And it is fair to say that his ideas continued to thrive, stimulate and inspire the minds of young scientists well into the beginning of the twentieth century, when Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity revolutionized Newtonian conception of time, space and motion. Just like how Isaac Newton believed that by standing on the shoulders of giants he was able to see further, Einstein can in his turn thank the illustrious precedence set by Newton. Moreover, when we compare the achievements of Newton and Einstein, the former is more stupendous due to the context in which it happened. For example, Newton “was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarreled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after. He was chief architect of the modern world.”[vii]
To analyze further the relative contributions of Newton and Einstein to modern physics, we can look into cultural history. The famous British playwright and public intellectual George Bernard Shaw declared to a radio audience that while the Theory of Relativity appeared to disprove and dismiss the Newtonian schema of absolute space and time, the legacy left by Newton is unsurpassable. In Shaw’s own words, “Newtonianism had crumpled up and was succeeded by the Einstein universe…Let no one suppose, that the mighty work of Newton can really be superseded by this or any other theory. His great and lucid ideas will retain their unique significance for all time as the foundation of our whole modern conceptual structure in the sphere of natural philosophy.”[viii]
Newton not only made fundamental contributions to the field of modern physics, but his thoughts have influenced such disparate scholarly disciplines as mathematics, natural philosophy, alchemy and even theology. He even involved himself in the public affairs of Britain during his later years. Hence, in order to fully comprehend Newton’s impact, one has to consider the extensive and multifarious body of work that he has left behind. For example, “he wrote a defense of Arius’ doctrine of a unitary God against Athanasius’ doctrine of the Trinity, as well as an elaborate interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel…Newton became a member of Parliament from Cambridge in 1689 and was appointed warden of the mint in 1696. In 1703, he was elected president of the Royal Society, which he ruled heavy-handedly until his death in 1727.”[ix] Newton is thus a unique scientist, in that he led an active public life as well. It is in recognition of Newton’s stellar contribution in several domains that when he died, England, for the first time, “granted a state funeral for a subject whose attainment lay in the realm of the mind. The poet, Alexander Pope, wrote this moving epithet: Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in the night; God said, Let Newton be! And All was Light.”[x]
Newton, Sir Isaac. (2009). In The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Levinson, M. H. (2005). Isaac Newton. ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, 62(3), 338.
Newton’s 2060 Deadline for Earth. (2007, June 19). The Daily Mail (London, England), p. NA.
Olso, R. G. (1999, April). The Scientific Revolution Reshapes the World: Sir Isaac Newton. World and I, 14, 18.
Rusher, W. A. (1999, December 31). The Father of Modern Science. Human Events, 55, 7.
Tamny, M. (2006). The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture. Renaissance Quarterly, 59(1), 230+.
[i] (Rusher, 1999, p.7)
[ii] (Oslo, 1999, p.18)
[iii] (Rusher, 1999, p.8)
[iv] (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2009)
[v] (Tamny, 2006, p.230)
[vi] (Tamny, 2006, p.231)
[vii] (Levinson, 2005, p.338)
[viii] (Shaw, as quoted in Levinson, 2005, p.338)
[ix] (Oslo, 1999, p.18)
[x] (Levinson, 2005, p.339)