I don't know if you've discussed this elsewhere, but I'm curious what you think about it.
In "Where Have You Gone, Isaac Newton?"
, David Harriman longs for the days when "peddlers of nonsense were banished to the disreputable realm of pseudo-science." The physics of yesterday "raised man from a superstitious savage who cringes before nature to an efficacious thinker who conquers nature," resulting in "practical benefits ... too numerous and too obvious to list." Whereas today's physics is in a "state of intellectual bankruptcy" as it "continues its neurotic withdrawal from reality," having "no value to people living in the actual world."
Some have criticized this Op-Ed as having a double standard -- charitable toward Newton and classical physics and harsh toward Einstein and modern physics -- but that is not the main problem. Two different standards are being used, and neither one is factually correct.
Consider one of Harriman's key assertions:
Then came the Age of Reason, when Isaac Newton called for an end to such lunacy. He famously declared that he "framed no hypotheses"--meaning that he dismissed any idea that was unsupported by observational evidence. After Newton, peddlers of nonsense were banished to the disreputable realm of pseudo-science.
Harriman is referring to this statement in Newton's most famous scientific work, the Principia
But hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phaenomena, and I frame no hypotheses ...
Newton added this "Hypotheses non fingo" statement to the revised second edition of the Principia
in 1713, almost three decades after its initial publication. It is true that Newton offered no hypothesis as to the cause of gravity in the Principia
, but both before and after publishing these words Newton did indeed frame hypotheses for the cause of gravity in his scientific writings, and these hypotheses were
unsupported by observational evidence.
For example, in 1717, just four years after his revision to the Principia
, Newton added these words to the second edition of his second most famous scientific treatise, the Opticks
Is not this medium much rarer within the dense Bodies of the Sun, Stars, Planets and Comets, than in the empty celestial Spaces between them? And in passing from them to great distances, doth it not grow denser and denser perpetually, and thereby cause the gravity of these great Bodies towards one another, and of their parts toward the Bodies; every Body endeavouring to go from denser parts of the Medium towards the rarer?
Contrary to Harriman, this hypothesis on the cause of gravity was pure speculation
on Newton's part, and it was unsupported by observational evidence
. And this was not the first time Newton framed an unsupported hypothesis for the cause of gravity. The above quote from the Opticks
is just a later expansion on ideas that Newton advanced as early as 1675, eleven years before publishing the Principia
Then there is Harriman's claim that "[a]fter Newton, peddlers of nonsense were banished to the disreputable realm of pseudo-science." In fact, in his scientific work, Newton does
make deductions from phenomena that are pure nonsense
and definitely deserve to be "banished to the disreputable realm of pseudo-science."
For instance, shortly before the section in the Principia
from which we have been quoting, Newton discusses the "phaenomena" of our solar system and beyond, and deduces from this an hypothesis as to the supernatural
origin of their motions.
The six primary planets are revolved about the sun in circles concentric with the sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. Ten moons are revolved about the earth, Jupiter and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of motion, and nearly in the planes of the orbits of those planets; but it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions, since the comets range over all parts of the heavens in very eccentric orbits; for by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detained the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another.
This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God.
Note that these words were not written in one of Newton's many religious treatises. This is Newton forming an hypothesis in his primary scientific work
, the Principia
. This is certainly not the only nonsensical hypothesis in Newton's scientific writings. Here is another example from Newton's Opticks
And since Space is divisible in infinitum, and Matter is not necessarily in all places, it may be also allow'd that God is able to create Particles of Matter of several Sizes and Figures, and in several Proportions to Space, and perhaps of different Densities and Forces, and thereby to vary the Laws of Nature, and make Worlds of several sorts in several parts of the Universe. At least, I see nothing of Contradiction in all this.
Is arbitrary nonsense like the above to be found on every page of Newton's scientific writings? Of course not; Newton's physics is predominantly rational. But Newton's scientific writings are infected with a sense of the mystical, which should not surprise anyone who has studied Newton in depth.
Newton was a profoundly religious man -- a virtual fanatic
about religion -- and the volume of his religious writings dwarf his scientific work. Newton's work in alchemy -- consisting of well over one million words -- was Newton's life-long passion. As noted Newton biographer Richard Westfall (a biographer recommended by Harriman, ironically) sums up:
He [Newton] did not stumble into alchemy, discover its absurdity, and make his way to sober, 'rational,' chemistry. Rather he started with sober chemistry and gave it up rather quickly for what he took to be the greater profundity of alchemy.
So Harriman's claim that Newton "dismissed any idea that was unsupported by observational evidence," is patently false, and it gives the false impression that Newton was an unqualified man of reason. In fact, he was not.
And what of Einstein and modern physics? To be continued in the next part.