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Original letter in which Newton said "Shoulders of a giant"

  1. Nov 29, 2014 #1
    I read about 10 years ago that the context in which Newton said 'I have only seen so far because I stood on the shoulders of a giant' was actually in a letter to a nemesis of his, maybe it was Boyle or Haley, and that in the very next clause he goes on to insult the person he's writing to, something along the lines of 'whereas you, Boyle,' then some insult follows. Does anyone know where I can find that letter? If you put in quotes in Google 'shoulders of a giant' you're not going to find the original letter because no one cites the original letter.
     
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  3. Nov 29, 2014 #2

    A.T.

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    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants

    "Isaac Newton remarked in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke dated February 5, 1676 [O.S.][6] (February 15, 1676 [N.S.]) that:

    What Des-Cartes [sic] did was a good step. You have added much several ways, & especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants.

    This has recently been interpreted by a few writers as a sarcastic remark directed at Hooke's appearance.[7] Although Hooke was not of particularly short stature, he was of slight build and had been afflicted from his youth with a severe kyphosis. However, at this time Hooke and Newton were on good terms and had exchanged many letters in tones of mutual regard. Only later, when Robert Hooke criticized some of Newton's ideas regarding optics, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate, and the two men remained enemies until Hooke's death."
     
  4. Nov 29, 2014 #3
    Thanks. I was able to do more research and found the following. It appears that Newton was not in fact insulting Hooke or if he was the evidence is slight:
    http://www.isaacnewton.org.uk/essays/Giants
     
  5. Nov 29, 2014 #4

    SteamKing

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    It was due to the encouragement of Edmond Halley that Newton decided to write the Principia Mathematica. Halley paid for the printing of Newton's great work, so he could hardly be considered an antagonist of Newton. Without that influence, who knows what Newton's scientific reputation would be today?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmond_Halley

    I always thought the 'Shoulders of Giants' remark was Newton's way of paying homage to his mentor and predecessor in the Lucasian chair, Isaac Barrow. Barrow's mathematical work was every bit as influential as Newton's in laying the basic foundations of the calculus. I think it was Barrow's lectures on geometry, however, which provided the mathematical foundation for the Principia, rather than the ideas on the calculus for which Newton is so well known.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Barrow
     
  6. Nov 29, 2014 #5


    Wasn't it more like Halley challenged Newton to put his money where his mouth was so as to out a charlatan and it turned out that Newton actually did deliver contrary to Halley's expectations?
     
  7. Nov 29, 2014 #6

    SteamKing

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    No, that's not how the story goes. According to the wiki on Edmond Halley:

    "Halley spent most of his time on lunar observations, but was also interested in the problems of gravity. One problem that attracted his attention was the proof of Kepler's laws of planetary motion. In August 1684, he went to Cambridge to discuss this with Sir Isaac Newton, much as John Flamsteed had done four years earlier, only to find that Newton had solved the problem, at the instigation of Flamsteed with regard to the orbit of comet Kirch, without publishing the solution. Halley asked to see the calculations and was told by Newton that he could not find them, but promised to redo them and send them on later, which he eventually did, in a short treatise entitled, On the motion of bodies in an orbit. Halley recognised the importance of the work and returned to Cambridge to arrange its publication with Newton, who instead went on to expand it into his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica published at Halley's expense in 1687."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmond_Halley

    There is no question that Newton was a capable mathematician and had been since his early days at Cambridge as a student. By proving that two bodies, attracted by a force which varied in inverse proportion to the square of the distance, traveled in elliptical orbits, first for Flamsteed and then for Halley, Newton showed that he had few peers in natural philosophy as well. All of the empirical work which took Kepler decades to accomplish could be proved mathematically by Newton in an afternoon.
     
  8. Nov 29, 2014 #7
    Thanks for pointing that out to me. I really appreciate it.
     
  9. Nov 30, 2014 #8
    Being able to deduce Kepler's laws from the law of universal gravitation, once you know how to do that, is no big deal. I can do so in less than one hour.

    It is doing that for the first time, without prior knowledge, that is very hard. I do not think that Newton did that "in an afternoon". But if you are aware of any evidence suggesting that, please let me know.
     
  10. Nov 30, 2014 #9
    I agree. That statement was way out of line. Comparing intelligence in one era to intelligence in another era is very hard. Who knows what Newton would have thought if he lived in the year 1605. This was a man who after all had the intelligence to calculate the second coming of Christ in the year 2060. So, not exactly someone who has all of his senses about him.
     
  11. Nov 30, 2014 #10

    SteamKing

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    Since Newton is the one who deduced the law of universal gravitation in the first place, he must be able to match your facility at doing astronomical calculation, unless you are claiming abilities superior to those of Newton himself.

    It took Kepler 10 years of hard work to deduce his first two laws, and a further ten years of work to deduce the third. Once Newton understood how the inverse square law worked with a central force, he could do by calculation that which Kepler had to do by analyzing reams of observational data.

    We know from the historical record that Newton had worked off and on on the problem of orbits at several times. Newton had used Flamsteed's observations of a comet which appeared in 1680-81 to make his first calculations, and when Halley queried Newton about these on a visit to Cambridge in August 1684, Newton promised Halley a copy of his proof should he find the original manuscript. Apparently, Newton either found his original calculations or he was able to re-create them, because a short tract from Newton was copied into the Register Book of the Royal Society in December 1684.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton

    Newton was notorious for not wanting to publish any of his work, and his time was not exclusively devoted to scientific endeavours, seeing how his interests included alchemy and religious study while he was at Cambridge, in addition to his official duties as the holder of the Lucasian chair. While Newton may not have actually written down his proof in one afternoon, I think the metaphor is apt nonetheless. The decades of work expended by Kepler in deducing his laws of planetary motion could be compressed immensely by the proper use of mathematics.
     
  12. Nov 30, 2014 #11

    SteamKing

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    Newton was born in 1642.
     
  13. Nov 30, 2014 #12
    This is a debatable point. At that time, the inverse-square law was known not only to Newton. Newton's indisputable priority is in deducing Kepler's laws from the inverse-square law.

    I do not claim any such facility. I only mentioned myself as an example that doing something already known is not a major achievement.

    No, that is not correct. The chronology of his publications is not identical with the chronology of his discoveries. Ditto for Newton.

    I think otherwise. First, I do not think this is even remotely true. Second, it does not do justice to the intellectual effort by Newton. Third, the original comparison with Kepler, perhaps unintentionally, sounds less than flattering for Kepler, but this may be just me.

    Not really. Kepler's contribution was in transforming observations into empirical laws. That is fundamentally different from building a theory, as Newton did, whose predictions are then verified against experimental facts (Kepler's empirical laws).
     
  14. Nov 30, 2014 #13

    SteamKing

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    Sometimes, the dates of actual discovery of a scientific principle are not available. The dates of publication must be used to indicate when the discovery was made public.

    Kepler met with Brahe in early 1600 and began analyzing his observational data of planetary motion. Brahe died in 1601, so presumably no more observations were furnished by him to Kepler after this point. Kepler published his first two laws in 1609 and the third in 1619. Those dates to me indicate that Kepler worked about 10 years on the first two laws and about 10 years on the third. Did Kepler work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, year in and year out on his calculations? Who knows? Did Kepler develop all three laws at once in a wild weekend of effort and a flash of insight and then wait decades to publish? Doubtful.
     
  15. Nov 30, 2014 #14
    According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Kepler#Astronomia_nova, Astronomia Nova was finished in 1605, but published in 1609 due to a legal dispute with Brahe's heirs over the ownership of Brahe's data. It seems unknown when the third law was discovered.

    Regardless, Newton's path to his first publication of the deduction of Kepler's laws from first principles also took twenty years, from 1665 (according to D. H. Whiteside, Newton's first exposure to Kepler's laws was via Thomas Streete's Astronomia Carolina, which Newton studied at that time, and which had Kepler's first and third, but not second, laws) to 1684 (when De motu corporum in gyrum was published). Yet you easily state that this was "an afternoon's work" for him.
     
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