Friday, November 16, 2018

The Day That Newton Met the Aliens

I always enjoy the sixth week of the semester in Mechanics class.  It usually includes the story of Isaac Newton; though in recent years, I have been offering two alternative stories, and asking the students which one is more likely to be the correct one.

Story 1: The Traditional Version

As many literary accounts attest, Isaac Newton was a very bright young fellow from England, who, in his mid-twenties, in the late seventeenth century, had an interest in many areas of science, most notably astronomy.  It was not so much the taking of the astronomical data that he was interested in, but rather, the analysis of the data.

It is important to realize that at this point in human history, science did not really concern itself with the explaining of phenomena.  Science was about observation: experimentation and perhaps noting patterns in the data - science did not seek to establish a framework, a model, ie, a code that seems to govern all matter and interactions in the universe (this is what science has become today).  The young Newton was fascinated with the data, and, encouraged by other prominent scientists of the time, tried to explain the data.

The data as recorded by numerous astronomers stated that planets seemed to orbit the Sun in elliptical orbits.  This upset the religious hard-liners of the time (like, um, just about everyone), as many felt that God would prefer circles over ellipses (not the first or last time humanity felt the need to suggest to God what universe was best).  It may have even upset Newton himself, because he too was religious.  Still, Newton could not and would not place his personal beliefs above the evidence that was before him, and so began the most famous foray into science in human history.

All Newton really had to work with was the fact that orbits had elliptical shapes.  He also had, like all of us do, the ability to interact with his environment, and to observe how rain, snow, and, yes, apples, fall.  Here is where the story gets weird, perhaps even disturbing...

Newton proposes the Law of Universal Gravitation as well as certain laws of motion.  Some might call this 'playing God' - I suspect that some at the time actually did.  He then needed to check if these laws, as proposed, were consistent with the elliptical paths that orbiting bodies exhibited.  In other words, he needed to see if his theoretical framework matched the experimental data.  He ran into a problem: the only way to do this required a new branch of mathematics (Mathematicians of the day were extremely adept at geometry, but not much else).  So, he took it upon himself to invent Calculus.

Yes.  Some guy in his twenties ran into a problem in his pursuit of science, so instead of raising his arms and accepting this dead end, he invented arguably the most important branch of mathematics we currently know of.  And then, he used this new math to address the advanced ordinary differential vector equation that results when you combine Universal Gravitation with Newton's Second Law of Motion.  Orbital Mechanics experts today refer to this particular analysis as "The Two-Body Problem."

I recall being in Professor Misra's Orbital Mechanics course at McGill University.  During class #2, he showed the class the Two-Body Problem, and proceeded to solve it.  At that point in my young career, I had been exposed to Calculus and Linear Algebra for six years and had taken at least ten math courses that covered these branches of the discipline.  I recall thinking that it was a very tough problem to solve.  I still find it to be a tough problem today.

Apparently, Newton did manage to solve it, and all of his ground-breaking work in this area is described in a book as sacred as most any religious text: Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (published in 1687; an original copy is surely stored today somewhere behind glass).

Gravitation, laws for motion, mass, inertial frames, momentum - all of these concepts that are central to most any scientific pursuit were established by this one guy in a handful of years.  Today, any scientific analysis that does not involve the very small (microscopic), the very fast (>10% light speed), or the very dense (black holes), utilizes the framework described by Newton to the letter.

The End.

But there is another possibility...

Story 2: The Alternate Version (The Aliens Theory)

Isaac Newton was a very bright young fellow from England, who, in his mid-twenties, in the late seventeenth century, had an interest in many areas of science, most notably astronomy.  One night, he wished upon a star that he could be a famous scientist.

The next day, Newton was visited by aliens.  These aliens visited him quietly every night for the next several years.  They taught him Calculus and Mechanics, and eventually helped him write his famous Principia.  The aliens said, "Call it The Coolest Book by the Coolest Dude," but Newton insisted it get a different very long name.

The aliens were annoyed with Newton and his fancy book title, so they stopped visiting him once the book was published.

The End.

The way I see it, both stories are unbelievable.  The more I think about both stories, the less comfortable I feel in asserting that one story is more likely than the other.  I suppose all of the historical accounts point to Story 1, but I ask this question in all seriousness: How could a person have accomplished that without outside help? 

I am bewildered not only by the creativity of thought it took to propose those laws and the genius required to develop the math that it takes to assess them; I am equally stunned by the instinct Newton had to even suggest that mathematical equations could be used to describe the world and to predict what happens next.  Scientists today accept this to be true, but a universe could just as easily, at least in theory, have zero mathematical framework.  That Newton did all of this despite the reservations of the Church, as well as his own, is just icing on the cake.

Many historians today would describe Isaac Newton as one of, if not the most important and influential figures in human history.  And, I think that such a designation is warranted regardless of which of the two stories is actually the true one.


Jean Malek said...

Heyy i was in that mechanics class woohooo

The Engineer said...

So Jean, don't leave us all hanging... Which story do you think is the right one?