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Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727) by Sir Godfrey Kneller, painted in 1689





(continued from Galileo Galilei). The Copernican Revolution culminated with Newton’s three laws synthesizing his predecessors’ work, demonstrating that the laws governing the heavens are the same as those at work on earth. In his 1687 Principia Mathematica, widely considered the greatest scientific book ever written, Newton showed that Kepler’s three laws of motion could all be derived from his more general laws of force.

Newton's three laws of force or motion are:

1. "Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it." Velocity has a special meaning in physics. It's made up of two components: speed (how fast) and direction. Newton's famous "law of inertia" states that an outside force must be applied to a body in order to change its velocity, whether the body is at rest or moving. Thus when we see the Enterprise going at Warp 9, Scotty (or Geordi La Forge or B'Elanna Torres, depending on the Star Trek generation) can turn off the engines and coast at that speed forever, because there's no "outside force" in space to slow them down—ever (unless they come within the gravitational influence of some body like a planet or a star). If they need to change direction or speed—their velocity—then a force has to be applied to the ship by the engines.

2. "Force is equal to the change in momentum (mv) per change in time. For a constant mass, force equal mass time acceleration [F = ma]." Continuing from the first law, any change in velocity over time is called acceleration, whether that change be in direction or in speed. And to change velocity we have to apply a force in the new direction we want to travel and in direct proportion to the mass whose velocity we want to change: more mass, more force.

3. "For every action, there is an equal and opposite re-action." So if you’re in space and you push something, your recoil is equal but opposite to the momentum your push imparted to it. If its weight is twice yours, you impart to it half the speed with which you recoil, because the total mass x velocity (= momentum) of the system (both you and it) is conserved, or remains constant. Jet planes move because the mass x velocity (momentum: mv) of the gas the engines expel is equal but opposite to the thrust they impart to the plane. But the momentum of the entire system (plane and expelled gas) remains constant.

Thus three ideas that had held back the development of modern astronomy for over 2000 years—that the Earth was the center of the universe, that heavenly bodies moved in circular orbits, and that objects in the heavens were made from a perfect and incorruptible substance not found on Earth—were forever swept away.

In his 1687 Principia Mathematica, Newton also brought forth his Universal Law of Gravitation, which states that "every particle in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them."  If the masses m1 and m2 are separated by a distance r, then the magnitude of the gravitational force between them is

F = γ m1m2  ⁄ r2

(where "γ" is just the Greek letter gamma representing some constant, like "k"). Kepler's first law states that planets move in ellipses with the Sun at one focus, the other focus being empty. Mercury's orbit is very elliptical, its long axis observed to precess (rotate in space) at 575" per century (taking the precession of the Earth's line of equinoxes into account, this is relative to a fixed coordinate system in space). According to Newton's laws this should not be the case, unless Mercury is acted upon by some "outside force." Many theories abounded as to why Mercury's orbit precesses: the perturbations of an as yet undiscovered inner planet called "Vulcan;" small particles of matter given off by the Sun; the oblateness of the Sun; or that Newton's laws were wrong and gravity did not act precisely as an inverse square law, but rather fell off as 1/rn, with n = 2.00000016. In time all of these hypotheses were discredited or abandoned. To see the source of Mercury's orbital precession that all of Newton's laws could not account for, go to Albert Einstein.

There is a popular and plausibly apocryphal anecdote about Newton in relation to astrology. When the British astronomer Sir Edmund Halley supposedly spoke deprecatingly about astrology to Newton, he is said to have responded, "I have studied the matter [astrology], you sir, have not." Robert H. van Gent ("Isaac Newton and Astrology, Witness for the Defense or the Prosecution?") illuminates this matter further. The astronomer Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811), director of the Greenwich Observatory from 1765, is quoted as saying ‘. . . when Dr. Halley ventured to say anything disrespectful to religion, he [Newton] invariably checked him, with the remark, “I have studied these things – you have not”.’  Maskelyne then passed it on to Stephen Peter Rigaud (1774-1839), the Oxford professor in astronomy, from whom it is reported in D. Brewster's, The Life of Sir Isaac Newton (John Murray, London, 1831), pg. 339.  Indeed, the matter is open to interpretation!

This Sir Isaac Newton-history of astrology page and much of this 600-page website are excerpted from the personalized Fine Art Book You and the Universe.


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