Preach truth – serve up myths.

Over Christmas I poked a bit of fun at Neil deGrasse Tyson for tweeting that Newton would transform the world by the age of 30, pointing out he was going on forty-five when he published his world transforming work the Principia. The following day NdGT posted a short piece on Face Book praising his own tweet and its success. Here he justified his by the age of thirty claim but in doing so rode himself deeper into the mire of sloppy #histsci. You might ask why this matters, to which the answer is very simple. NdGT is immensely popular especially amongst those with little idea of science and less of the history of science and who hang on his every utterance. Numerous historians of science labour very hard to dismantle the myths of science and to replace them with a reasonable picture of how science evolved throughout its long and convoluted history. NdGT disdains those efforts and perpetuates the myths leading his hordes of admirers up the garden path of delusion. Let us take a brief look at his latest propagation of #histmyth.

NdGT’s post starts off with the news that his Newton birthday tweet is the most RTed tweet he has every posted citing numbers that lesser mortals would not even dare to dream about. This of course just emphasises the danger of NdGT as disseminator of false history of science, his reach is wide and his influence is strong. Apparently some Christians had objected to NdGT celebrating Newton’s birthday on Christ’s birthday and NdGT denies that his tweet was intended to be anti-Christian but then goes on to quote the tweet that he sent out in answer to those accusations:

“Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them.”

Now on the whole I agree with the sentiment expressed in this tweet, although I do have vague vision of Orwellian dystopia when people from the scientism/gnu atheist camp start preaching about ‘objective truth’. Doesn’t Pravda mean truth? However I digress.

I find it increasing strange that NdGT’s craving for objective truth doesn’t stretch to the history of science where he seems to much prefer juicy myths to any form of objectivity. And so also in this case. In his post he expands on the tweet I had previously poked fun at. He writes:

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.

What we are being served up here is a slightly milder version of the ‘annus mirabilis’ myth. This very widespread myth claims that Newton did all of the things NdGT lists above in one miraculous year, 1666, whilst abiding his time at home in Woolsthorpe, because the University of Cambridge had been closed down due to an outbreak of the plague. NdGT allows Newton a little more time, he turned 30 in 1672, but the principle is the same, look oh yee of little brain and tremble in awe at the mighty immaculate God of science Sir Isaac Newton! What NdGT the purported lover of objective truth chooses to ignore, or perhaps he really is ignorant of the facts, is that a generation of some of the best historians of science who have ever lived, Richard S. Westfall, D. T. Whiteside, Frank Manuel, I. Bernard Cohen, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and others, have very carefully researched and studied the vast convolute of Newton’s papers and have clearly shown that the whole story is a myth. To be a little bit fair to NdGT the myth was first put in the world by Newton himself in order to shoot down all his opponents in the numerous plagiarism disputes that he conducted. If he had done it all that early then he definitely had priority and the others were all dastardly scoundrels out to steal his glory. We now know that this was all a fabrication on Newton’s part.

Newton was awarded his BA in 1665 and in the following years he was no different to any highly gifted postgraduate trying to find his feet in the world of academic research. He spread his interests wide reading and absorbing as much of the modern science of the time as he could and making copious notes on what he read as well as setting up ambitious research programmes on a wide range of topics that were to occupy his time for the next thirty years. In the eighteen months before being sent down from Cambridge because of the plague he concentrated his efforts on the new analytical mathematics that had developed over the previous century. Whilst reading widely and bringing himself up to date on material that was not taught at Cambridge he simultaneously extended and developed what he was reading laying the foundations for his version of the calculus. It was no means a completed edifice as NdGT, and unfortunately many others, would have us believe but it was still a very notable mathematical achievement. Over the decades he would return from time to time to his mathematical researches building on and extending that initial foundation. He also didn’t ‘invent’ integral and differential calculus but brought together, codified and extended the work of many others, in particular, Descartes, Fermat, Pascal, Barrow and Wallace, who in turn looked back upon two thousand years of history on the topic.

In the period beginning in 1666 he left off with mathematical endeavours and turned his attention to mechanics mostly addressing the work of Descartes. He made some progress and even wondered, maybe inspired by observing a falling apple in his garden in Woolsthorpe, if the force which causes things to fall the Earth is the same as the force which prevents the Moon from shooting off at a tangent to its orbit. He did some back of an envelope calculations, which showed that they weren’t, due to faulty data and he dropped the matter. He didn’t discover the laws of motion and as he derived the law of gravity from Huygens’ law of centripetal force that was first published in 1673 he certainly didn’t do it before he was thirty. In fact most of the work that went into Newton’s magnum opus the Principia was done in an amazing burst of concentrated effort in the years between 1684 and 1687 when Newton was already over forty.

What Newton did do between 1666 and 1672 was to conduct an extensive experimental programme into physical optics, in particular what he termed the phenomenon of colour. This programme resulted in the construction of the first reflecting telescope and in 1672 Newton’s legendary first paper A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colors published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Apparently optics doesn’t interest NdGT. Around 1666 Newton also embarked on perhaps his most intensive and longest research programme to discover the secrets of alchemy, whilst starting his life long obsession with the Bible and religion. The last two don’t exactly fit NdGT’s vision of enlightened objective truth.

Newton is without doubt an exceptional figure in the history of science, who has few equals, but like anybody else Newton’s achievements were based on long years of extensive and intensive work and study and are not the result of some sort of scientific miracle in his young years. Telling the truth about Newton’s life and work rather than propagating the myths, as NdGT does, gives students who are potential scientists a much better impression of what it means to be a scientist and is thus in my opinion to be preferred.

As a brief addendum NdGT points out that Newton’s birthday is not actually 25 December (neither is Christ’s by the way) because he was born before the calendar reform was introduced into Britain so we should, if we are logical, be celebrating his birthday on 4 January. NdGT includes the following remark in his explanation, “But the Gregorian Calendar (an awesomely accurate reckoning of Earth’s annual time), introduced in 1584 by Pope Gregory, was not yet adopted in Great Britain.” There is a certain irony in his praise, “an awesomely accurate reckoning of Earth’s annual time”, as this calendar was developed and introduced for purely religious reasons, again not exactly enlightened or objective.






Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

18 responses to “Preach truth – serve up myths.

  1. Baerista

    Not to mention that the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in 1582.

  2. Sean

    Suppose NdGT had said Newton transformed the world before 30 due to his theory of light and color, rather than due to his work on gravity and calculus? Would you have agreed with his initial tweet then?

    • No because that would be a totally exaggerated assessment of the Impact of Newton’s work in optics. It’s important scientific work but it didn’t transform the world.

  3. John Paterson

    To use the emotive terms of this headline – “truth” “myths” – and then to write this lengthy diatriabe is to seriously over-dramatise some minor, disputed and incidental aspects of the history of Newton’s otherwise unarguable transformative contributions.

    • laura

      I don’t know about this. If you care about the history of science or the history of ideas more generally, how transformative contributions come about — through flashes of brilliant to an untouchable elite or through enormously hard work — seems like *the* great question, not incidental in the least.

      It reminds me of one of my bugaboos: why Newton and not Huygens, who was also first rank genius? Lots of reasons but it seems to me one of them is that Huygens, being a Huygens, didn’t have to work.

      • Laura,

        what do you mean with the sentence ” Lots of reasons but it seems to me one of them is that Huygens, being a Huygens, didn’t have to work.”?
        Can you please clarify it? Thanks

      • For ateixeira, Christiaan Huygens was the son of a rich aristocratic family and thus did not have to earn a living.

        For laura, I think central to the Huygens’ riddle, and yes there is one, is the fact that he never developed a priciple philosophy of everything unlike Descartes or Newton. Newton was always trying to fit pieces of the puzzle into his central vision of the cosmos. Huygens however just solved individual unrelated problems from differented areas of the sciences. We worship Newton for his central vision, Huygens didn’t have one.

      • laura

        Not only did he not have to earn a living, but I think (based on my readings of Huygens, admittedly this is just an opinion) that focusing too hard, or working too hard on a problem to the exclusion of other pursuits, was a bit unseemly, un-aristocratic.

  4. If I can be picky about just two words in your otherwise excellent posting, describing Newton as ‘sent down’ from Cambridge does imply certain unjustified connotations. ‘Sent home’ would not have the same connotations. See:

    As far as which date one uses to define Newton’s birth, one can call it either 25th December (Old Style) or 4th January (New Style) to denote the calendar in use. Also, Newton’s birth preceded the change to January 1 as the first day of the year in the UK (which was also in 1752).

  5. Daniel

    what’s most amusing to me is that he was born Dec. 25 Julian–he’s only considered an Xmas baby because a scientific advance was rejected in the name of the most provincial denominational bigotry

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  8. C Hibbs

    ” Newton’s achievements were based on long years of extensive and intensive work and study and are not the result of some sort of scientific miracle in his young years.”
    I didn’t think what exactly he was doing all those years anyone knows. I mean, probably it was intensive and hard work, but on the other hand, I haven’t always, but I see good reason now to believe the apple tree story. I don’t know his age obviously, but everything works best situated about there IMHO.
    He said he’d done already to Halley. But then he took a good couple of years. But whatever…You’re the Fonzarelli of History and I am sitting back down.

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  10. theobromine

    Reposted a link to this in response to the NdGT post on the Centre for Inquiry Canada facebook page, since I agree that facts are important, even (or perhaps especially) when they get in the way of good myth-making.
    As for the Christmas day birthdate, I recall reading (but alas have been unable to find the source again) that it was likely that 25 December was not baby Isaac’s real birthdate, but a convenient date often used for birth registration when the exact date was unknown (and the fact that Newton’s father died shortly before was born and also that he was premature would likely have increased the uncertainty surrounding the date).

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