sexta-feira, junho 20, 2003

Newton Made Easy: "Newton's Principia for the Common Reader" by Subrahmanijan Chandrasekhar



As a math and physics graduate back in the day, I applaud some of the Physics Professors choices when it comes to choosing the best books in Physics, and I also decry a lot of the works on that supposed imaginary list as being, in the grand scheme of things, quite trivial. I too would have assumed that importance and even profundity - if I dare use such a potent word - would carry some merit for non-fiction works, but, alas, i was quite mistaken it seems. To try to be fair though, as I said elsewhere on this blog, I think that the main problem for the arts and humanities mob is maths. As in their cluelessness about it. It completely underpins the natural sciences, and has to be mastered to at least some extent. Newton's Principia is virtually gibberish to even highly trained modern readers, even when it's not in Latin, which is why I would recommend Newton's Principia: For the Common Reader. This is an abridged and tastefully modernised version by the great Indian astrophysicist Subrahmanijan Chandrasekhar. As a tasteful modernisation should do, it preserves the spirit of the original almost entirely. Unfortunately, in general terms though, to understand 'decent' books on physics and/or mathematics, you have to learn a fair amount of, well....physics and mathematics.

Think of Darwin for instance: since his time, biology has become almost as mathematical as physics, which incidentally gives the lie to a remark once made by Kant (*) that 'there will never be a Newton of the grass blade.' In all probability, Darwin would not be able to understand many mathematical biology books written in the last 50 years, whereas i suspect that Newton, with some effort and a few rapid shifts in certain aspects of his world view, would probably be able to cope with everything in physics up to the early 1900's, before slowing down to digest relativity and quantum theory. Only slowing down though, and that mostly to learn the relevant 18th, 19th and 20th Century maths that postdated him:)

This then, or so it seems, is the peculiar difficulty with mathematics: I know nothing technical about music whatsoever, but I can appreciate the glory that is, for example, Bach without knowing how to read a note of music. But to appreciate calculus, and all that flows from it (**), I must learn calculus, and other mathematics besides. Which, I am always being told, is beyond most people apparently.   I still think that people should make more of an effort though. If I can read, for instance, Milton's  Paradise Lost (several times over the years), then the arts mob can be expected to cope with C. P. Snow, or Koestler's The Sleepwalkers can't they?

NB:
(*) Though i certainly think that the Critique of Pure Reason should be on the list somewhere.
(**) Rutherford, the discoverer of the structure of the atom, was fond of saying that 'there are two kinds of science: physics and stamp-collecting', but he was put in his place by the world's then leading mathematician, David Hilbert, who, on hearing of this, replied: 'physics is too difficult to leave to physicists; it can only be done properly by mathematicians.'