So, what is the son of a Lincolnshire farmer who died nearly 300 years ago got to do with C21st IT and education – well quite a lot really. I will explain.
Mini biography of Sir Isaac Newton
A Sunday Times poll from 1999 voted Newton the ‘man of the millennium’ (Ed. of course this was pre-political correction, so would now be ‘person of the millennium’!) According to this poll, Newton was, ‘…responsible, more than any other single individual, for the modern world in which we live.’
‘As the father of modern physics, he made available to future scientists crucial laws and methods of research that led to the industrial and technological revolutions of the next three centuries.’ His approach was systematic, seeking to answer the questions ‘how’ rather than ‘why’, contrary to the prevailing Aristotelian belief that everything in nature is guided by an inner purpose.
Newton was born on Christmas Day in 1642 in the village of Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire, the son of a farmer who had died 3 months earlier. He was a poor scholar at Grantham grammar school until famously fighting with a fellow pupil to defend himself, from bullying maybe? From then on he excelled in practical model-making, if not the main academic subject of Latin or the old-fashioned mathematics. After school he went into the family business, but was an abject and foul-tempered farmer. He somehow got into Trinity College, Cambridge at age 19, so I guess the entry requirements were not as tough as they are today!
It is fascinating from the increasingly complex and specialised modern world that Newton, who was mostly self-taught, was sufficiently skilled and knowledgeable in so many disciplines as to make significant ground-breaking advances in physics, mathematics and optics. However, he was not alone, some 50 years after his death, Thomas Young was born, later to be called the ‘Last Man Who Knew Everything‘.
Nowadays there does seem to be a recognition that specialisation has its drawbacks, and that a more rounded education and knowledge-base can lead to different perspectives and new findings. In my field we talk about T-shaped skills/people, where the vertical bar on the T represents the depth of skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own. This is what Newton excelled at, applying and extending existing knowledge in science and mathematics, making deep connections, and exploring the philosophy of nature whilst following a very loose curriculum and learning program of his own making.
Newton graduated in 1665 but had to return home to Lincolnshire as the Black Plague ravaged England, forcing a mass exodus from the university. During this period of solitude Newton laid the foundations for Newtonian Science. His approach was to search for the essential properties of things [in nature], understand and confirm these properties by observation and experimentation, possibly using theoretical models, and then put forward testable hypotheses – the so-called scientific method, with an historical nod to Descartes. In Newton’s skilled hands this process gave us the 3 fundamental laws of motion and the law of universal gravity, which hold true for anything from apples to planets! Because of the limits of his observable world, advances in unlocking the secrets of the very big and fast (cosmology, specific and general relativity) and the very small (atomic and particularly quantum-level behaviour) would have to wait for other geniuses, notably Planck, Einstein and Hawking. But, at the time, this was a, ‘…picture of the universe that was unified, dynamic, mechanical and mathematically regulated.’ These are stated as immutable and inevitable laws, separate and distinct from human intent or a metaphysical rationale. This work was underpinned by a mathematical rigour and creatively that led to Newton’s binomial theorem and advances in the application of calculus, both of which are beyond the scope of this article!
And finally, in a continued varied and successful career he became Master of the Mint (below), a politician, a feted academic (a fellow and Lucasian professor of mathematics back in Cambridge), and a member of the Royal Society for his work on telescopes. He constructed the world’s first reflecting telescope using curved lenses instead of mirrors.
Newton, and on, and on
Here is some more evidence, if needed, of Newton’s enduring influence on society:
He appeared on one pound note, discontinued in the mid 1980’s. This was quite a fitting choice as was appointed to the sinecure* post of Master of the [Royal] Mint in 1699. Rather than take just the money he took the role seriously, and was active in investigating crime and the debasement of coinage, and poor management generally. He also helped to establish a gold standard for sterling … of course he did, see alchemy below.
*Not requiring any or much work, more a reward and status system – in this case for his services to science
Albeit stylised, Eduardo Paolozzi was influenced by Willian Blake, Newton is the colossus that sits outside the ‘new’ British Library (see post featured image). ‘[Paolozzi] saw the work as a connection between the arts and science and between two great historical figures, despite their differences.’ Blake was critical of Newton’s reductive, scientific approach, at the expense of nature, spirituality and art.
Which reminds me of the phrase, which has been abridged and has entered into common usage, from a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676. The full quote:
If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
He specifically mentions Descartes in the letter, but other scientific greats of the Enlightenment that influenced Newton and gave him a platform for his own research include Copernicus & Kepler (planetary movement) and Galileo (telescopes).
Also, from the academic to the sublime, in the words of Rag’n’Bone Man:
I am giant. Stand up on my shoulders, tell me what you see.
As an interlude before we explore another side to Newton’s legacy I will go from the physical to the metaphysical.
Newton spent half his life dabbling in the mysterious art of alchemy, turning base metals into gold, possibly using the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. But this is only part of the story, his was a broader interest in the relatively new field of chemistry and learning what he could from both the ancients and the occult, not witchcraft as much as a worldview that encompasses rather than dismisses things we don’t yet understand. This is not incompatible for a man of science and a man of reason IMHO.
And writer Ben Aaronovitch’s, in his Rivers of London detective fantasy series, goes further. He asserts that Newton was a powerful wizard who codified the basic principles of magic in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Artes Magicis, Latin for “Natural Philosophy Principles of The Magical Arts”! Of course this was never made known to the general public, although copies of Newton’s book, as of other books on magic, were kept at a secret section of the Bodleian Library in Oxford University and it has remained the basic text for practitioners of magic into the twenty-first century. So now you know, Newtonian Magic is a thing, it’s on the internet!
(Ed. no it’s not)
Mini book review: Entropy A New World View by Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard*
*reproduced and extended from Bookcrossing.com, (10/12/18)
And so, the case against. But first, a quick primer on the laws of thermodynamics, which by-the-way, where not fully developed until the mid C19th, so not something Newton can be entirely blamed for! There are 4 laws, the zero’th and 3rd are not of interest here, but the others are important:
The first law of thermodynamics, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system. For the purposes of this discussion the earth is considered closed, rather than isolated, as energy does flow in and out. I we will talk about solar energy later.
The second law of thermodynamics, or the Entropy Law, states that the entropy of any isolated system always increases. Entropy, or negative energy is the unusable energy resulting from any and every loss-less transformation of energy, suggested in the 1st law. These transformations include getting fossil fuels out of the ground, using energy to manufacture things and then the transportation and use/consumption of those same things, basically everything that we humans do!
Jeremy Rifkin strongly states that we must move away from a mechanistic view of the universe where continual progress and growth only increase the disorder and decay (another related meaning of entropy). Our ability to manage finite resources is/will become the most significant factor for human survival.
For nearly 300 pages the authors expounds on a very simple idea, built around the 2nd law of thermodynamics. My simple interpretation is the everything that humans do, or even that happens on the earth relates to the transformation of energy from one form to another, but each transformation, so the 2nd law tells us, results in some loss (or rather unusable energy), for example in heat going from work to motion, coal to steam etc. And fundamentally this same loss or degradation reduces the amount of available energy in the earth’s closed system (energy is always conserved – the 1st law). So not only are all human endeavours reducing the available energy, they result in wastage, effectively the end product is unavailable, in the form of waste materials or recyclable materials that will take more energy (negative entropy) to convert, and so the cycle continues. With this central idea the authors reject the prevailing 400 years of historical imperative that change is good as a myth that we are progressing in all respects to a better place; higher standard of living, more and better food, housing, health etc… With the [energy] cost of finding and exploiting new energy (non renewable AND renewable) and the exploitation of other critical metals and minerals always increasing, QED entropy will relentlessly increase to a nearby critical point in time, an entropy watershed. Unfortunately the book was written in the 1980, and some, if not all, of the doom-laden predictions have failed to materialise, which doesn’t mean that his arguments are without merit.
The book also looks at the wider aspects of entropy, and the continual race for more in production, economics, and the way that society is organised. I will focus on 2 areas that I am particularly interested at IT elementary school; technology and education
In the authors’ view, the formal education of children continually reinforces a Newtonian world view, the learning and testing of facts (what, when, how), to achieve a narrow band of understanding without exploring causality, and the more complicated and nuanced ambiguities that exist in the real world. This education factory is about memorising facts within an increasingly specialised prescribed syllabus. Education adds to the growing entropy, confusion and disorder, more facts concentrated in narrower and narrower disciplines doesn’t mean more insight into broader problems. And lastly from the book, ‘The Newtonian style of learning will be forced to give way to an entropic approach to education.’, moving from empirical to conceptual abilities (thinking over measuring), examining the, ‘flow of interconnected phenomena’, favouring practical experience, oral discourse and reflection over slavishly following a process. In the coming Solar Age, according to Rifkin and Howard, we will need to move from ‘man against nature’, to ‘people in nature’, which would need to be reflected in our education systems, with the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics as overriding principles.
Technology and Reformulating Science
It slightly goes agains the grain to repeat here, but Rifkin and Howard are not fans of technology for its own sake! In a reductionist sense, technology is simply a ‘transformer of energy’, which in and of itself does not enhance human culture or sustain life. Worse than that, the more complex the technology, the more energy it dissipates, the further it is removed from nature, cultural patterns and personal life-cycles …. it’s a modern myth than technology creates more order, where it in fact does the opposite. In a nightmarish Orwellian world we now believe that, ‘disorder is order, [that] waste is value, and work is nonwork.’ And during this particular time, we the people, and the scientists, are less trusting in the ability of science to predict and enable us to control the physical world. Science is essentially a ‘methodology to predict the future’, extrapolating from initial conditions to expected results or outcomes. However, that model and trust in Newtonian mechanics has broken down by; (1) the underlying randomness and uncertainty at the heart of quantum physics; (2) the emergent behaviour of increasingly complex and interconnected systems; and (3) in the words of the author, the Law of Entropy is the only paradigm that, ‘adequately explains the nature of change … and the interconnectedness of all things within the change process.’
So in summary (my words), Sir Isaac Newton was, and remains, a genius and the hugely influential father of the modern scientific rational world. However, that world has now changed beyond recognition of Enlightenment thinkers, with new threats and challenges (largely of our own making). However, I believe that the human intellect, resilience and ability to apply new and old technologies to the problems of climate change, overpopulation and negative energy*, and exploit the opportunities of solar energy, new materials and interstellar travel, can, and will prevail. Like we have a choice, this is the only planet we live on (for now) … until a Newton for the C21st comes along!
(*I’m going for negative energy rather than entropy as I think it covers both increasing physical disorder and a metaphysical malaise – I think a new braver world calls for some very new and different thinking.)
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