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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Was Newton the Greatest Scientist Who Ever Lived?

Most of us know that Charles Darwin was the greatest scientist who ever lived but one still finds the occasional misguided physicist/mathematician who thinks that the honor should go to an eighteenth century Englishman named Isaac Newton (1642-1727) [Top Five Dead Scientists] [Westminster Abbey: Darwin vs Newton] [Books by Charles Darwin] [Why I'm Not a Darwinist].

Now we have more direct evidence.1 The Israel National Library has just put a pile of Newton's writings on line [Israel National Library uploads trove of Newton's theological tracts ]. We get to see direct example of how Newton thinks like a scientist.

My favorite is Newton's predictions about when the apocalypse will take place. He starts his calculation with the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD and goes downhill from there [Newton on the date 2060 (early 18th century)].
In the instance displayed on this manuscript folio, Newton calculates a tentative date using the 1260 days (taken to be years) from Daniel in part to counter the claims of some of his contemporaries, who claimed that the end would come in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Newton stood apart from contemporary interpreters who were predicting the imminent restoration of the Jews, the fall of the Catholic Church and the Second Coming of Christ. Nevertheless, Newton’s own fervent belief in these prophetic events is not in doubt. The abbreviation “A.C.” stands for Anno Christi (“the year of Christ”).
So then the time times and half a time are 42 months or 1260 days or three years and an half, reckoning twelve months to a year and 30 days to a month as was done in the Calendar of the primitive year. And the days of short lived Beasts being put for the years of lived [sic] kingdoms, the period of 1260 days, if dated from the complete conquest of the three kings A.C. 800, will end A.C. 2060. It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner. This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail. Christ comes as a thief in the night, and it is not for us to know the times and seasons which God hath put into his own breast.
There's lots more where this came from but I don't want to embarrass the Newton supporters any further.

By way of contrast, the real greatest scientist who ever lived was a non-believer who never would have treated the Bible as a scientific authority.

1. The information isn't new. It's just that we can now see for ourselves that Isaac Newton was remarkably unscientific in most of his writings.

P.S. Some losers are going to argue that Newton was still the greatest scientist and we should ignore the fact that his religious beliefs made him write many stupid anti-science treatises. That's like saying that Young Earth Creationists (like Newton) can be good scientists even though they believe the Earth is only 6000 years old.


David Evans said...

"That's like saying that Young Earth Creationists (like Newton) can be good scientists even though they believe the Earth is only 6000 years old."

Unfair. Modern YECs are ignoring huge amounts of evidence about the age of the Earth. Newton had no such evidence - in fact, without the science of mechanics that he helped to found, much of our current evidence could not be understood as such.

I am in two minds whether he or Darwin was the greater scientist. Huxley famously said of natural selection "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!". I can't imagine anyone saying that about Newton's laws of motion and gravitation.

DK said...

Yes, absolutely. Newton was the greatest scientist that ever lived. You can take it to the bank.

DK said...

And by the way, Darwin is only #3, after Einstein. He was kind of a one trick pony - in contrast to Newton and Einstein who affirmed their G.O.A.T. status repeatedly. :-) And it does not matter what any one of them believed. What matters is their scientific output.

John K. said...

I have been thinking Galileo this whole time, don’t I feel silly.

If you are going to hold Newton to the religiousness of his time one could also hold Darwin to the racism of his time and declare Einstein the winner.

I realize this is all in humor, but I see little value in a “science penis” measuring contest, particularly in fields so different as physics and biology.

DiverCity said...

Give me a break, Larry. Had Newton lived contemporaneously with Darwin, he'd have put the latter to shame.

Anonymous said...

Darwin had a ton of output.
Him and his son figured things out about hormone functioning before hormones were even known (in experiments where plants without the apical end of the shoot were found to not grow toward the sun).
And of course natural selection was conceived with no knowledge of even simple genetics.

Really, I was going to list a ton of brilliant deductions of Darwin... but I'm lazy and have homework so I didn't even get to start.
My vote is for him though.

Cameron said...

" Darwin is only #3, after Einstein. He was kind of a one trick pony"
- Well Darwin didn't only publish 'On the Origin...' and leave it at that. In his later works his developed more hypotheses about biology based around his original theory such as sexual selection, evolutionary ethics, evolutionary psychology as well as a bunch of stuff on plants. I think what is important is the shear amount of actual science work Darwin was doing, compared to perhaps large theoretical aspects of physics where you're not able to go out and measure some particles/forces at the time of Einstein in the same way Darwin had no idea about genetics but was still able to measure and record data in the field; which he did a crap load of.

I think it is also important to note that evolution really tied together the natural sciences and made it a distinct field of science with an underlying theory and basis whereas Einstein was building on to what had already been established by Newton and others before him.

"What matters is their scientific output"
- Indeed, Byron Jennings over at Quantum Diaries has a recent blog post about how this is an important defining part of science when compared to religion.

"If you are going to hold Newton to the religiousness of his time one could also hold Darwin to the racism of his time and declare Einstein the winner."
- I don't think Darwin was too bad when it came to racism. A lot of his quotes on racism are taken out of context. Darwin actually believed all races were of the same species, unlike many academics of the time, and was probably referring to 'savages' based on culture and not race, though I haven't really read enough on his opinions of races.

There's also a distinction between this and Newton. Newton was being unscientific in some aspects of his work whereas Darwin was not so much in my opinion.

Jud said...

Come 2060 won't you be surprised.

Unknown said...

Oh, man, is that wearying to read. I once had a week-long debate online with a guy whose big "proof" of the validity of Christianity over all "false" religions was... it predicted the "exact" date of the resurrection of the state of Israel. Along with a similarly bewildering array of ill-defined dates vaguely connected by what the intervals between them "mean", it at one point involved accepting 360 days (if I remember correctly) as a "year", which meant multiplying the count by 0.9863 to get the "correct" number of years. Even then, given the uncertainty of certain dates, there was wiggle room of 3 years either side of 1948, and that was the BEST God's statisticians could do. He crowed about this being evidence of "prophecy" until it occurred to me to ask that if it were prophecy, and so numerically precise, why did nobody recognize it until well after 1948? Why wasn't the date printed on religious calendars for hundreds of years, just counting down to that sure, happy day? Prophecy that's only prophetic retroactively isn't prophecy at all. It's history.

Martin said...

If I'm not dead by then (highly unlikely), why would I be surprised?

Louis said...

Oh Larry! Obvious anti-physics troll is obvious. Impressively so, however.

Anyway, we all know the greatest scientist of all time is me. Wait, I have evidence! Unappreciated in my own time, laughed at for my Ultimate Theory of Everything (Does Not Contain Maths), predictor of the use of Carl Sagan quotes against me, nearly as good looking as Einstain (note misspelling) and better in bed than Fineman (also), I didn't believe in god before it was oh so trendy (mind you, the Immortal Space Pixies that whisper to me in my sleep are a different matter), the fact that I invented time travel and then went back in time to write the Crackpot Index in order to sufficiently discredit myself so that only True Geniuses (TM) would have access to my brilliance, I am still nasty about Leibnitz after that poseur Newton is long dead (LOSER!), I don't think arsenic can be incorporated meaningfully into DNA, unlike uranium, fluorine and potassium but mainly for comedy reasons....the list is endless.

Look, it's been a hard week in the lab, let a boy dream okay?


Schenck said...

For all the talk about Newton's religious nuttiness being meaningless, imagine having to work with the guy.

Darwin is also great because he's an exemplar for how we should go about actually doing science. He sat on his theory for /years/ and corresponded with people all over the world to work on it in incredible detail. I don't think anyone would seriously recommend doing bible codes in their spare time, sorta like Newton.

Anonymous said...

I don't even need to read anything here. The greatest scientist ever: Francis Crick. The second best, but close to Crick, of course Linus Pauling. In the words of the immortal Julio Cortazar (talking about poets instead) "Lo demás es entropía" (Everything else is entropy).

DK said...

Crick is my scientific idol but come on, get a dose of reality. He is somewhere in the Top 50 without a question but nowhere near Top 5. (And that's according to my impeccably objective criteria :-)).

SLC said...

How about a hat tip to me Prof. Moran. I'm the one who posted the link to the Haaratz article a few days ago.

1. As for the religious beliefs of Darwin and Newton, according to his biographers, Darwin was a devout Anglican when he stepped on board the Beagle. In fact, the sailors on the ship made fun of his religious devotions. He only lost his religious beliefs later in life, in part over the death of his daughter from, I believe, scarlet fever. Newton, on the other hand was not a Christian at all as he rejected the Trinity. He was, in fact, an Arian. Einstein, although culturally Jewish, was an agnostic as he denied being an atheist.

2. It is a mistake not to consider the times in which the three scientists lived. The times when Newton lived are very different then the times that Darwin lived, which in tern are quite different then times when Einstein lived.

3. IMHO, it is a mistake to apply the term greatest here. I prefer the term important instead. I consider that Newton, Darwin, and Einstein are the three most important scientists who ever lived and maintain that attempting a ranking is piffle. If Prof. Moran wants to assign a ranking of 1 to Darwin and Neil Tyson wants to assign a ranking of 1 to Newton, good for them.

4. What's remarkable about Newton is the amount of discovery he accomplished, even while spending inordinate amounts of time on religious speculation and alchemy. As Neil Tyson relates, he invented the integral and differential calculus on a dare in order to answer a question posed to him as to why the orbits of the planets were ellipses.

SLC said...

Actually, Newton was an impossible collaborator who carried on feuds with a number of his contemporaries. These included Hooke, the Bernoullis, Huuygens, and von Liebnitz. On a personnel level, he was a total jerk, as all too often great geniuses are (Richard Wagner anyone). This is in contrast to Darwin and Einstein who were generally quite polite and approachable.

SLC said...

P.S. Some losers are going to argue that Newton was still the greatest scientist and we should ignore the fact that his religious beliefs made him write many stupid anti-science treatises. That's like saying that Young Earth Creationists (like Newton) can be good scientists even though they believe the Earth is only 6000 years old.

What is the basis for the claim that Newton was a young earth creationist? He was certainly a creationist, as was everybody else at that time (and, by the way, as was Darwin when he stepped on board the Beagle), but his ruminations on the stability of the Solar System, attributing it to the occasional intervention of god, seem to indicate that he must have believed that it was quite old, as, if it were young, no intervention would be required.

Anonymous said...

"The greatest scientist ever: Francis Crick."

I laughed.

Anonymous said...

Uh, Newton was the greatest scientist who ever lived. So that settles it.

lee_merrill said...

I would say Einstein is first, classical mechanics is nothing like relativity. Much less quantum physics. And evolution is a distant third, in terms of complexity.

And BTW, Newton made those comments to discredit those who took out their Bible calculators. It was not his aim to predict a date, well, that's in your quote!

Anonymous said...

But I don't think it is about complexity, but about the clarity of thought ... now that we are thinking out loud, Einstein's was a clear mind, but relativity is not that complex compared to the loads of data that Darwin had to put together ... not as easy to choose as we might like to think ... (but I stay by my choice: Francis Crick)


M. Dionis said...

Most of us know that Charles Darwin was the greatest scientist who ever lived but one still finds the occasional misguided physicist/mathematician who thinks that the honor should go to an eighteenth century Englishman named Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

I am very disappointed by this comment. It is by no means scientific to call a person "the greatest scientist who ever lived" and claim one "knows" that. There is no well-defined ordered parameter "scientific value" which can be unambiguously and objectively assigned to every scientist who ever lived on earth (and if you think I'm wrong with that, please feel free to correct me). There is no apriori set of criteria to be used in such a comparison. Moreover, one cannot reasonably set a value scale among a restricted set of brilliant people who lived in different historic contexts and activated in pretty different fields posing quite different kinds of scientific challenges.
My consequent opinion is that any such "ranking" is and has to be basically biased and subjective, and it is essentially pointless to call any scientist "the greatest" ever (up to some extent, though, I find legitimate to single out some great personalities which could be labeled "among the greatest" in their respective fields of activity). By all means, Darwin is one of the top biologists, as well as Newton is certainly one of the top physicists/mathematicians; it has little meaning to label them "the top guy" in biology & physics and it has no meaning at all to call one of them (or anyone else, by the same token) "the absolute top guy in science".
On another hand, we are all entitled to have our personal subjective opinions and preferences, and I can imagine very well fellow scientists or non-specialists giving more credit to a single person to be "the greatest scientist ever". This is of course legitimate, but our personal preferences/criteria should never be taken as source of universal objective statements. Make no mistake: I have no problem with a biologist claiming "I think Darwin was the greatest scientist ever", with a physicist claiming "I think Newton/Einstein/Archimedes/... was the greatest scientist ever", with a mathematician claiming "I think Euler/Gauss/... was the greatest scientist ever" as long as they don't pretend their claims represent but a personal subjective point of view (better: argued with some measurable criteria). I feel very uneasy with you "knowing" your opinion about Darwin is an universal truth, and I find not quite polite your "misguided" label applied to fellow scientists which happen to share another idea about the top ranked scientist: unless it was a kind of joke and you really didn't mean what you actually wrote, I think you should reconsider your point.

Anonymous said...

u may suck in so many things, but u do have some sense of humour.... lol bravo

Anonymous said...

Could any of you replying please provide for me one example of advancement in medicine or any other area technology that can be attributed to the study of macro-evolution? And if you cannot, can you attempt to justify the spending of billions of taxpayer dollars to study a subject matter that has no practical benefit?

Larry Moran said...

You seem to be severely irony-deficient. But don't worry, it can be cured.

Carlos RJ said...


Larry Moran said...

@Carlos RJ

If you are agreeing with the ridiculous statement that Darwin was a "one trick pony" then you are as ignorant as DK.

If you are agreeing that what matters is their scientific output then Darwin is #1 and you agree with me.

udaym said...

Newton was the best. Take that to the Bank (of England)

John said...

"Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman." -- Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man)

And a few pages later, "We may conclude that the greater size, strength, courage, pugnacity, and energy of man, in comparison with woman, were acquired during primeval times, and have subsequently been augmented, chiefly through the contests of rival males for the possession of the females. The greater intellectual vigour and power of invention in man [he means, greater than in woman] is probably due to natural selection, combined with the inherited effects of habit, for the most able men will have succeeded best in defending and providing for themselves and for their wives and offspring."

Unknown said...

What did he do besides the Theory of Evolution?
Einstein was involved in the two fundamental theories of modern physics, relativity and quantum theory. He explained that atoms really do exist with his paper on Brownian Motion. Newton explained gravity, and why the planets move as they do; he made advances in light (that Hubble Telescope should probably be called the Newton Telescope), heat, and the laws of motion that govern our activities on Earth as well as what happens in space. Darwin accomplished the Theory of Evolution and ... what? And by the way, he was a devout Unitarian during much of his life, refuting your "non-believer" statement.

"Darwin was never an atheist. While it is true that in his later years he was not religious to any extent, he never entirely discounted the existence of god. In his Autobiography, Darwin says he was a theist by the time he wrote "Origin of Species" and that he believed in an intelligent first cause. However, it was his view that the nature of this "first cause" was something beyond man's vision. The death of his daughter, Annie, on 23 April 1851 was a crushing blow to his religious beliefs, and from this time forward he stopped attending church with his family. It was only after a very long and slow process spanning his entire life that Darwin came to be an agnostic."

Being an agnostic is NOT the same as being a "non-believer".

Unknown said...

LOL to those idiots who says we all know darwin is the greatest scientist.
HAHAHA how awful and stupid these evolutionist and stupid biology dumbf***s can be. Newton was the greatest scientist ever. Anyone who even have a half decent knowledge in science knows Newton was the no.1 scientist ever. Einstein is the 2nd.
After that you'd have galileo ,faraday,maxwell (who are well ahead of darwin the fraud) . Even after that there'd be mendeleev,curie, Euler & gauss(if you consider maths too) . Also you'd have archimedes, max planck,bohr , pasteur who are all superior to darwin