Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Curiosity Killed the Cat, But It Also Discovered Gravity

To a student younger than myself:

I’m sure you know who Isaac Newton is. I saw his grave at Westminster Abbey a year ago on study abroad, and it seemed rather magnificent and forbidding. Father of modern physics and calculus, mathematical genius, honored as one of the most influential men of the modern period. All of that is true. Newton was a mathematical genius. He did revolutionize physics. And he is as influential as everyone says. But did he start out as a genius? How did he get there?  

It turns out that Cambridge, where Newton was studying, was shut down for two years because of an outbreak of the Black Plague and so he had lots of time to do whatever he wanted. In this time, he studied physics, optics, and mathematics. This is when he made one of his earlier discoveries: white light breaks into colors when it hits a prism. (So in addition to the theories of gravity and laws of motion, we also owe that one Pink Floyd album cover to Newton.)

Curious about seeing his handwriting and the way that Newton learned and made so many discoveries, I looked up some of his papers. Studying his early manuscripts, I found this delightful page. It has a picture of a snowflake and several differently shaped flowers. It was one of the cutest things I had ever seen. I do a lot of doodling myself, in my spare time, and I was surprised by two thins. One, Newton is not very good at drawing. Some of his flowers are a tad lopsided. Second, I couldn’t believe that the same wigged and stern-faced man that had created calculus had doodled some flowers into his notebook. I started reading through the pages, curious what had prompted these drawings. Was it boredom? Did he get tired of math and take a break?

It turns out that Newton came up with all of his theories not by simply imagining that it had to be true, but by carefully studying the world around him. He was intensely curious. Many of his early manuscript pages, like the one I found, are long detailed descriptions of how nature works. He describes the motion of mills, the petals of flowers, the fractal patterns of snowflakes, etc. It’s no surprise that he was inspired to consider gravity by an apple falling on his head.

I realized Newton wasn’t a stuffy old genius, locked in a cupboard furiously scribbling out first second and third derivatives. He was really in the world, enthralled by what he saw around him. He wanted to understand everything, from the movement of the sun to the wind in the grasses. As I read I was inspired and humbled. Reading those pages made me realize that Newton wasn’t successful because he was smart, he was successful because he was passionate and curious.

The momument above Newton's grave, by an artist quite
frankly much better than himself. 
And lucky for us, he wasn’t alone. Europe in the 1600s and 1700s was experiencing a flowering of curiosity, intellectual thought, philosophy, education, and discovery. Men, and a few women, across Europe started using curiosity and questions to figure out how the world works. Today we call this period the Enlightenment, because people applied their minds to bring greater light and knowledge into the world. The Enlightenment was a movement created by individuals who were driven to learn. These people provided the basis of modern science, law, mathematics, philosophy, economics, and political theory. If those topics seem boring to you, imagine life without your cell phone, without car engines, or without property rights. These were all ideas and discoveries that took place because someone, a few hundred years ago, was curious.

I stood in front of this monument a year ago, and my perspective on it has changed a lot. I used to see it as a monument to a man who was as grandiose as this suggests. Now I see the human being, curious about flowers, that is behind this greatness. He wasn't so different from me or my friends. So learn about the world. Study what’s happening. Ground everything in life and its experiences, and great things will come from that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment