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Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Newton

“South America must have lain alongside Africa and formed a unified block which was split in two in the Cretaceous; the two parts must then have become increasingly separated over a period of millions of years like pieces of a cracked ice floe in water”*…

Earth, 600 million years ago. The Ediacaran Period; life is evolving in the sea, and multicellular life is just beginning to emerge.

From the good folks who brought you Dinosaur Pictures, a chance to watch continental drift at work– a marvelous interactive model of the earth that you can view from the present to 600 million years ago: Ancient Earth.

* Arthur Wegener


As we marvel at the evolving reality of nature, we might marvel as well at the laws that govern it: it was on this date in 1686, the publication of Newton’s Principia (the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematicawas arranged in London at the Royal Society. The minutes of the meeting record that the astronomer Edmond Halley would “undertake the business of looking after it and printing it at his own charge.”

Title page of the first edition



Written by LW

June 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher’s stone. That was the pebble by the seashore he really wanted to find”*…


Alchemist Heating a Pot, by David Teniers the Younger (1610 – 1690

Alchemy is one of the most curious subjects in the history of science–it evokes both method and magic in popular imagination. Teniers brilliantly juxtaposes light and shadow in his paintings, leaving the viewer unsure just how illuminating alchemy really is.

Alchemy was practiced in Europe as early as the 1300s and, by the seventeenth century, it had reached in zenith. It was a precursor to modern chemistry, and the methods and instruments that are historically tied to alchemy had a significant impact on the development of scientific tools. (As a historical note, in the seventeenth century, alchemy and chemistry were extremely fluid scientific practices; many contemporary historians of science opt to refer to the science as chymistry to connote the mutability of the two practices.)

At its very core, alchemy focused on the notion of transmutation–the ability of one element to morph into another, especially the ability to turn elements into gold. (If Rumpelstiltskin had only been so lucky!) In order to understand elements on their most basic level—in order to extrapolate how to transmute one into another—alchemy focused its experimental efforts on the processes of distillation, sublimation, and crystallization and how they affected different materials. Exploring these processes, however, required sophisticated tools and technologies as well as scientific means and methods…

Lydia Pine takes us “Inside the Alchemist’s Workshop.”

* Fritz Leiber


As we go for the gold, we might send elemental birthday greetings to Glenn Theodore Seaborg; he was born on this date in 1912.  A chemist, his discovery and investigation of plutonium and nine other transuranium elements was part of the effort during World War II to develop an atomic bomb; it earned him a share of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Seaborg went on to serve as Chancellor of the University of California, as Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, and as an advisor to 10 presidents– from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton– on nuclear policy and science education.  Element 106 (the last of the ten that Seaborg discovered), was named seaborgium in his honor.

Like so many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Seaborg became a campaigner for arms control. He was a signatory to the Franck Report and contributed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.



Written by LW

April 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born”*…


This animation shows the movement of the north magnetic pole at 10-year intervals from 1970 to 2020. The red and blue lines indicate “declination,” the difference between magnetic north and true north depending on where one is standing; on the green line, a compass would point to true north. Visual by NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

In scenario planning, one tries to identify the “driving forces”– the social, political, ecological, technical, and economic dynamics afoot– in the environment that are both likely to impact our future materially and outside our control; one then to knits the possible outcomes of those forces into alternative futures, plausible sketches of the opportunities and challenges that one might face.

There is a special class of driving force, what scenario planners call a wild card: a possibility that has relative low probability in the (usually 10 year) time horizon, but that, should it occur, would have massive consequence.  Wild cards are often things like major earthquakes or geo-political conflicts… or environmental catastrophes.  While one plans for the implications of the scenarios and their defining driving forces, one plans against wild cards; one creates action plans for the scenarios, contingency plans for the wild cards.

As climate change is slowly but surely converting yesterday’s wildcards (sustained droughts, regular, catastrophic wildfires and storms, etc.) into “regular” driving forces, it is perhaps prudent to look at some of the wildest cards that remain…

One day in 1905, the French geophysicist Bernard Brunhes brought back to his lab some rocks he’d unearthed from a freshly cut road near the village of Pont Farin. When he analyzed their magnetic properties, he was astonished at what they showed: Millions of years ago, the Earth’s magnetic poles had been on the opposite sides of the planet. North was south and south was north. The discovery spoke of planetary anarchy. Scientists had no way to explain it.

Today, we know that the poles have changed places hundreds of times, most recently 780,000 years ago. (Sometimes, the poles try to reverse positions but then snap back into place, in what is called an excursion. The last time was about 40,000 years ago.) We also know that when they flip next time, the consequences for the electrical and electronic infrastructure that runs modern civilization will be dire. The question is when that will happen…

The shield that protects the Earth from solar radiation is under attack from within. We can’t prevent it, but we ought to prepare. Learn more at “The Magnetic Field Is Shifting. The Poles May Flip. This Could Get Bad.”

* Albert Einstein


As we ponder powerlessness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1697 that Isaac Newton received a copy of Johann Bernoulli’s long-standing mathematical challenge, the brachistochrone problem: “To determine the curved line joining two given points, situated at different distances from the horizontal and not in the same vertical line, along which the mobile body, running down by its own weight and starting to move from the upper point, will descend most quickly to the lower point.” (Bernoulli coined the name from Gr. brachistos, shortest; and chronos, time.)

Newton solved it the same day, and forwarded his solution to the Royal Society—anonymously.  When Bernoulli read the solution, he shrewdly guessed it was Newton’s work.  By legend, he said, “I recognize the lion by his paw.”

Bernoulli and Newton



“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science”*…


Caleb Scharf wants to take you on an epic tour. His latest book, The Zoomable Universe, starts from the ends of the observable universe, exploring its biggest structures, like groups of galaxies, and goes all the way down to the Planck length—less than a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a meter. It is a breathtaking synthesis of the large and small. Readers journeying through the book are treated to pictures, diagrams, and illustrations all accompanied by Scharf’s lucid, conversational prose. These visual aids give vital depth and perspective to the phenomena that he points out like a cosmic safari guide. Did you know, he offers, that all the Milky Way’s stars can fit inside the volume of our solar system?

Scharf, the director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, is a suitably engaging guide. He’s the author of the 2012 book Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Universe, and last year he speculated in Nautilus about whether alien life could be so advanced as to be indistinguishable from physics.

In The Zoomable Universe, Scharf puts the notion of scale—in biology and physics—center-stage. “The start of your journey through this book and through all known scales of reality is at that edge between known and unknown,” he writes…

Another entry in a collection that long-time readers know your correspondent cultivates, visualizations of relative scale (inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten—see, e.g., here, here, here, and here): “This Will Help You Grasp the Sizes of Things in the Universe.”

* Edwin Powell Hubble


As we keep things in perspective, we might spare a thought for Paolo Frisi; he died on this date in 1784.  A mathematician, astronomer, and physicist who worked in hydraulics (he designed a canal between Milan and Pavia) and introduced the lightning conductor into Italy, he is probably best remembered for his compilation, interpretation, and dissemination of the work of other scientists, especially Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton.


Your correspondent is headed into the Thanksgiving Holiday– and so into a brief hiatus in posting.  Regular service will resume on Sunday the 26th… or when the tryptophan haze clears, whichever comes first.

Written by LW

November 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”*…


Newton’s reflecting telescope of 1671

On 11 January 1672, the Fellows of the British Royal Society were treated to a demonstration of Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope, which formed images with mirrors rather than with the lenses that had been used since the time of Galileo. Afterward, the fellows hailed Newton as the inventor of this marvellous new instrument, an attribution that sticks to the present. However, this linear historical account obscures a far more interesting, convoluted story. Newton’s claim was immediately challenged on behalf of two other contenders, James Gregory and Laurent Cassegrain. More confounding, the earliest known concept of using a curved mirror to focus light predated Newton by more than 1,500 years; the final realisation of a practical reflecting telescope post-dated him by more than a half century…

For almost any device, claiming one individual as the inventor is problematic to say the least. Conception, demonstration and implementation can be very different things, and the path connecting them is typically not a line but a long, challenging and tortuous route…

A cautionary tale illustrating the danger of crediting technologies to single inventors: “How many great minds does it take to invent a telescope?

Pair with this explanation of why men so often get credit for women’s inventions– a phenomenon so common that it has a name, “the Matilda effect.”

* Issac Newton


As we share the credit, we might send scientific birthday greetings to Vincenzo Viviani; he was born on this date in 1622.  A mathematician and engineer, Viviani is probably best remembered as a discipline of Galileo: he served as the (then-blind) scientist’s secretary until Galileo’s death; he edited the first edition of Galileo’s collected works; and he worked tirelessly to have his master’s memory rehabilitated.  But Viviani was an accomplished scientist in his own right: he published a number of books on mathematical and scientific subjects, and was a founding member of the Accademia del Cimento, one of the first important scientific societies, predating England’s Royal Society.


Written by LW

April 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”*…


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The Dynamic Ebbinghaus takes a classic, static size illusion and transforms it into a dynamic, moving display. A central circle, which stays the same size, appears to change size when it is surrounded by a set of circles that grow and shrink over time. Interestingly, this effect is relatively weak when looking directly at a stationary central circle. But if you look away from the central circle or move your eyes, or if the entire stimulus move across the screen, then the illusory effect is surprisingly strong – at least twice as large as the classic, static Ebbinghaus illusion.

Each year the visual illusion research community gathers in Naples, Florida for a meeting that culminates in a contest that names the Best Illusion of the Year.  This year’s grand prize winner is captured in the video above.

See all of the finalists here, read more about the contest (e.g., below) here— and check out the cool trophies here.

This is an anamorphic illusion. It begins as a normal photograph and then is tilted backwards and forwards to create opposite vanishing points. The tilting distorts the shape of the head and facial features to create the illusion of an actual age progression and regression. For the age progression the top half of the head narrows, and the bottom half expands creating a more mature look. For the age regression, the opposite happens. The head and ears enlarge and the lower face narrows giving them a smaller nose, chin and neck, which results in a realistic childlike appearance.

* Albert Einstein


As we uncross our eyes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1758 that John Dollond filed for a patent (which he ultimately received) on achromatic lenses, and reported this to the Royal Society.   Isaac Newton had described the blurring effect due to chromatic aberration (the fact that different colored light wave have different focal lengths), which was important in the preparation of lenses for telescopes and microscopes; but could not solve the problem in simple lenses.  Indeed, the answer lay in compounding two lens.  In the event, Dollond had not invented the answer, but had learned it from another lens maker, George Bass, who prepared the first achromatic lens at the instruction of Chester Moore Hall, who actually deserves credit for the creation.

Chromatic aberration of a single lens causes different wavelengths of light to have differing focal lengths.

An achromatic doublet, like the one patented by Dollond, brings red and blue light to the same focus, and is the earliest example of an achromatic lens.



Bullet, as yet un-dodged…

Readers may feel a sense of relief now that the Mayan prophecy of doom in 2012 has gone unfulfilled– understandable…  but maybe a bit premature.  As this handy reference from The Economist illustrates…

…while most of the major prophecies on record are past their due dates (the Norse and Nostradamus were canny enough to refrain from specifying exact timings), one apocalyptic alert is still active… and sadly for humankind, it’s from an all-too-august source.

Possibly the greatest and most influential scientist in history, Isaac Newton was also a pious, albeit unorthodox, Christian.  Early in his life, surrounded by the Plague, the Great Fires of London, and assorted other upheavals, Newton decided that the End Times were at hand.  But while Newton realized promptly that he was premature, millennial pronouncements continued from others.  So, in a 1704 manuscript (in which he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible) he estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. He explained: “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.”

Now, “no earlier than 47 years from now” gives one some time to prepare.

But could it be that even Sir Isaac made mistakes?  So argues David Flynn, author of Temple at the Center of Time: Newton’s Bible Codex Deciphered and the Year 2012.  Flynn revisits Newton’s logic and his calculations, and “corrects” it to find that the threshold for total termination may be much nearer–  indeed, this year– 2013…  Read the story at WND.com, along with “Just the Facts: How Satan Takes ‘Legal Authority’ Over You” and “Obama Staged Sandy Hook Massacre.”


As we contain our credulity, we might send cosmic birthday greetings to Robert Woodrow Wilson; he was born on this date in 1936.  An astronomer, Wilson and his Bell Labs partner, physicist Arno Penzias, discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) in 1964– a feat that earned them the Nobel Prize (in 1978), as CMB was a critical corroborator of the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe.


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