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Did Einstein's theory built upon Newton's work?

  1. Aug 31, 2011 #1
    Hello all,

    I'm no physicist, just interested in science history. I hope this is the right forum, as this is no homework or coursework question, although a beginner's question nonetheless.
    My question is if Einstein's theories (special and general relativity) built upon Newton's work on gravity or if they should be considered completely different and independant theories. If so, why is Newton often considered the "greater" scientist? He just co-invented calculus and his other accomplishments (everything besides the "Principia") don't seem too great either. Can anybody explain?
    This is not a "who's greater" question, I just don't quite understand how to evaluate Newton's gravity theory in consideration of the fact that it turned out to be wrong.

    Thank you,

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 31, 2011 #2


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    Yes, actually Newtons work is completly captured with Einstein's. Newton's work is a linear approximation of Einstein's.
  4. Aug 31, 2011 #3
    Einstein built upon Newton's concepts, and the work of many other people especially Lorentz, to develop something that was greater and more general, and paved the way for modern cosmology. Newton also built upon the work of many other people, but centuries earlier in a different place and time when science was done very differently. I don't think Newton or anyone else in his time would have been capable of the insights required to develop Einsteinian gravity, but that doesn't mean that Einstein could have done so either without building on Newton's work. So questions about who was greater are not well-posed and don't have answers.
  5. Aug 31, 2011 #4
    I think these questions about who is greater aren't important, but they say it because Newton did all that in the XVII century.
  6. Sep 1, 2011 #5
    Thank you for your answers. My thoughts were if Newton's theory of gravitation could be considered a step forward in the development of science or rather a step in the wrong direction. I know, of course, that in science, a wrong theory is also some sort of progress, but Lamarck's theory of evolution isn't considered too great as well. ;)
  7. Sep 1, 2011 #6


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    Newton's work was a HUGE step forward and not at all a step in the wrong direction.
  8. Sep 1, 2011 #7
    That is a very unfair comparison. Lamarck's theory is incorrect.Newtons theory is just not general. A good comparison would be between Newtons theory and some theory of evolution that works on anything except bacteria. Newtonian mechanics was a great achievement for science.
  9. Sep 1, 2011 #8
    It is also possible neither Newton nor Einstein was right. They created models that mimicked nature. It is possible to create several models for the same natural phenomena, each model may mimic nature to a varying degree.

    Actual processes by which nature works may even be totall different from Newton's or Einstein's explanation. For example, the real process can be neither 'force' nor a 'curved space' for motion near massive objects.

    I have a feeling many here will misunderstand my post.
  10. Sep 1, 2011 #9
  11. Sep 1, 2011 #10


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    IMO, you have misunderstood the goal of science. Science does not require or make any claim about "real processes". You can't be wrong about a claim you don't make.

    Iirc, there is actually a quote by Newton where he explicitly states that he makes no claims other than that his math works.
  12. Sep 1, 2011 #11


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    I believe that you are referring to Newton's statement, in regard to why gravitational force is given [itex]FmM/r^2[/itex], or what causes gravity- "I frame no hypotheses". (Actually, he wrote his scientific works in Latin- "Hypothesen non fengo".
  13. Sep 1, 2011 #12


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    I think it's important to understand that as physicists our goal is to MODEL the universe around us as accurately as possible. Without getting into to deep of a philosophical debate, I am very skeptical at wording like the 'real process' behind gravity, and quite honestly do not even know what such a phrase means.
  14. Sep 1, 2011 #13
    "The secret of good science is never to reveal your sources."

  15. Sep 2, 2011 #14
    But that would mean that relativity theory is an addendum to newtonian gravitation, but as far as I know, Newton's "universal gravitation" has been falsified? At least that is what I read in many discussions and books. It seems to me that it is only used nowadays because the math is not too heavy and the results are a good approximation of "reality" (in intersubjective terms, letting aside all the philosophical discussion about what is "real").
  16. Sep 2, 2011 #15


    Staff: Mentor

    When a theory has been experimentally validated by some experiment then that theory is verified in the domain of that experiment. No current theory covers everything, so every theory has some domain. The fact that other experiments may limit the domain of a given theory does not invalidate it within its domain.
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