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Einstein or Newton, the better man?

  1. May 13, 2008 #1
    I had just by chance mentioned something about Albert Einstein today to my colleague when a heated debate began at the office. We were talking as usual when he threw out that although Einstein was an accomplished physicist, Isaac Newton was the greater of the two because of his work in mechanics, optics, calculus, gravity, and because he was knighted. I support that Einstein was a more accomplished physicist for more practical discoveries in relativity, electricity, space/time, and various other field theories. To me, Einstein is obviously the greater mind of the two and I know many other people believe so as well.

    So that I have some support when I see my friend tomorrow, does anybody have a say on who was a better man?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 13, 2008 #2


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  4. May 13, 2008 #3
    Thanks for the link Gokul43201, at least Einstein is only a tick below Newton. Anybody else have an opinion?
  5. May 13, 2008 #4


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    If there were no Newton there would be no Einstein.
  6. May 13, 2008 #5


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    Einstein had a lot of support that Newton didn't have.
  7. May 13, 2008 #6
    Do you call home-made equations support? Because Newton did that too. Both used educated assumptions to support their theories.
  8. May 13, 2008 #7
    I find those arguments about if X is better than Y completely absurd and a waste of time. Both were great scientists, I leave it at that.
  9. May 13, 2008 #8
    If you look at the polished presentation that goes on in today's classroom, the material having to do with Einstein is more abstract than Newton's theories, and it uses a more advanced kind of mathematics.

    If you look at the historical development, you will see that Newton's accomplishments were much greater than Einstein's, and his genius was immensely greater.

    First of all, the great mathematician Hilbert had this to say about Einstein:

    "Every schoolboy in Gottingen knows more about higher dimensional geometry than Einstein, but chalk is cheaper than gray matter."

    In other words, Einstein's genius was not so great as his will to persevere with his work. Einstein himself said:

    "Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics, for I can assure you that mine are far greater."

    While some people who think Einstein is a genius might interpret this as modesty to the point of irony, I rather think it is an honest admission of his own shortcomings.

    Isaac Newton, however, was one of the preeminent mathematicians of his generation (along with Gottfried Leibniz). Newton used a method that is basically identical to calculus and differential equations to (among other things) solve problems related to the motion of the planets in order to prove that a force that varied as the inverse square of the distance would imply Kepler's laws. But he presented it in terms of classic synthetic geometry, with proofs that are at a level of complexity and power unmatched before or since.

    A 20th century author said:

    "Newton was a giant, and his tools are too heavy for anyone else to lift."

    The great Mathematician P.S. Laplace said of Newton:

    "There is only one universe, and it has only one set of laws, and there will only ever be one man who discovered those laws."

    In T.S. Bell's classic book Men of Mathematics, he mentions that the three greatest mathematicians of all time are Gauss, Newton, and Archimedes, in that order.

    So before you continue to argue in favor of Einstein, I suggest you consider that Einstein's fame is at least in part to do sensationalism in early 20th century newspapers, whereas Newton's contribution was the centerpiece of all western intellectualism for a century after his death.
  10. May 13, 2008 #9
    Not sure if it matters or if it should really, but newton was most certainly the higher genius. The raw abilities of each mind is different, but newtons was staggeringly powerful. Can you ever imagine inventing calculus?!?!? However, it is pointless to argue who is 'greater' because it is simply arbitrary unless you apply specific areas to measure greatness.

    Personally I consider both to be my very close and two of my very best friends. :wink:
  11. May 13, 2008 #10


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    My vote would be for Newton. He made what I would argue is the single greatest scientific leap in human history when he unified the force that moves all in the heavens and the force that moves all on the Earth. In doing so, he brought, for the first time, the whole universe out of the realm of the Gods and put it under the eye of science, once and for all time banishing the superstition of the eternal and unchanging heavens.

    Everything after that is gravy.
    Last edited: May 13, 2008
  12. May 14, 2008 #11
    Maxwell the greatest

    To me Hendrik Lorentz deserves the fame devoted to Einstein. He derived the "Lorentz transformations" upon which special relativity is resting. Einstein didn't master mathematics
    himself and let his "girl friend" make the math necessary for him. The concept of time as a dimension was already mentioned in "Time machine" by H.G. Wells before Einstein.

    But the greatest theoretician of them all to me is Maxwell. :cool:
    Last edited: May 14, 2008
  13. May 14, 2008 #12
    Concerning which is actually the better man, should you read into some history books on the life and personality of Newton, however, I think you will easily be convinced that Einstein was, in general the better 'man'.
  14. May 14, 2008 #13
    I am not trying to define who was the best man of all time, I just wanted to fuel the heated yet friendly discussion I was having with an associate. I am starting to realize that Newton took much more difficult subjects upon himself, and yet are still applicable today. However I believe most of Einstein's work to be theoretical and has no practical use thus far. I am starting to make the turn...
  15. May 14, 2008 #14
    Is not the mere question presumptuous and moot ?

    It is clear that this person has no clue what we are talking about for instance. He does not even mention Hilbert and/or Poincare to back up his claims. Anti-semitism was very fashionable at that time. Taking into account the additional fact that many scientists at first did not really understand Einstein's work, you could find quite a lot of material along those lines.

    In the end, what is the point ? Science is a mountain to which some people bring grains of salt, some people bring massive rocks. How can you know which one was "better" ? Are you, yourself, better than both of them to judge them ? The most ironical is that in principle, you could argue so that you are "better" than both of them together, because you could now sit on a higher mountain than they were both sitting at their times and see further horizons. That is precisely what makes the argument moot.

    Those discussions have no point and are insulting to the memory of those great scientists.
    Last edited: May 14, 2008
  16. May 14, 2008 #15


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    I don't know much about the history of either man, and nothing of the math, so I tend to agree that Newton's original contributions were far greater.
    In reference to the argument mentioned in the OP, Newton's knighthood is irrelevant to the matter. I'm pretty sure that Einstein would also have been knighted, had he been a citizen of the British Empire. He just wasn't eligible.
  17. May 14, 2008 #16
    Well written!

    I completely agree!
  18. May 14, 2008 #17

    You need not be a good player yourself to "favorize" a certain football team. And this comparison of scientists should not be taken so seriously.

    Of course I know Poincare - just forgot mention him. Among several other bright theoreticians. :confused:
  19. May 14, 2008 #18


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    Considering the distaste arising the from the idea of "who is better", I'll change my answer to address the quesiton of : "who made the greatest contribution to science?"
  20. May 14, 2008 #19
    Newton and Einstein are primarily remembered for their work in theoretical physics (although they were both grade A experimentalists as well). The contributions of theoretical physics to the kind of science that uses the scientific method will always be difficult to analyze. It is arguable that classic theoretical physics and all of relativity are convenient but non-essential for the production of technology, while it is only within the 20th century with quantum physics and advanced optics that we now have several critical pieces of technology depending on theoretical physics.


    1. Created the first quantitative theory of gravity as a universal force, from the key insight gained by watching the moon "fall" over the horizon coupled with Galileo's study of falling objects near the Earth's surface.

    2. Discovered a way to use principles of motion to create equations so that the solution corresponding to his gravity law would imply Kepler's 3 laws of planetary motion (elliptical orbit, etc).

    3. Created one of the most important branches of mathematics (calculus + differential equations) to solve the equations of motion.

    Trivia: accurately predicted the speed of sound in air, and with decent accuracy predicted the size of the oblate bulge around the equator of the earth.


    1. Created the first geometric theory of gravity, from the key insight that "a free falling object does not fell it's own weight" (or any other force, and so the rest-frame of a free falling observer will have flat curvature) coupled with Lorentz's study of transformations between inertial frames.

    2. Discovered a way to apply Reimannian Geometry to the problem of motion and gravity in arbitrary coordinate systems. In a 4d spacetime the final product involves a system of 64 second-order partial differential equations in 64 unknowns, with each equation involving thousands of nonlinear terms. This is what most theoreticians give Einstein the most credit for; it took him 8 years of steady progress but he was completely successful in the end.

    3. Completely borrowed the machinery of Reimannian Geometry after it had been polished for two generations by mathematicians.

    Trivia: predicted the visibility of an astronomical object that shouldn't have been visible during an eclipse, due to gravitational lensing.

    Einstein's relativity is admired for it's theoretical elegance, but it has not been subjected to strong tests at the limits of the theory. Most of the empirical results confirm only the first few terms of a perturbation series, with the level of measurement accuracy we have. Note that these series can be gotten by equations that are much simpler than Einstein's full theory. In contrast, Newton's theories of motion and gravity have already been confirmed beyond all doubt across all scales that matter most to human bodies.

    Even if we say that their theoretical contributions are nearly equal, Newton's Calculus was probably the greatest contribution made to science by any single century, let alone by one single man.

    How ironic, since the ultimate point of this discussion is to remember the scientists!

    Don't let yourself be subverted by weakness! Progress results from criticism and bold action. We cannot sit around and worry about "insulting" these great figures, since they are strong willed and would not have cared in life, let alone in death.

    Moreover, I suspect that a great deal of these "Don't fight. Don't Judge" posts are really just a cover up that should be translated "I don't know or care much for the history of my subjects, but rather I consider myself a commodity in the labor market who is only interested in maintaining and increasing my value as such with pragmatic knowledge."

    Newton was described as a very unpleasant character, very sensitive and reactive to perceived attacks and so forth. For his genius, however, I for one would much prefer his company and consider him the better 'man'.
  21. May 14, 2008 #20
    Well, you suspect wrongly. I do care a lot about the history of science and enjoy a lot reading about it.

    I seriously think that
    • this is the (N+1)th discussion on this topic, where N is an arbitrary positive integer. None of them lead anywhere, except to display how poorly informated people dare judging publically respectable scientists. This challenges the quality of PF IMHO.
    • The more you learn about the exact contribution of such and such person, the more you realize there is always a part of luck to be "the right person at the right time adopting the right strategy". There is nothing wrong about that. All scientists supposidelly enjoy what they are doing with passion, and are aware of the subjectivity in judging other people's work. In the end when you decide to reward such and such person with a position for instance, we all are aware that there is a part of "I'd like to work with this guy, partly because I just like him".
    • It is far more interesting to discover how little single individuals contribute than to pretend they all did by themselves and are universal geniuses, which is obviously wrong. It reveals a lot about the process of constructing scientific knowledge. Are you aware how close Hilbert and Poincare were to actually publish before Einstein ? If so, don't you think this greatly clarify Einstein's contribution, does not diminish it at all (on the contrary), and enlights us how difficult it was at this time to make those final conceptual steps ?

    BTW, so far this is not a physics discussion, this is a discussion about physics and belongs somewhere else.
  22. May 14, 2008 #21


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    So, what is your bottom line? That we have no business discussing this? You've made your own opinion known, are you hoping to deny others the right to have a discussion about a topic of their choice?
  23. May 14, 2008 #22
    I do not deny business to anybody discussing history of science. I want to warn people not to make fool of themselves claiming they know better who is the best physicist in history, or even alive, and pray them to pay proper respect to their memory if they want to do so. Posting more without bringing new information or having a real point is just useless.

    Just look at the number of discussion there was already :

    [thread=53558]Best all time mathematicians/physicists.[/thread]
    [thread=2758]Einstein,Newton,Dirac..are they really genious?..[/thread]
    [thread=115069]This is survey..Newton or Einstein[/thread]
    [thread=104335]Greatest physicist of all time?[/thread]
    [thread=84076]Why isn't the mathematician Henri Poincaré acknowledged as the true discoverer of SR?[/thread]
    [thread=85636]E = mc^2 is Not Einstein's Discovery?[/thread]
    [thread=75243]newton vs einstein[/thread]
    [thread=2461]Best physicists[/thread]

    This is just a sample I get using specific keywords, and is certainly not exhaustive.
    Last edited: May 14, 2008
  24. May 14, 2008 #23
    Even better, why doesn't everyone stop making claims entirely, since nothing could be worse than *gasp* looking foolish to humanino.

    If I think Einstein is overhyped in the general public physics community, and I am willing to make a responsible case that this is damaging to the perspective of many students with respect to quantum physics, than I don't see anything wrong with talking about the issue again. Just not in this forum, whose rules I do respect.
  25. May 14, 2008 #24
    Thank you for the compliment. I appreciate discussing with people presenting real arguments.
    You can just as well pretend you do not understand my point of view.
    This is very different from the original post, and the concerns of most people participating in those discussions. Most people in those discussions are interested in "forming a spontaneous commitee to elect their favorite scientist". you wait until this point in the discussion to mention this concern of yours ? It does not seem very coherent with your previous statement
    So please, choose an opinion and stick to it.
  26. May 14, 2008 #25


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    I mean, surely there isn't a single participant in this thread who isn't fully aware that there is no right or wrong answer, and that these are all simply opinions, and that nothing will come of it except discussion.

    So, if we proceed as if those statements were explicit rather than implicit, what is the need to continually monitor its progress to ensure people "choose an opinion and stick to it".

    I guess the correct thing to do though is to move it to GD.
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