As I said in the previous article, in my biographical dictionary 1000 great scientists (1996) and an unpublished book, I proposed an objective quantification of the importance of different scientists, using measures such as the number of lines that various encyclopedias assign to each. Six scientists, one Greek (Aristotle), of whom we have already spoken, and five from the West (Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein) were tied with the highest score in these studies. Among these five, is there one who can be considered the greatest scientist of our civilization?
In 1964 Isaac Asimov conducted another study (The Isaac Winners) on the relative importance of men of science, which resulted in a list of the 72 best scientists of all time, in his opinion. This list is simply qualitative and does not establish a relative order among the names that appear in it, although Asimov (again in his opinion) asserts that Isaac Newton, who happened to be his namesake, was the greatest scientist of all time.
Let’s look at some of Newton’s achievements:
- He made important advances in mechanics, whose modern origins date from the Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century, Jean Buridan presented the concept of impetus, the first step towards the idea of inertia, while the Calculatores of Merton College (Oxford) defined uniform motion, uniformly accelerated motion and average velocity, and enunciated the theorem of the average velocity, which states that a uniformly accelerated body starting at rest travels the same distance as a body moving at a constant velocity equal to half the final velocity of the accelerated body. The proof of this theorem, which has been improperly attributed to Galileo, is in fact due to Nicole Oresme, bishop of Lisieux (14th century), who was also the first to graph velocity as a function of time and to affirm that the space traveled is the area enclosed under the graph. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Domingo de Soto stated that heavy bodies fall in the void with uniformly accelerated movement, which Galileo Galilei proved experimentally in 1608. In this field Newton formulated the three fundamental laws of dynamics, which put order in a set of previous theorems and discoveries. That is why he said that famous phrase: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. The three laws are:
- Law of inertia: an object at rest remains at rest unless some force acts upon it. A moving object remains in motion in the same direction and at the same speed, unless some force acts upon it.
- When a force acts on a mass, the movement of that mass accelerates with an acceleration proportional to the force.
- Every action corresponds to an equal reaction in the opposite direction.
- He revolutionized classical physics and astronomy with the theory of universal gravitation, which achieved spectacular results by unifying phenomena as apparently different as the fall of bodies and the movement of celestial bodies. This theory made possible the discovery of Neptune, whose existence and position were predicted in the nineteenth century by Adams and Le Verrier from anomalies detected in the orbit of Uranus, a deviation of a few seconds of arc from the position it should occupy according to Newton’s law. The publication of this law provoked the widespread acceptance of Copernicus cosmological theory, which however was not experimentally proved until the nineteenth century, when the astronomer and mathematician Bessel detected the parallax of a nearby star, thus proving for the first time that Earth moves around the sun along the year. Newton’s theory remained as he had built it for over two centuries, until Albert Einstein replaced it by his theory of general relativity.
- He was the father of modern optics with his discovery of the decomposition of white light by a prism of transparent glass, which led him to propose a corpuscular theory of light that for over two centuries competed with the wave theory proposed by Huygens, until in the twentieth century the problem was solved by the wave-particle duality, which asserts that both theories are correct, each in certain circumstances.
- He revolutionized mathematics by creating differential (or infinitesimal) calculus at the same time as Leibniz, which gave rise to a great controversy about priority. Apparently they came independently to the same result, although Leibniz’s notation is more convenient and now universally accepted.
- He was also a great technologist, having built the first reflection telescopes.
Newton was less successful in his studies on alchemy, which had not yet reached the rank of science and had to wait until the end of the eighteenth century. He also studied in depth biblical chronology and the writings of the Church Fathers, and wrote articles on theological studies, some of which were published during his lifetime and others remained unpublished until after his death.
Newton was a convinced believer. In relation to his own theory of universal gravitation, he said this:
Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who sets the planets in motion... [God] rules all things, and knows all things that happen or can happen.