The latest installment of Fjordman’s “History of Mathematical Astronomy” has been published at Atlas Shrugs. Some excerpts are below.
Newton suffered from periods of depression and had a serious nervous breakdown in 1693. He became Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696 in London and as such a highly paid government official with less interest in research, but he was a capable administrator and a president of the Royal Society. He lived in an island nation and explained how the Moon and the Sun tug at the seas to create tides, but it is possible that he never set eyes on the ocean.
When he died in London in 1727 he was given a state funeral, the first for a subject whose attainment lay in the realm of the mind. The visiting French writer calling himself Voltaire was amazed by his kingly funeral. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Even Newton had to build on the work of his predecessors, which is why he made his famous statement that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Yet arguably no single human being has ever changed the way we view the world more than him. As James Gleick (Author) James Gleick puts it:
“Newton’s laws are our laws. We are Newtonians, fervent and devout, when we speak of forces and masses, of action and reaction; when we say that a sports team or political candidate has momentum; when we note the inertia of a tradition or bureaucracy; and when we stretch out an arm and feel the force of gravity all around, pulling earthward. Pre-Newtonians did not feel such a force. Before Newton the English word gravity denoted a mood — seriousness, solemnity — or an intrinsic quality. Objects could have heaviness or lightness, and the heavy ones tended downward, where they belonged. We have assimilated Newtonianism as knowledge and as faith. We believe our scientists when they compute the past and future tracks of comets and spaceships. What is more, we know they do this not by magic but by mere technique. ‘The landscape has been so totally changed, the ways of thinking have been so deeply affected, that it is very hard to get hold of what it was like before,’ said the cosmologist and relativist Hermann Bondi. ‘It is very hard to realise how total a change in outlook he produced.’“
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The English astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley (1656-1742) became the first major scholar to work squarely within the Newtonian school of thought. He was born into a prosperous London family, made astronomical observations at Oxford and was inspired by John Flamsteed at the newly established Royal Observatory at Greenwich. In 1676 he sailed for the island of St. Helena, then the southernmost territory under British rule, and spent a year to produce a chart of stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Halley encouraged, personally oversaw and paid for the publication of Newton’s groundbreaking Principia in 1687.
For the second edition of the Principia in 1695 he agreed to calculate comet orbits. He realized that the comets of 1531, 1607 and 1682 had similar orbits, and deduced that they were the same comet turning around the Sun in an elliptical orbit. This was the first calculation of a cometary orbit ever made. Halley found the time to participate in many non-astronomical activities as well, to create an improved diving bell, study magnetic variation and serve as a sea captain. He enhanced our understanding of trade winds, tides, cartography, naval navigation and mortality tables. He succeeded John Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal.
The comet which is now called Halley’s Comet had been seen by others before him. There are Chinese records of it going back to 240 BC and the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, depicts an apparition of it. Yet nobody had recognized these comets as the same one returning and calculated its orbit. This is why it is properly named after Halley. It took generations until the next periodic comet was identified.
Read the rest at Atlas Shrugs.