, which is considered to be one of the most important texts in modern history. One of his biggest breakthroughs was, proving that a planet obeying the inverse square law must travel in an elliptical orbit, leading to his discovery of the Universal Gravitational Law. Newton wanted to know how the planets moved through space in the solar system, and this was a starting point for him creating his Laws of Motion. Newton came up with a thought experiment where a cannonball shot out of a cannon would travel in a straight line, but a force acting on it would cause it to fall to the ground. Newton realized that a stronger shot would cause the cannonball to travel farther, before it fell to the ground. He concluded that if the cannonball was shot fast enough, it would be able to travel all the way around the earth, and settle into an orbit around the planet. The reason that this breakthrough was so important was because it allowed Newton to conclude that all objects in the solar system followed these laws.

Newton had first been asked by English astronomer and mathematician, Edmond Halley, who is known for calculating the orbit of Halley’s comet, and helping to publish the Principia Mathematica, about the orbit of objects that satisfied the inverse square law, when he visited Newton at Cambridge. Newton told him that the shape was an ellipse, and that he knew that because he had already calculated it. He did not have the proof on hand right away and told Halley that he would send it to him later, which led to his eventual breakthrough mentioned above.

Halley had first had a conversation a few months earlier with Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke about the same topic. Wren was an English designer, astronomer, and architect, who had designed St. Paul’s Cathedral, while Hooke was a very highly regarded English physicist, who had many accomplishments across different fields. They had originally come to the conclusion that the shape of the orbits would be an ellipse, but did not have a solid proof, so Wren challenged them to come up with one within the following months. Hooke claimed he had a proof that the shape of the orbit would be an ellipse, but he would wait a little while before showing it. However, months had passed and there was still no proof. This is when Halley decided to visit Cambridge later that year to speak to Newton and ask his opinion on the matter. Newton was never too fond of Hooke for various reasons throughout the years. Later, after Newton’s proof became more public, Hooke had wanted some of the credit for the inverse square law to explain the motion of planets that Newton had proved when Halley had asked about the shape of the orbits. This of course, did not go over well with Newton, and just added to the list of things that Newton did not necessarily like about Hooke. The idea of the inverse square law was not necessarily a new one, and was a somewhat popular topic in science at the time, so it is entirely possible that Hooke might have had a major contribution to the proof, but Newton did not give Hooke credit.

Robert Hooke was not the only person that Newton had issues with over who deserves credit for an ideas. He also had issues with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, over who had come up with the ideas for calculus. Leibniz was accused of plagiarizing parts of Newtons work when he published his own finding about calculus. Leibniz had “discovered” his version of calculus and published it. Newton would publish his ideas after Leibniz, but evidence existed that showed that Newton created these ideas earlier than Leibniz. It was known that Newton and Leibniz communicated regularly and many believed that it was Newtons work that helped Leibniz understand calculus. The Royal Society was in charge of deciding whether Leibniz had plagiarized Newton, who at the time was the President of the Royal Society, and had many supporters there. Over the years, Newton had discussed much of his work with those same supporters, which made it much easier for them to side with him. The Royal Society decided the Leibniz had plagiarized parts of Newtons work, and Newton was given credit for the discovery of calculus. Even with that decision, mathematics around the world had embraced the notation that Leibniz had used, except for England, who only taught Newtons work. It stayed this way for over 100 years, when England acknowledged work from outside the country and began teaching those as well.

In my opinion, both the person who discovered something, and the person who managed to prove it should be given credit for it. I think that it is extremely difficult to make any kind of discovery, and if someone manages to discover something, they should be rewarded for that. At the same time, it is also just as difficult to prove something, so if someone can formulate a proof, then they should also be credited for that. In the case of Newton and Leibniz, I think that if there is enough evidence to show that both had put in their own work on the topic, then both should be given some credit, since both of them had done the work around the same time.

Links Used:

Youtube link in assignment description


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