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Optics and Newton. Sir Isaac Newton: Page 4 of 7.


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Optics and Newton.

of additional material in his Optics. A second piece which Newton had sent with the paper of 1675 provoked new controversy. Entitled A Hypothesis Explaining the Properties of Light, it was in fact a general system of nature. Hooke apparently claimed that Newton had stolen its content from him, and Newton boiled over again. The issue was quickly controlled, however, by an exchange of formal, excessively polite letters that fail to conceal the complete lack of warmth between the men.

Newton was also engaged in another exchange on his theory of colours with a circle of English Jesuits in Liège, perhaps the most revealing exchange of all. Although their objections were shallow, their contention that his experiments were mistaken lashed him into a fury. The correspondence dragged on until 1678, when a final shriek of rage from Newton, apparently accompanied by a complete nervous breakdown, was followed by silence. The death of his mother the following year completed his isolation. For six years he withdrew from intellectual commerce except when others initiated a correspondence, which he always broke off as quickly as possible.

During his time of isolation, Newton was greatly influenced by the Hermetic tradition with which he had been familiar since his undergraduate days. Newton, always somewhat interested in alchemy, now immersed himself in it, copying by hand treatise after treatise and collating them to interpret their arcane imagery. Under the influence of the Hermetic tradition, his conception of nature underwent a decisive change. Until that time, Newton had been a mechanical philosopher in the standard 17th-century style, explaining natural phenomena by the motions of particles of matter.

Thus, he held that the physical reality of light is a stream of tiny corpuscles diverted from its course by the presence of denser or rarer media. He felt that the apparent attraction of tiny bits of paper to a piece of glass that has been rubbed with cloth results from an ethereal effluvium that streams out of the glass and carries the bits of paper back with it.

This mechanical philosophy denied the possibility of action at a distance; as with static electricity, it explained apparent attractions away by means of invisible ethereal mechanisms. Newton's "Hypothesis of Light" of 1675, with its universal ether, was a standard mechanical system of nature.

Some phenomena, such as the capacity of chemicals to react only with certain others, puzzled him, however, and he spoke of a "secret principle" by which substances are "sociable" or "unsociable" with others.

About 1679, Newton abandoned the ether and its invisible mechanisms and began to ascribe the puzzling phenomena--chemical affinities, the generation of heat in chemical reactions, surface tension in fluids, capillary action, the cohesion of bodies, and the like--to attractions and repulsions between particles of matter.

More than 35 years later, in the second English edition of the Opticks, Newton accepted an ether again, although it was an ether that embodied the concept of action at a distance by positing a repulsion between its particles.

The attractions and repulsions of Newton's speculations were direct transpositions of the occult sympathies and antipathies of Hermetic philosophy--as mechanical philosophers never ceased to protest.

Newton, however, regarded them as a modification of the mechanical philosophy that rendered it subject to exact mathematical treatment.

As he conceived of them, attractions were quantitatively defined, and they offered a bridge to unite the two basic themes of 17th-century science--the mechanical tradition, which had dealt primarily with verbal mechanical imagery, and the Pythagorean tradition, which insisted on the mathematical nature of reality. Newton's reconciliation through the concept of force was his ultimate contribution to science.

Newton originally applied the idea of attractions and repulsions solely to the range of   Continued

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