Newton’s Principia is one of the most original and epoch making works in the history of science. There is absolutely nothing original in Newton’s Principia. These two seemingly contradictory judgements of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica are slightly exaggerated versions of real judgements that have been made at various points in the past. The first was the general hagiographical view that was prevalent for much of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The second began to appear in the later part of the twentieth century as some historian of science thought that Newton, or better his reputation, needed to be cut down a bit in size. So, which, if either of them, is correct? The surprising answer is, in a way, both of them.
The Principia is a work of synthesis; it synthesises all of the developments in astronomy and physics that had taken place since the beginning of the fifteenth century. All of the elements that make up Newton’s work were, so to speak, laid out for him to integrate into the book. This is what is meant when we say that there is nothing original in the Principia, however the way that Newton integrated them and what he succeeded in creating was at the time unique and totally original. The Principia was truly a case of the whole being greater than the parts. Before we take a brief look at the contents of the Principia there are a couple of anomalies in its construction that need to be addressed.
The first concerns the general methodological structure of the book. Medieval science was dominated, not exclusively, by the theories of Aristotle and Aristotelian methodology. The developments in astronomy, physics and mathematics that we have covered up to now in this series have seen a gradual but steady deconstruction of the Aristotelian structures and theories. In this situation it comes as a bit of surprise that the methodology of the Principia is classically Aristotelian. Aristotle stated that true episteme (Greek) or scientia (Latin), what we would term scientific knowledge, is achieved by setting out a set of first principles or axioms that are perceived as being true and not in need proof and then logically deducing new knowledge from them. Ironically the most famous example of this methodology is the Elements of Euclid, ironically because Aristotle regarded mathematics as not being real knowledge because it doesn’t deal with objects in the real world. This is the methodology that Newton uses in the Principia, setting out his three laws of motion as his basic principles, which we will come back to later, and not the modern methodologies of Francis Bacon or René Descartes, which were developed in the seventeenth century to replace Aristotle.
The second anomaly concerns the mathematics that Newton uses throughout the Principia. Ancient Greek mathematics in astronomy consisted of Euclidian geometry and trigonometry and this was also the mathematics used in the discipline in both the Islamic and European Middle Ages. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe saw the development of analytical mathematics, first algebra and then infinitesimal calculus. In fact, Newton made major contributions to this development, in particular he, together with but independently of Gottfried William Leibniz, pulled together the developments in the infinitesimal calculus extended and codified them into a coherent system, although Newton unlike Leibniz had at this point not published his version of the calculus. The infinitesimal calculus was the perfect tool for doing the type of mathematics required in the Principia, which makes it all the more strange that Newton didn’t use it, using the much less suitable Euclidian geometry instead. This raises a very big question, why?
In the past numerous people have suggested, or even claimed as fact, that Newton first worked through the entire content of the Principia using the calculus and then to make it more acceptable to a traditional readership translated all of his results into the more conventional Euclidian geometry. There is only one problem with this theory. With have a vast convolute of Newton’s papers and whilst we have numerous drafts of various section of the Principia there is absolutely no evidence that he ever wrote it in any other mathematical form than the one it was published in. In reality, since developing his own work on the calculus Newton had lost faith in the philosophical underpinnings of the new analytical methods and turned back to what he saw as the preferable synthetic approach of the Greek Euclidian geometry. Interestingly, however, the mark of the great mathematician can be found in this retrograde step in that he translated some of the new analytical methods into a geometrical form for use in the Principia. Newton’s use of the seemingly archaic Euclidian geometry throughout the Principia makes it difficult to read for the modern reader educated in modern physics based on analysis.
When referencing Newton’s infamous, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants”, originally written to Robert Hooke in a letter in 1676, with respect to the Principia people today tend to automatically think of Copernicus and Galileo but this is a misconception. You can often read that Newton completed the Copernican Revolution by describing the mechanism of Copernicus’ heliocentric system, however, neither Copernicus nor his system are mentioned anywhere in the Principia. Newton was a Keplerian, but that as we will see with reservations, and we should remember that in the first third of the seventeenth century the Copernican system and the Keplerian system were viewed as different, competing heliocentric models. Galileo gets just five very brief, all identical, references to the fact that he proved the parabola law of motion, otherwise he and his work doesn’t feature at all in the book. The real giants on whose shoulders the Principia was built are Kepler, obviously, Descartes, whose role we will discuss below, Huygens, who gets far to little credit in most accounts, John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal, who supplied much of the empirical data for Book III, and possibly/probably Robert Hooke (see episode XXXIX).
We now turn to the contents of the book; I am, however, not going to give a detailed account of the contents. I Bernard Cohen’s A Guide to Newton’s Principia, which I recommend runs to 370-large-format-pages in the paperback edition and they is a whole library of literature covering aspects that Cohen doesn’t. What follows is merely an outline sketch with some comments.
As already stated the book consists of three books or volumes. In Book I Newton creates the mathematical science of dynamics that he requires for the rest of the book. Although elements of a science of dynamics existed before Newton a complete systematic treatment didn’t. This is the first of Newton’s achievement, effectively the creation of a new branch of physics. Having created his toolbox he then goes on to apply it in Book II to the motion of objects in fluids, at first glance a strange diversion in a book about astronomy, and in Book III to the cosmos. Book III is what people who have never actually read Principia assume it is about, Newton’s heliocentric model of the then known cosmos.
Mirroring The Elements of Euclid, following Edmond Halley’s dedicatory ode and Newton’s preface, Book I opens with a list of definitions of terms used. In his scholium to the definitions Newton states that he only defines those terms that are less familiar to the reader. He gives quantity of matter and quantity of motion as his first two definitions. His third and fourth definitions are rather puzzling as they are a slightly different formulation of his first law the principle of inertia. This is puzzling because his laws are dependent on the definitions. His fifth definition introduces the concept of centripetal force, a term coined by Newton in analogy to Huygens’ centrifugal force. In circular motion centrifugal is the tendency to fly outwards and centripetal in the force drawing to the centre. As examples of centripetal force Newton names magnetism and gravity. The last three definitions are the three different quantities of centripetal force: absolute, accelerative and motive. These are followed by a long scholium explicating in greater detail his definitions.
We now arrive at the Axioms, or The Laws of Motions:
1) Every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by forces impressed.
This is the principle of inertia that Newton had taken from Descartes, who in turn had taken it from Isaac Beeckman.
2) A change of motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which that force is impressed.
Somewhat different from the modern formulation of F=ma, this principle has its origin in the work of Huygens although there is not a one to one correspondence.
3) To any action there is always an opposite and equal reaction, in other words, the actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal and always opposite in direction.
This law originates with Newton and its source is not absolutely clear. It seems to have been inspired by Newton’s examination of Descartes laws of inelastic collision but it might also have been inspired by a similar principle in alchemy of which Newton was an ardent disciple.
Most people are aware of the three laws of motion, the bedrock of Newton’s system, in their modern formulations and having learnt them, think that they are so simple and obvious that Newton just pulled them out of his hat, so to speak. This is far from being the case. Newton actually struggled for months to find the axioms that eventually found their way into the Principia. He tried numerous different combinations of different laws before finally distilling the three that he settled on.
Having set up his definitions and laws Newton now goes on to produce a systematic analysis of forces on and motion of objects in Book I. It is this tour de force that established Newton’s reputation as one of the greatest physicist of all time. However, what interests us is of course the law of gravity and its relationship to Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. The following is ‘plagiarised’ from my blog post on the 400th anniversary of Kepler’s third law.
In Book I of Principia, the mathematics and physics section, Newton first shows, in Proposition 11, that for a body revolving on an ellipse the law of the centripetal force tending towards a focus of the ellipse is inversely as the square of the distance: i.e. the law of gravity but Newton is not calling it that at this point. In Proposition 14 he then shows that, If several bodies revolve about a common center and the centripetal force is inversely as the square of the distance of places from the center, I say that the principal latera recta of the orbits are as the squares of the areas which bodies describe in the same time by radii drawn to the center. And Proposition 15: Under the same supposition as in prop. 14, I say the square of the periodic times in ellipses are as the cubes of the major axes. Thus Newton shows that his law of gravity and Kepler’s third law are equivalent, although in this whole section where he deals mathematically with Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion he never once mentions Kepler by name. Newton would go one to claim the rights to laws one and two as he had, in his opinion, provided their first real proof. He acknowledges, however, Kepler’s claim to the third law.
Book II as already mentioned appears to go off a tangent in that it deals with motion in a fluid medium, as a result it tends to get ignored, although it is as much a tour de force as Book I. Why this detour? The answer can be found in the theories of René Descartes and Newton’s personal relationship to Descartes and his works in general. As a young man Newton undertook an extensive programme of self-study in mathematics and physics and there is no doubt that amongst the numerous sources that he consulted Descartes stand out as his initial primary influence. At the time Descartes was highly fashionable and Cambridge University was a centre for interest in Descartes philosophy. At some point in the future he then turned totally against Descartes in what could almost be describe as a sort of religious conversion and it is here that we can find the explanation for Book II.
Descartes was a strong supporter of the mechanical philosophy that he had learnt from Isaac Beeckman, something that he would later deny. Strangely, rather like Aristotle, objects could only be moved by some form of direct contact. Descartes also rejected the existence of a vacuum despite Torricelli’s and Pascal’s proof of its existence. In his Le Monde, written between 1629 and 1633 but only published posthumously in 1664 and later in his Principia philosophiae, published in 1644, Descartes suggested that the cosmos was filled with very, very fine particles or corpuscles and that the planets were swept around their orbits on vortexes in the corpuscles. Like any ‘religious’ convert, Newton set about demolishing Descartes theories. Firstly, the title of his volume is a play upon Descartes title, whereas Descartes work is purely philosophical speculation, Newton’s work is proved mathematically. The whole of Book II exists to show that Descartes’ vortex model, his cosmos full of corpuscles is a fluid, can’t and doesn’t work.
Book III, entitled The System of the World, is as already said that which people who haven’t actually read it think that the Principia is actually about, a description of the cosmos. In this book Newton applies the mathematical physics that he has developed in Book I to the available empirical data of the planets and satellites much of it supplied by the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, who probably suffered doing this phase of the writing as Newton tended to be more than somewhat irascible when he needed something from somebody else for his work. We now get the astronomical crowning glory of Newton’ endeavours, an empirical proof of the law of gravity.
Having, in Book I, established the equivalence of the law of gravity and Kepler’s third law, in Book III of The Principia: The System of the World Newton now uses the empirical proof of Kepler’s third law to establish the empirical truth of the law of gravity Phenomena 1: The circumjovial planets, by radii drawn to the center of Jupiter, describe areas proportional to the times, and their periodic times—the fixed stars being et rest—are as 3/2 powers of their distances from that center. Phenomena 2: The circumsaturnian planets, by radii drawn to the center of Saturn, describe areas proportional to the times, and their periodic times—the fixed stars being et rest—are as 3/2 powers of their distances from that center. Phenomena 3: The orbits of the five primary planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—encircle the sun. Phenomena 4: The periodic times of the five primary planets and of either the sun about the earth or the earth about the sun—the fixed stars being at rest—are as the 3/2 powers of their mean distances from the sun. “This proportion, which was found by Kepler, is accepted by everyone.”
Proposition 1: The forces by which the circumjovial planets are continually drawn away from rectilinear motions and are maintained in their respective orbits are directed to the center of Jupiter and are inversely as the squares of the distances of their places from that center. “The same is to be understood for the planets that are Saturn’s companions.” As proof he references the respective phenomena from Book I. Proposition 2: The forces by which the primary planets are continually drawn away from rectilinear motions and are maintained in their respective orbits are directed to the sun and are inversely as the squares of the distances of their places from its center. As proof he references the respective phenomenon from Book I.
In the 1st edition of Principia Newton referenced the solar system itself and the moons of Jupiter as system that could be shown empirically to Kepler’s third law and added the moons of Saturn in the 3rd edition.
Book III in the first edition closes with Newton’s study of the comet of 1680/81 and his proof that its flight path was also determined by the inverse square law of gravity showing that this law was truly a law of universal gravity.
I have gone into far more detain describing Newton’s Principia than any other work I have looked out in this series because all the various streams run together. Here we have Copernicus’s initial concept of a heliocentric cosmos, Kepler’s improved elliptical version of a heliocentric cosmos with it three laws of planetary motion and all of the physics that was developed over a period of more than one hundred and fifty years woven together in one complete synthesis. Newton had produced the driving force of the heliocentric cosmos and shown that it resulted in Kepler’s elliptical system. One might consider that the story we have been telling was now complete and that we have reached an endpoint. In fact, in many popular version of the emergence of modern astronomy, usually termed the astronomical revolution, they do just that. It starts with Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and end with Newton’s Principia but as we shall see this was not the case. There still remained many problems to solve and we will begin to look at them in the next segment of our story.
 Isaac Newton, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, A New Translation by I: Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman assisted by Julia Budenz, Preceded by A Guide to Newton’s Principia, by I. Bernard Cohen, University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles, London, 1999 p. 462