Book Review: Principia

MAGNIFICENT PRINCIPIAMagnificent Principia (2013), by Colin Pask, as a way to read–without actually reading–Isaac Newton’s The Principia, or more correctly, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687 (last edition, 1726). Magnificent contains important chunks of Principia, although what percentage I am not at all clear on, and it digests those chunks for the “general” reader.

Despite my attainment of a passing grade on the cusp of calculus in high school and my general smarts, I thought that a centuries-old math and dynamics tome would be a bit over my head (at least for leisure reading). I must have been right, because even the primer that I chose was over my head, or at least at times confusing and at others snorable. I mean, even the basic language and references that Pask uses to explain Newton to the “general” public is hardly the language of the everyman. Inertial mass? Point mechanics? Linearly superposed? (Actually, most of my confusion sprang from words that I know the definition of, like velocity or mass, but which were used with much more nuanced and specific scientific meaning.) For whole paragraphs of technical reference I would *zone out* until it was over and I could catch Pask on the next paragraph. Oh, Newton is important, hmmm? You don’t say. Uh-huh. Mm-hmm. I get that.

Which means, honestly, I don’t have much to say about the book itself (either one). Let’s be honest: in fact, I didn’t even completely absolutely finish it. What I can offer you instead is a warning. Yeah, go ahead and make that list of best and most influential books in the world, but consider leaving off the technical bits. I think Newton for Dummies might have enriched my life a little bit more than going cross-eyed over the level-Z math hiding behind a meltingly beautiful cover. Or perhaps one of those science-in-ten-minutes series or coffee table classics. Or a board book, like they make for Poe and Austen. You know, where you can gum the edge without ruining it.

Now let’s run through a little history before I give my brief review.

The Principia is considered by many to be the single most important work of scientific (history) writing, or one of the two most important books on natural science with The Evolution of Species. Some consider Newton’s work to be the beginning of science, or at the very least a synthesis and rationing of everything that came before him. The Principia was originally three books and includes such groundbreaking material as the laws of motion, a foundation of classical mechanics, the law of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Many of Newton’s assertions and formulas are still used today, and his theories paved the way for such future work as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, etc. etc.

Isaac Newton was very involved in the scientific and philosophical discourse of his day. He had his friendly, his respectful, and his antagonistic relationships with other (some still famous) scientists and philosophers. He became a fellow of the Royal Society, and a maths professor at Trinity College in Cambridge. His work was in physics, mathematics, optics, astronomy, mechanics, dynamics/motion, geometry, color theory, acoustics, alchemy, Biblical chronology, and even science theory (as in laying out the ground rules for rigorous hypothesis testing). He is a key figure in the scientific revolution and basically invented calculus. My kids know him as the guy who discovered Newtonian fluids, aka Oobleck.

He was born at the turn of the year in 1643, in England. Newton was destined to become a farmer, but some providential changes in his continuing education led him to a love of math and the study of several influential scientists and mathematicians (Des Cartes, Galileo, etc.) under the tutelage of an attentive professor. He was hard-working and unsociable, and his mother’s abandonment of him (for another family) left him a very insecure man with odd quirks of behavior, including rage at criticism, paranoia, and mental breakdowns. He never had his own family. He loved studying for its own sake, and was not concerned with disseminating the information or with fame or fortune (all of which he received). His genius was known and celebrated during his own lifetime. He eventually moved into politics and religion.

As for Colin Pask and his Magnificent Principia, it was published in 2013 and I was actually waiting in line for a copy. It’s not a huge seller, but it seems to be admired in its field. Pask is enthusiastic–even if the writing is dry because how else would you write about the Principia?-and knowledgeable. And darned if he doesn’t sincerely try to reach out to the “general” public. Yes, I keep putting that in quotes. Because it is a quote. And it is laughable. I would definitely recommend this book only if you were some sort of student studying Newton, the Principia, or modern dynamics, mathematics, or a related branch of science. As for the Principia itself, I would recommend felling your gaze onto an original copy somewhere at a library or university near you (look it up), marveling at the changes this document and the man behind it has wrought on modern society, and then go about your day.

Book Review The Clockwork UniverseTo BASIC PHYSICSget a slightly more enjoyable idea of where Newton fits into the scheme of things, you might want to try The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick. If you have some sort of sick wish to understand physics without being forced to, you could start with Basic Physics by Karl F. Kuhn. Or Newton for Dummies.

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