What Was Newton Thinking?

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This guy must have been standing on the shoulders of Goliath. Isaac Newton was, and still is, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time. I mean, come on, the guy invented CALCULUS!!! (My apologies to those on Team Leibniz.) How many people sit around and say, “I think I’ll spend my time coming up with a whole branch of mathematics that is verified by scientific principles…which I also invented”?! Not only did he introduce the world to new concepts such as derivatives and integrals, but also he quantified the foundation of the physical world in three deceptively simple laws which went unchallenged until the advent of quantum mechanics almost two hundred years after his death.

Classical mechanics, founded on Newton’s laws, is a deterministic field: given information about all particles’ positions and velocities at one time allows us to predict future and determine past positions and velocities at any other time. However, it fails for things like black-body radiation, heat capacities of solids, and the photoelectric effect. And why is that? Classical mechanics doesn’t take into account that light (and electrons) behave as both particles and waves. It is impossible to simultaneously know the position and velocity of an electron (thank you, Werner Heisenberg); so quantum mechanics can only predict probabilities, not exact values. Obviously in the time of Newton, the means to observe these phenomena were non-existent.

Then came along the likes of Max Planck, Erwin Schrodinger, and the infamous Albert Einstein who single-handedly spun the scientific world off its kilter with his four papers published during his time working in a Swiss patent office. (Interestingly enough, this modern-day genius struggled to obtain the post of patent office clerk after flipping the metaphorical bird to his professors at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic and being turned down for a position as a research assistant. And yet in spite of all this he was at the forefront of this war on Newtonian physics.) Max Planck has his own constant named after him, which is the proportionality constant between the energy of an electron and its wave frequency. And Erwin Schrodinger was the mastermind (or rather, disturbed mind) behind the famous Schrodinger cat paradox where he attempted to explain superposition by mentally placing a cat in a box containing a vial of cyanide. The probabilities of a mallet either striking the vial or remaining motionless are equal; so the cat is both dead and alive until someone opens the box and observes either a cranky kitty or a kitty corpse.

However, even with this new field of quantum mechanics, Newton’s laws of motion are still being used to describe physical systems. Scientists and engineers are trained to use these equations so that they become second nature. Classical mechanics is by no means obsolete, and Newton’s incredible legacy continues.

But in my humble opinion, one of the greatest things Newton did was make the above statement. Heck, it’s so amazing, Google Scholar uses part of it on its homepage. Newton had an incredible mind and made an immense and lasting contribution to the scientific world. But he didn’t spin straw into gold. He had predecessors who provided a foundation for his own work: Galileo, da Vinci, Copernicus, Kepler. All of these mathematicians and scientists made their own significant contributions that eventually inspired Newton, who in turn inspired others like Faraday, who found parallels between mechanics and electromagnetics, and the above-mentioned scientists who discovered quantum mechanics.

This waterfall effect is the way of science. Everyone contributes. Even if the results are wrong, that person has found another way that that technique won’t work, thereby saving other scientists some time. The ones who receive the accolades are recognized by their work that was motivated by many before them. That’s not to say that person didn’t deserve to be rewarded for their efforts; but at the same time, it diminishes what those before him or her were able to accomplish. They were the ones who helped pave the way.

One of my favorite quotes is, “Everybody is a genius; but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

We are all on the same team; we should all be contributing to making this world a better place. Some people are recognized, and others are not. But our lives are not determined by awards. The people who matter will remember what we did, and that will inspire them to continue our work and the work of those before us.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

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