Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton’s Masterpiece by Colin Pask (book review).

January 30, 2014 | By | Reply More

Now this is the kind of book you won’t come across very often. Colin Pask explores and analyses Isaac Newton’s third book, actually it’s three books in one, in ‘Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton’s Masterpiece’. I doubt if many people read the original ‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, usually abbreviated to ‘Principia’, yet this is this trio of books under one covers that contains Newton’s Laws Of Motion, something that we all use.


Pask is very apologetic in giving Newton’s own history but I think it puts things into perspective. He wasn’t the only scientific philosopher, as they were called at the time and got on with most of them with a couple exceptions. Reading though, it did dawn on me that he was his century’s version of a geek but not a particular nice one because he rarely gave credit where credit was due, even with friends, when they helped him occasionally, including with ‘Principia’.

With few distractions, Newton’s life revolved around his various jobs and recreations, chiefly religion, alchemy, astronomy, chemistry and mathematics. Physics, as a science, was still nascent but when you consider his contemporaries were devising their own scientific laws, the 17th century was crucial for change. What we take for granted now was only tentative steps back then, requiring a lot of observation and turning this into theory and numbers which verified things in the scientific method. It’s an enormous debt we owe these early scientists and learning how they put things together in their own words should show some insight. I should point out that as you can from Newton’s book title, I doubt if many of us can read the English that was used at the time so Colin Pask offers a sensitive translation.

Although I haven’t really played with calculus for a few decades now, reading this book, I can understand why Newton had to come up with it because he had to bring motion down to a single moment to see what other forces were involved. When you see motion in that light, his laws of motion make a lot of sense. It’s no wonder that he was able to predict the movement of planetary bodies and stars and seeing the examples here brings everything together. Calculating star movements is indicated although I’m a little confused with the mention of Doppler, whom the effect is named after indicating when a star is moving forward or backwards relative to Earth wasn’t born until a century later. It also enabled the likes of Joseph Lagrange to figure out a particular position in space where a body couldn’t be attracted to any of three planetary bodies. A useful bit of knowledge for any SF writer who wants to place a space station in space. If anything, it’s amazing how Newton maintained his religious beliefs and such as he was turning reality into numbers, although I suspect a lot of that was from upbringing.

I should point out that you don’t need to be a maths genius to read this book. Pask frequently writes that some chapters can be missed if you want to ignore the proofs and move on to the formulas. If things get too much, then the chapter conclusion brings everything together as to what Newton set out to achieve.

I loved the quote from Einstein about theoretical physicists that you shouldn’t listen to their words and pay attention to their deeds on page 396. In rough translation, that tends to suggest how applicable their theories are in the real world and not just on paper. Considering a couple pages on, Pask points out Newton fudged some of the data relating to the Moon and its orbit of the Earth but he was trying to get his head around gravity at the time.

Despite all of his faults, Isaac Newton left an important legacy to science from his discoveries. Reading the list of his contemporaries, all of whom also made their mark on science as well, his era must have truly innovative and certainly the grounding for what we have today. Pask has compiled a very interesting book analysis. Even if you don’t want to go into all the maths, seeing how the calculations were formularised in differential calculus in its earliest days is insightful and it didn’t need an apple to fall on his head. As the title says, ‘magnificent’.

GF Willmetts

January 2014

(pub: Prometheus Books. 528 page lightly illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $26.00 (US), $27.50 (CAN), £16.05 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61614-745-7. Ebook: ISBN: 978-1-61614-742-6)

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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