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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Newton Day

Today we celebrate another important birthday, that of the great scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, who was born on this day in 1642. Newton's book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687, laid the groundwork for the modern study of science. The French mathematician Alexis Clairaut, who translated the Principia into French, wrote of it:
The famous book of mathematical Principles of natural Philosophy marked the epoch of a great revolution in physics. The method followed by its illustrious author Sir Newton, spread the light of mathematics on a science which up to then had remained in the darkness of conjectures and hypotheses.
Newton was undoubtedly the greatest scientist of them all, and the Principia was a flash of genius that marked a turning point in the history of both science and western culture.

When he died he was buried in Westminster Abbey alongside the great and mighty of British history. The epitaph on his elaborate tomb reads:
Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race! He was born on 25th December 1642, and died on 20th March 1726.
The poet Alexander Pope wrote another epitaph which was not used on his tomb but has become somewhat more famous:
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

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