Unto us this day a very flawed but truly amazing child was born


On this very day, Dec 25th, long long ago a truly amazing child was born.

By the time he was 30 he would transform the world in such an amazing way that even this day his name is well known.

Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642

(Hat tip to Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson for that opening).

Interestingly enough, Mr Tyson received rather a lot of flack from people who were offended by that tween at the time. Later he reflected on that within a Facebook posting …

Well.  It’s official.  Far and away my most re-tweeted tweet appeared Christmas day.  Here are the 125 characters (my usual length) in their entirety:

“On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642”

Everybody knows that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.  I think fewer people know that Isaac Newton shares the same birthday.  Christmas day in England – 1642.  And perhaps even fewer people know that before he turned 30, Newton had discovered the laws of motion, the universal law of gravitation, and invented integral and differential calculus.  All of which served as the mechanistic foundation for the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries that would forever transform the world.

My sense in this case is that the high rate of re-tweeting, is not to share my enthusiasm of this fact, but is driven by accusations that the tweet is somehow anti-Christian.  If a person actually wanted to express anti-Christian sentiment, my guess is that alerting people of Isaac Newton’s birthday would appear nowhere on the list.

Today was indeed once a pagan holiday that then became a Christian holiday, but was not the actual day of the birth of J. All that is in many ways irrelevant because within our culture it is now a shopping holiday. However, today does also mark the birth of a man who was (and still is) one the most influential scientists of all time, a key figure in the scientific revolution, and yet also deeply flawed.

We tend to remember his achievements and brush the others stuff under the carpet, and that in itself is a fascinating observation. So let’s briefly take a look.

The flaws of Isaac Newton?

Isaac Newton was indeed an astonishing individual. What is beyond any dispute is that he plays a key role in the scientific revolution,

… and yet he was also a deeply religious man as well.

Holding a deep religious belief might indeed be anticipated for somebody born in 1642. However, his thinking on everything and anything was distinctly unique, he never flowed with the prevailing tide, and that very much held true for his religious beliefs.

Those religious beliefs would be regarded by almost every single variation of Christianity to be heresy …

  • He spent huge amounts of time looking for hidden meanings in the bible – basically he was an early bible code fanatic
  • Using the bible he worked out that the world would end in 2060
  • He rejected the entire concept of the Trinity, the concept that humans had a soul, and that there were demons

He also stuck his fingers into many other really strange topics as well, for example he was deeply into alchemy…

“Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher’s stone. That was the pebble by the seashore he really wanted to find.” – Fritz Leiber

He was an amazing individual who made an un-paralled contribution to our understanding, but we can’t escape the observation that he was also a grade-1 gold plated eccentric nut. However, the fact that he was indeed very odd does not in any way detract or diminish the scientific contributions he did make, nor does any of it actually verify any aspect of religion or for that matter alchemy.

The Point is this

Regardless of the fact that he was indeed ensnared by many weird ideas, he still managed to overcome all that and bring a truly meaningful contribution to our understanding of reality … Maths, Optics, Gravity, classical Mechanics. There is that most astonishing book, or to be more precise three because it came in three volumes, Principia. Here is a small insight into what but took to create that …

When Halley asked Newton’s opinion on the problem of planetary motions discussed earlier that year between Halley, Hooke and Wren,[53] Newton surprised Halley by saying that he had already made the derivations some time ago; but that he could not find the papers. (Matching accounts of this meeting come from Halley and Abraham De Moivre to whom Newton confided.) Halley then had to wait for Newton to ‘find’ the results, but in November 1684 Newton sent Halley an amplified version of whatever previous work Newton had done on the subject. This took the form of a 9-page manuscript, De motu corporum in gyrum (Of the motion of bodies in an orbit): the title is shown on some surviving copies, although the (lost) original may have been without title.

Newton’s tract De motu corporum in gyrum, which he sent to Halley in late 1684, derived what are now known as the three laws of Kepler, assuming an inverse square law of force, and generalised the result to conic sections. It also extended the methodology by adding the solution of a problem on the motion of a body through a resisting medium. The contents of De motu so excited Halley by their mathematical and physical originality and far-reaching implications for astronomical theory, that he immediately went to visit Newton again, in November 1684, to ask Newton to let the Royal Society have more of such work.[54] The results of their meetings clearly helped to stimulate Newton with the enthusiasm needed to take his investigations of mathematical problems much further in this area of physical science, and he did so in a period of highly concentrated work that lasted at least until mid-1686.[55]

Newton’s single-minded attention to his work generally, and to his project during this time, is shown by later reminiscences from his secretary and copyist of the period, Humphrey Newton. His account tells of Isaac Newton’s absorption in his studies, how he sometimes forgot his food, or his sleep, or the state of his clothes, and how when he took a walk in his garden he would sometimes rush back to his room with some new thought, not even waiting to sit before beginning to write it down.[56] Other evidence also shows Newton’s absorption in the Principia: Newton for years kept up a regular programme of chemical or alchemical experiments, and he normally kept dated notes of them, but for a period from May 1684 to April 1686, Newton’s chemical notebooks have no entries at all.[57] So it seems that Newton abandoned pursuits to which he was normally dedicated, and did very little else for well over a year and a half, but concentrated on developing and writing what became his great work.

The above extract comes from the Principia wikipedia pageNewton’s wikipedia page is also worth a read in order to begin to truly grasp his scientific contribution.

So when raising a few glasses today, raise one for Mr Newton and salute both his contributions and also his birthday.

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