The Principia

The Principia by Isaac Newton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is shown in the Scholium of Prop. 22, Book II, that at the height of 200 miles above the earth the air is more rare than it is at the surface of the earth in the ratio of 30 to 0.0000000000003998, or as 75,000,000,000,000 to 1, nearly.


Marking this book as “read” is as much an act of surrender as an accomplishment. Newton’s reputation for difficulty is well-deserved; this is not a reader-friendly book. Even those with a strong background in science and mathematics will, I suspect, need some aid. The historian of mathematics Colin Pask relied on several secondary sources to work his way through the Principia in order to write his excellent popular guide. (Texts by S. Chandrasekhar, J. Bruce Brackenridge, and Dana Densmore are among the more notable vade mecums for Newton’s proofs.) Gary Rubenstein, a math teacher, takes over an hour to explain a single one of Newton’s proofs in a series of videos (and he had to rely on Brackenridge to do so).

It is not that Newton’s ideas are inherently obscure—though mastering them is not easy—but that Newton’s presentation of his work is terse, dense, incomplete (from omitting steps), and at times cryptic. Part of this was a consequence of his personality: he was a reclusive man and was anxious to avoid public controversies. He says so much himself: In the introduction to Book III, Newton mentions that he had composed a popular version, but discarded it in order to “prevent the disputes” that would arise from a wide readership. Unsurprisingly, when you take material that is intrinsically complex and then render it opaque to the public, the result is not a book that anyone can casually pick up and understand.

The good news is that you do not have to. Newton himself did not advise readers, even mathematically skilled readers, to work their way through every problem. This would be enormously time-consuming. Indeed, Newton recommended his readers to peruse only the first few sections of Book I before moving on directly to Book III, leaving most of the book completely untouched. And this is not bad advice. As Ted said in his review, the average reader could gain much from this book by simply skipping the proofs and calculations, and stopping to read anything that looked interesting. And guides to the Principia are certainly not wanting. Besides the three mentioned above, there is the guide written by Newton scholar I. Bernard Cohen, published as a part of his translation. I initially tried to rely on this guide; but I found that, despite its interest, it is mainly geared towards historians of science; so I switched to Colin Pask’s Magnificent Principia, which does an excellent job in revealing the importance of Newton’s work to modern science.

So much for the book’s difficulty; on to the book itself.

Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Matematica is one of the most influential scientific works in history, rivaled only by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Quite simply, it set the groundwork for physics as we know it. The publication of the Principia, in 1687, completed the revolution in science that began with Copernicus’s publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium over one hundred years earlier. Copernicus deliberately modeled his work on Ptolemy’s Almagest, mirroring the structure and style of the Alexandrian Greek’s text. Yet it is Newton’s book that can most properly be compared to Ptolemy’s. For both the Englishman and the Greek used mathematical ingenuity to draw together the work of generations of illustrious predecessors into a single, grand, unified theory of the heavens.

The progression from Copernicus to Newton is a case study in the history of science. Copernicus realized that setting the earth in motion around the sun, rather than the reverse, would solve several puzzling features of the heavens—most conspicuously, why the orbits of the planets seem related to the sun’s movement. Yet Copernicus lacked the physics to explain how a movable earth was possible; in the Aristotelian physics that held sway, there was nothing to explain why people would not fly off of a rotating earth. Furthermore, Copernicus was held back by the mathematical prejudices of the day—namely, the belief in perfect circles.

Johannes Kepler made a great stride forward by replacing circles with ellipses; this led to the discovery of his three laws, whose strength finally made the Copernican system more efficient than its predecessor (which Copernicus’s own version was not). Yet Kepler was able to provide no account of the force that would lead to his elliptical orbits. He hypothesized a sort of magnetic force that would sweep the planets along from a rotating sun, but he could not show why such a force would cause such orbits. Galileo, meanwhile, set to work on the new physics. He showed that objects accelerate downward with a velocity proportional to the square of the distance; and he argued that different objects fall at different speeds due to air resistance, and that acceleration due to gravity would be the same for all objects in a vacuum. But Galileo had no thought of extending his new physics to the heavenly bodies.

By Newton’s day, the evidence against the old Ptolemaic system was overwhelming. Much of this was observational. Galileo observed craters and mountains on the moon; dark spots on the sun; the moons of Jupiter; and the phases of Venus. All of these data, in one way or another, contradicted the old Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy. Tycho Brahe observed a new star in the sky (caused by a supernova) in 1572, which confuted the idea that the heavens were unchanging; and observations of Haley’s comet in 1682 confirmed that the comet was not somewhere in earth’s atmosphere, but in the supposedly unchanging heavens.

In short, the old system was becoming unsustainable; and yet, nobody could explain the mechanism of the new Copernican picture. The notion that the planets’ orbits were caused by an inverse-square law was suspected by many, including Edmond Haley, Christopher Wren, and Robert Hooke. But it took a mathematician of Newton’s caliber to prove it.

But before Newton published his Principia, another towering intellect put forward a new system of the world: René Descartes. Some thirty years before Newton’s masterpiece saw the light of day, Descartes published his Principia Philosophiæ. Here, Descartes summarized and systemized his skeptical philosophy. He also put forward a new mechanistic system of physics, in which the planets are borne along by cosmic vortices that swirl around each other. Importantly, however, Descartes’s system was entirely qualitative; he provided no equations of motion.

Though Descartes’s hypothesis has no validity, it had a profound effect on Newton, as it provided him with a rival. The very title of Newton’s book seems to allude to Descartes’s: while the French philosopher provides principles, Newton provides mathematical principles—a crucial difference. Almost all of Newton’s Book II (on air resistance) can be seen as a detailed refutation of Descartes’s work; and Newton begins his famous General Scholium with the sentence: “The hypothesis of vortices is pressed with many difficulties.”

In order to secure his everlasting reputation, Newton had to do several things: First, to show that elliptical orbits, obeying Kepler’s law of equal areas in equal times, result from an inverse-square force. Next, to show that this force is proportional to the mass. Finally, to show that it is this very same force that causes terrestrial objects to fall to earth, obeying Galileo’s theorems. The result is Universal Gravity, a force that pervades the universe, causing the planets to rotate and apples to drop with the same mathematical certainty. This universal causation effectively completes the puzzle left by Copernicus: how the earth could rotate around the sun without everything flying off into space.

The Principia is in a league of its own because Newton does not simply do that, but so much more. The book is stuffed with brilliance; and it is exhausting even to list Newton’s accomplishments. Most obviously, there are Newton’s laws of motion, which are still taught to students all over the world. Newton provides the conceptual basis for the calculus; and though he does not explicitly use calculus in the book, a mathematically sophisticated reader could have surmised that Newton was using a new technique. Crucially, Newton derives Kepler’s three laws from his inverse-square law; and he proves that Kepler’s equation has no algebraic solution, and provides computational tools.

Considering the mass of the sun in comparison with the planets, Newton could have left his system as a series of two-body problems, with the sun determining the orbital motions of all the planets, and the planets determining the motions of their moons. This would have been reasonably accurate. But Newton realized that, if gravity is truly universal, all the planets must exert a force on one another; and this leads him to the invention of perturbation theory, which allows him, for example, to calculate the disturbance in Saturn’s orbit caused by proximity to Jupiter. While he is at it, Newton calculates the relative sizes and densities of the planets, as well as calculates where the center of gravity between the gas giants and the sun must lie. Newton also realized that gravitational effects of the sun and moon are what cause terrestrial tides, and calculated their relative effects (though, as Pask notes, Newton fudges some numbers).

Leaving little to posterity, Newton realized that the spinning of a planet would cause a distortion in its sphericity, making it marginally wider than it is tall. Newton then realized that this slight distortion would cause tidal locking in the case of the moon, which is why the same side of the moon always faces the earth. The slight deformity of the earth is also what causes the procession of the equinoxes (the very slow shift in the location of the equinoctial sunrises in relation to the zodiac). This shift was known at least since Ptolemy, who gave an estimate (too slow) of the rate of change, but was unable to provide any explanation for this phenomenon.

The evidence mustered against Descartes’s theory is formidable. Newton describes experiments in which he dropped pendulums in troughs of water, to test the effects of drag. He also performed experiments by dropping objects from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. What is more, Newton used mathematical arguments to show that objects rotating in a vortex obey a periodicity law that is proportional to the square of the distance, and not, as in Kepler’s Third Law, to the 3/2 power. Most convincing of all, Newton analyzes the motion of comets, showing that they would have to travel straight through several different vortices, in the direction contrary to the spinning fluid, in order to describe the orbits that we observe—a manifest absurdity. While he is on the subject of comets, Newton hypothesizes (correctly) that the tail of comets is caused by gas released in proximity to the sun; and he also hypothesizes (intriguingly) that this gas is what brings water to earth.

This is only the roughest of lists. Omitted, for example, are some of the mathematical advances Newton makes in the course of his argument. Even so, I think that the reader can appreciate the scope and depth of Newton’s accomplishment. As Pask notes, between the covers of a single book Newton presents work that, nowadays, would be spread out over hundreds of papers by thousands of authors. The result is a triumph of science. Newton not only solves the longstanding puzzle of the orbits of the planets, but shows how his theory unexpectedly accounts for a range of hitherto separate and inexplicable phenomena: the tides, the procession of the equinoxes, the orbit of the moon, the behavior of pendulums, the appearance of comets. In this Newton demonstrated what was to become the hallmark of modern science: to unify as many different phenomena as possible under a single explanatory scheme.

Besides setting the groundwork for dynamics, which would be developed and refined by Euler, d’Alembert, Lagrange, Laplace, and Hamilton in the coming generations, Newton also provides a model of science that remains inspiring to practitioners in any field. Newton himself attempts to enunciate his principles, in his famous Rules of Reasoning. Yet his emphasis on inductivism—generalizing from the data—does not do justice to the extraordinary amount of imagination required to frame suitable hypotheses. In any case, it is clear that Newton’s success was owed to the application of sophisticated mathematical models, carefully tested against collections of physical measurements, in order to unify the greatest possible number of phenomena. And this was to become a model for other intellectual disciples to aspire to, for good and for ill.

A striking consequence of this model is that its ultimate causal mechanism is a mathematical rule rather than a philosophical principle. The planets orbit the sun because of gravity, whose equations accurately predict their motions; but what gravity is, why it exists, and how it can affect distant objects, is left completely mysterious. This is the origin of Newton’s famous “I frame no hypothesis” comment, in which he explicitly restricts himself to the prediction of observable events rather than speculation on hidden causes (though he was not averse to speculation when the mood struck him). Depending on your point of view, this shift in emphasis either made science more rational or more superficial; but there is little doubt that it made science more effective.

Though this book is too often impenetrable, I still recommend that you give it a try. Few books are so exalting and so humbling. Here is on display the furthest reaches of the power of the human intellect to probe the universe we live in, and to find hidden regularities in the apparent chaos of experience.



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