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Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Newton

“Man tends to define in terms of the familiar. But the fundamental truths may not be familiar.”*…

Most of us probably do not need to think too hard to distinguish living things from the “non-living”. A human is alive; a rock is not. Easy!

Scientists and philosophers do not see things quite this clearly. They have spent millennia pondering what it is that makes something alive. Great minds from Aristotle to Carl Sagan have given it some thought – and they still have not come up with a definition that pleases everyone. In a very literal sense, we do not yet have a “meaning” for life.

If anything, the problem of defining life has become even more difficult over the last 100 years or so. Until the 19th Century one prevalent idea was that life is special thanks to the presence of an intangible soul or “vital spark”. This idea has now fallen out of favour in scientific circles. It has since been superseded by more scientific approaches. Nasa, for instance, has described life as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”.

But Nasa’s is just one of many attempts to pin down all life with a simple description. In fact, over 100 definitions of life have been proposed, with most focusing on a handful of key attributes such as replication and metabolism.

To make matters worse, different kinds of scientist have different ideas about what is truly necessary to define something as alive. While a chemist might say life boils down to certain molecules, a physicist might want to discuss thermodynamics…

A comparative survey of the definitions that currently exist concludes…

To properly define life, we might need to find some aliens.

The irony is that attempts to pin down a definition of life before we discover those aliens might actually make them more difficult to find. What a tragedy it would be if in the 2020s the new Mars rover trundles straight past a Martian, simply because it does not recognise it as being alive.

“The definition can actually hinder the search for novel life,” says [Carol] Cleland. “We need to get away from our current concept, so that we are open to discovering life as we don’t know it.”

It is surprisingly difficult to pin down the difference between living and non-living things: “There are over 100 definitions of ‘life’ and all are wrong.

* Carl Sagan


As we strive for beginner’s mind, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to John Theophilus Desaguliers; he was born on this date in 1683. A natural philosopher, clergyman, and engineer, he is best remembered as the experimental assistant to Isaac Newton, who went on to popularize Newton’s work in public lectures and publications. On the strength of that work, Desaguliers was elected to the Royal Society and ultimately became its curator.

In his own work he coined the terms conductor and insulator. He repeated and extended the work of Stephen Gray in electricity. He proposed a scheme for heating vessels such as salt-boilers by steam instead of fire. And he made inventions of his own (e.g., a planetarium), and material improvements to others’ machines, such as Thomas Savery’s steam engine (by adding a safety valve and using an internal water jet to condense the steam in the displacement chambers) and a ventilator at the House of Commons. 


“In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance”*…

Prince Hamlet spent a lot of time pondering the nature of chance and probability in William Shakespeare’s tragedy. In the famous “To be or not to be” speech, he notes that we helplessly face “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” — though a little earlier in the play he declares that “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” suggesting that everything happens because God wills it to be so.

We can hardly fault the prince for holding two seemingly contradictory views about the nature of chance; after all, it is a puzzle that has vexed humankind through the ages. Why are we here? Or to give the question a slightly more modern spin, what sequence of events brought us here, and can we imagine a world in which we didn’t arrive on the scene at all?

It is to biologist Sean B. Carroll’s credit that he’s found a way of taking a puzzle that could easily fill volumes (and probably has filled volumes), and presenting it to us in a slim, non-technical, and fun little book, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You.”

Carroll (not to be confused with physicist and writer Sean M. Carroll) gets the ball rolling with an introduction to the key concepts in probability and game theory, but quickly moves on to the issue at the heart of the book: the role of chance in evolution. Here we meet a key historical figure, the 20th-century French biochemist Jacques Monod, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on genetics. Monod understood that genetic mutations play a critical role in evolution, and he was struck by the random nature of those mutations…

Carroll quotes Monod: “Pure chance, absolutely free and blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: This central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact.”

“There is no scientific concept, in any of the sciences,” Monod concludes, “more destructive of anthropocentrism than this one.”

From there, it’s a short step to the realization that we humans might never have evolved in the first place…

Preview(opens in a new tab)

The profound impact of randomness in determining destiny: “The Power of Chance in Shaping Life and Evolution.”

See also: “Survival of the Luckiest.”

* Jeanette Winterson, The World and Other Places


As we blow on the dice, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, the French mathematician and physicist who is probably (if unfairly) better known as Voltaire’s mistress; she was born on this date in 1706.  Fascinated by the work of Newton and Leibniz, she dressed as a man to frequent the cafes where the scientific discussions of the time were held.  Her major work was a translation of Newton’s Principia, for which Voltaire wrote the preface; it was published a decade after her death, and was for many years the only translation of the Principia into French.

Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. It may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.
– Mme du Châtelet, to Frederick the Great of Prussia


“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water”*…




The dangers of environmental pollution receive a lot of attention nowadays, particularly in the developing world, and with good reason. Air quality indices are dismal and worsening in many places, with India, in particular, facing an acute public-health emergency. But as serious as the pollution problem is, it must not be allowed to obscure another incipient environmental catastrophe, and potential source of future conflict: lack of access to clean water.

We may live on a “blue planet,” but less than 3% of all of our water is fresh, and much of it is inaccessible (for example, because it is locked in glaciers). Since 1960, the amount of available fresh water per capita has declined by more than half, leaving over 40% of the world’s population facing water stress. By 2030, demand for fresh water will exceed supply by an estimated 40%.

With nearly two-thirds of fresh water coming from rivers and lakes that cross national borders, intensifying water stress fuels a vicious circle, in which countries compete for supplies, leading to greater stress and more competition. Today, hundreds of international water agreements are coming under pressure…

In 2015, United Nations member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which include an imperative to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”  Yet, in the last four years, matters have deteriorated significantly.  Jayati Ghosh explains “The Growing Threat of Water Wars.”

For a combination of historical and statistical perspective on water conflict, see “Whatever happened to the water wars? More of them have happened than most people think.

* Benjamin Franklin


As we struggle to share, we might send rational birthday greetings to Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born on this date in 1694.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.



“Although there is no progress without change, not all change is progress”*…


HG Wells

Schematic from Wells’ The Outline of History (1921), showing the rise of Europe, and the “mechanical revolution” leading to, writ in huge letters along the bottom, “The Great War” [source] (See bigger version here)



H. G. Wells worried constantly about the future of humanity. While he hoped for progress in human affairs, he was only too well aware that it was not inevitable and might not be sustained. Throughout his career he celebrated the technological developments that were revolutionizing life but feared they might lead to eventual degeneration or, as came to pass in 1914, a catastrophic war. He was also aware that there were disagreements over what would actually count as progress. Providing everyone with the benefits of modern industry might not be enough, especially as continued technological innovation would require the constant remodeling of society. Progressive steps introducing entirely new functions were episodic, open-ended and unpredictable, in both biological and social evolution. These uncertainties were compounded by a realization that, where technological innovation was concerned, it was virtually impossible to predict future inventions or what their long-term consequences might be. Even if progress continued, it would be much more open-ended than advocates of the traditional idea of progress had imagined…

In addition to the numerous pioneering works of science fiction by which he made his name, H. G. Wells also published a steady stream of non-fiction meditations, mainly focused on themes salient to his stories: the effects of technology, human folly, and the idea of progress. As Peter J. Bowler explains, for Wells the notion of a better future was riddled with complexities: “H. G. Wells and the Uncertainties of Progress.”

* John Wooden


As we ponder posterity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1687 that (not yet Sir) Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (AKA “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, AKA the Principia).  In three volumes Newton laid out his laws of motion (the foundation of classical mechanics), his theory of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (which Kepler had obtained empirically).

As G.E. Smith wrote in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Viewed retrospectively, no work was more seminal in the development of modern physics and astronomy than Newton’s Principia… no one could deny that [out of the Principia] a science had emerged that, at least in certain respects, so far exceeded anything that had ever gone before that it stood alone as the ultimate exemplar of science generally.

Title page of Principia, first edition



Written by LW

July 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“To sleep, perchance to dream”*…




On a typical workday morning, if you’re like most people, you don’t wake up naturally. Instead, the ring of an alarm clock probably jerks you out of sleep. Depending on when you went to bed, what day of the week it is, and how deeply you were sleeping, you may not understand where you are, or why there’s an infernal chiming sound. Then you throw out your arm and hit the snooze button, silencing the noise for at least a few moments. Just another couple of minutes, you think. Then maybe a few minutes more.

It may seem like you’re giving yourself a few extra minutes to collect your thoughts. But what you’re actually doing is making the wake-up process more difficult and drawn out…

Journalist (and professional poker player) Maria Konnikova on why “Snoozers are, in fact, losers.”

* Shakespeare, Hamlet


As we ruminate on rest, we might spare a thought for a man who seems barely to have slept at all, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he died on this date in 1778.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.




Written by LW

May 30, 2019 at 1:01 am

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