BY ALEX P.VIDAL
In anticipation of the meeting in Iloilo City last Saturday (Oct. 15, 2011) between two lawyers from different ages–one a philosopher and the other a student of philosophy–I raided my small library two days earlier and picked from among my collection of books Paul Strathern’s The Big Idea Collected, a book that contains six revolutionary ideas that changed the world.
I wanted to incorporate the scientific and philosophical ideas in the book with the “Socrates of Iloilo” and living philosopher, Atty. Ernesto Justiniani Dayot’s subject matter on paradigm shift from Kepler to Copernicus to Newton to Einstein while Atty. Jen Baligat, a devout Catholic and philosophy student, was listening.
The Big Idea series introduces the finest scientific minds in history–focusing on each scientist’s one defining discovery or invention that permanently changed the way we live and view the world.
Brief, entertaining, and informative, The Big Idea books, written by the same author of The Philosophers in 90 Minutes, provide readers with the keys to a better understanding of the universe.
NEWTON AND GRAVITY. An often witty and always informative look at the father of physics–his work, his eccentricities, and his “Big Idea” about what keeps us all from spinning into space.
EINSTEIN AND RELATIVITY. A brilliant elucidation of the theory of relativity and a fascinating look at the man who changed the face of the 20th century.
HAWKING AND BLACK HOLES. An insightful look at the visionary work and iron will of Stephen Hawking–featuring an easy-to-grasp explanation of his monumental and important bestseller “A Brief History of Time.”
CURIE AND RADIOACTIVITY. A detailed and fascinating account of the tumultuous, passionate life and works of Marie Curie, one of the most exceptional–and most misunderstood–scientists of the 20th century.
TURING AND THE COMPUTER. A clear and accessible explanation of the genesis of the computer, and a fascinating look at the man who helped develop it, only to be forgotten by the world he had transformed.
CRICK, WATSON, AND DNA. A witty snapshot of these two scientists’ lives and work that brilliantly encapsulates how DNA changed our understanding of evolution–and, in fact, our entire conception of life.
London-based Strathern explains in the book that a good case can be for Isaac Newton being “the finest mind humanity has yet produced.”
He stresses that “William Shakespeare used language as no other, Napoleon (Bonaparte) used personality as no other–but no one has ever extended the limits of human understanding quite so drastically as Newton.”
Newton’s work represents an evolutionary advance in our thinking–one giant leap for mankind, stresses the author, who has lectured in philosophy and mathematics at Kingston University.
Here’s what Strathern observes more about Newton: Long before we landed on the moon (or even considered doing so), Newton’s mathematics paved the way for such a feat. Before Newton, the moon was part of the heavens, subject to unknown heavenly laws of its own. After him it became a satellite of earth, kept in orbit by the planet’s gravitational pull. Humanity had its first glimpse of how the entire universe worked.
But the discovery of universal gravity was only the most major of Newton’s many major discoveries. The concept of force, calculus, the nature of light, the theory of mechanics, the binominal series, Newton’s method in numerical analysis–the list goes on and on.
More units, and scientific and mathematical entities, are named after Newton than after any other scientist. The newton (the si, or internationally agreed unit force), Newtonian fluid, Newton’s formula (for lenses), Newton’s rings (in optics), the Newton quotient (in differentiation) and many more–each the direct result of his work.
Yet all this was only possible because Newton arrived at the right moment in history. Just as Dante could only have written his Divine Comedy within the rigid all-embracing hierarchy of the Middle Ages, so Newton could only have made his discoveries after Copernicus and Galileo had freed the scientific mind from those same rigidities.
As Newton himself confessed: “If I have seen a little farther than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” The chains of medieval restraint had fallen away, and the door of human knowledge had opened upon a new world. In Newton’s view, he had achieved little. “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
The modesty exhibited here is of course dwarfed by the oceanic vision–which he alone was in a position to see. An implication that Newton may well have intended. He was not by nature modest.
So what kind of man was the possessor of the greatest intellect in history? In general, Newton’s contemporaries came to regard him much as we in the 20th century and new millennium regarded Einstein.
“A tame eccentric, member of a rare protected species, the absentminded genius of unquestionable moral stature: a distant but faintly lovable figure–vouchsafed enormous gravitas by the sheer weight of his achievements,” Strathern elaborates. In his time, Newton was the solitary scholar chosen by his peers as MP for Cambridge University, the revered president of the Royal Society reelected unopposed year after year, the Master of the Royal Mint feared and hated by the counterfeiters of the London underworld.
“As is so often the case, it was the common people who recognized the man for what he was. For beneath the austere public facade lay a deeply disturbed and vindictive personality, harboring his own illicit secrets,” concludes Strathern.