Ellis Washington
On Newton and Huygens: when genius was separate from government
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By Ellis Washington
January 1, 2015


Plato is my friend. Aristotle is my friend. But my greatest friend is Truth.

~ Newton

The world is my country, science my religion.

~ Huygens

Biography of Huygens

Christiaan Huygens, (1629–1695) was an outstanding Dutch scientist and mathematician. He is chiefly recognized as a physicist, astronomer, horologist and probabilist. Huygens was one of the most prominent scientists of the 1600s at the height of Renaissance, the Age of Reason and the scientific revolution. His work involved early telescopic examinations of the rings of Saturn and the discovery of its moon Titan, the invention of the pendulum clock and other innovations improving the accuracy of timekeeping. He published important works on the studies of mechanics and optics, and like his precursor, Blaise Pascal, did pioneering work on probability theory and games of chance.

A true Renaissance man, Huygens was also a poet and musician, diplomat and advisor to the Crown (the House of Orange). His friends and colleagues included many leading figures of the Age of Enlightenment like Galileo Galilei, Marin Mersenne and René Descartes. Like Pascal, Huygens was homeschooled up to age sixteen and taught by his father who gave him a liberal education: he studied languages and music, history and mathematics, rhetoric, logic, geography, but also horse riding, fencing and dancing.

Typical of the times where the collective knowledge of mankind exploded exponentially, in 1644 when Huygens was just 15-years-old, his mathematical tutor Jan Jansz de Jonge Stampioen, prompted the young genius to read virtually every treatise on contemporary science. His friend and mentor, Descartes was particularly amazed by his abilities in geometry.

Huygens work on Optics

Huygens is celebrated primarily for his wave theory of light, ideas based on a manuscript on optics by Ignace-Gaston Pardies that inspired him. Huygens first presented his pathbreaking ideas on wave theory of light in a lecture to the Paris Académie des sciences in 1678. The lecture was published in 1690 in his Traité de la lumière (Treatise on light). A fundamental principle of Huygens theory of light is that the speed of light is finite. The theory is kinematic and its range mostly limited to geometric optics or what today is referred to as physical optics. It concerns wave fronts and their regular rays generated by means of spherical waves produced laterally along the wave front (e.g., the Huygens – Fresnel principle). Here Huygens' ether theory involving conduction of elastic particles was based on the ideas of Descartes that the nature of light was a longitudinal wave.

In 1672 Huygens had experimented with double refraction (birefringence) and later described his wave front theory, he advanced the concept of evolutes and innovations on caustics. Contrary to Huygens wave theory, Newton in his Opticks of 1704 recommended as an alternative a corpuscular theory of light. The theory of Huygens was not universal or consensus science since longitudinal waves cannot show birefringence. The interference experiments of Thomas Young vindicated a wave theory in 1801: the consequences could not be described with light particles. The answer to the problem that plagued Huygens was then determined by a transverse wave theory. In modern physics they use the term wave – particle duality from this we get his invention of the magic lantern mentioned in a1659 letter.

Huygens Work on Mechanics

The consensus view in science today understands that physics is essentially both experimental and mathematical. While the conception of uniting the physical sciences and discovering the harmony in nature's laws is universal, the problem of whether that association can be realized under the foundation of mechanics, nevertheless, the issue is whether physics should collect its experimental results together within mathematical formulations or should also endeavor to provide those mathematical formulas to a mechanical understanding, is not a settled question of science even today.

The problem contains more than a question of the scientific method. It involves the final objective of natural science and the type of ideas it should use to achieve this objective. Must the scientist try to achieve no more than observation of natural phenomena in terms of its basic and most universal mathematical associations? Or should scientist go outside of consensus; beyond description to an explanation of the phenomena in relationship to first principles...their original causes?

That the union of these two structures of Aristotle's physics – experimental and mathematical – is not by chance appears to be demonstrative by the union of their opposites in modern physics. When physicists (or 'natural philosophers') like Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Huygens in the 1600s defines natural phenomena in mathematical terms, he explains them – in mechanical terms. "The laws of Mechanics," writes Descartes, "are the laws of Nature." Huygens begins his Treatise on Light (1690) by examining optics as a form of science "in which Geometry is applied to matter"; then he quickly pivots to affirm that his original intent in this opus is to advance this aspect of mathematical physics by investigating "the origin and the causes" [e.g., First Principles] of the truths at present known, as a means to offer "better and more satisfactory explanations." Such explanations, Huygens understands will be established only if we consider "the causes of all natural effects in terms of mechanical motions." He insists that "we must necessarily do this, or else renounce all hopes of ever comprehending anything in Physics."

Biography of Newton

Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1726/7) was an English mathematician and physicist (which during the Renaissance they were generally referred to as "natural philosophy"). He is celebrated as one of the most prominent scientists of world history as well as the leading figure in the Scientific Revolution (1550-1700). His 1687 book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), set the foundations for classical mechanics. A Renaissance man of the highest order, Newton also made magnificent innovations to optics, and was the co-inventor (with Gottfried Leibniz) of the development of calculus.

Newton's Work on Gravity and Mechanics

Science experienced a type of revolution within a revolution in the 100 year period between the publication of Newton's Mathematical Principles (1687) and the publication in 1787 of Lagrange's Mecanique analytique, whereby "the notion of the mechanical explanation of all the processes of nature," wrote philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, "finally hardened into a dogma of science." One essential pillar of that scientific revolution was Newton's discovery of the laws of motion and universal gravitation. "The force of gravity," according to Newton, "is a power of attraction which one body exercises on another without the first being in motion or coming into contact with the second." Newton recognized the problem of action-at-a-distance, the concept that an object can be moved, changed, or otherwise affected without being physically touched (as in mechanical contact) by another object, of which his gravitational theory examines and advances. Notwithstanding, he concedes a problem which has no applicability on the mathematical consequences of his theory.

Conversely, Newton's argument with Descartes is not philosophical grounds. It theorizes that a mechanical idea is to be postulated, that it complies with the mathematical laws of terrestrial and celestial motion which Newton had successfully conveyed as universal laws of nature. Furthermore, known mathematical laws, had the benefit of analyzing the observed phenomena and thus, of understanding the scientific model of precise description specified in its most rudimentary form. "Newton's triumph over Descartes," according to the Editors of Great Books of the Western World, "is a triumph in mathematical and experimental physics, not a triumph in philosophy."

Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. In religious terms Newton was a devout but unorthodox Christian who rejected conventional ideas on religion. Today Newton would be considered an Arian, believing that the Church had taken a wrong turning when it chose the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity. This is why many historians believe that although Newton was a member of the Cambridge faculty of the day, he refused to take holy orders in the Church of England. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of alchemy, biblical chronology, biblical numerology and eschatology (the study of the end times), but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death.

Newton's Legacy in Modern Times

In the 17th century, the modern camera took a quantum leap forward in development when Isaac Newton and Christian Huygens perfected the understanding of optics and the procedure of manufacturing high quality glass lenses. Today, Newton is most remembered as a physicist whose singular contribution of genius was the origination of classical mechanics and gravitational theory as outlined in his Principia. However, Newton's pioneering ideas on space, time, and motion not only laid the foundation for the kinematical structure for this magisterial work and thus for the whole of classical physics up until the early twentieth century when Albert Einstein's four "Miracle Year" papers of 1905 superseded Newton's theories on motion and gravitational theory, but also had an essential part in Newton's general system of philosophy and theology (largely developed before the Principia).

Most people don't realize that Newton wrote as much on alchemy (a protoscience that tried to convert base metals [lead] into noble metals [gold and silver]) and theology as he wrote about scientific subjects. He was obsessed with alchemy, biblical numerology and calculating the Second Coming of Christ [he calculated the year to be 2060 AD]. Regrettably, since Newton never worked out the substantive details or wrote a treatise or digest regarding his general system of his Principia, his legacy as one of the great physicists of the seventeenth century as well as one of the greatest scientists in history, regrettably is no longer universally valued.

Nevertheless Pope's couplet vindicates Newton's singular genius, his major role in the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s and the predominate figure of the Age of Reason:
    Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night,

    God said, Let Newton be, and all was Light.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 36 – Hypothesis; Vol. 3, Chap. 54 – Mechanics; Vol. 34 – Newton and Huygens. The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, Ted Honderich, Editor (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 653.


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Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington

 

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)

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