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The Sciences

Celebrity Throwdown? Einstein versus Newton

Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonNovember 19, 2005 7:25 AM

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I was told about this a while ago* and clean forgot until just now. There is still time. You'll recall my (faux) rant about the "Greatest ...." business that is popular in Britain. I co-opted the idea and did a series on physics papers (yes, we get to vote on that soon), physics textbooks, and popular science books. The point is that the discussion point itself is silly, but the act of having the discussion is valuable. That's why it is worthwhile.... Well, the Royal Society has decided to do a battle between Einstein and Newton. Who was the greater? Etc, etc. Yeah, I know. But..... You must vote on their website by the 22nd November. On the site, you'll see the cases made for each by two Professors, Jim Al-Khalili and John Enderby. I reproduce the cases here: Professor Jim Al-Khalili puts the case for Albert Einstein:

In the space of just a few months during 1905, the centenary of which we are celebrating this year as International Year of Physics, Einstein published several papers that were to change the face of physics: * He proved mathematically that atoms exist (in his Brownian motion paper). Until then scientists could not agree on whether matter was made up of atoms or not. * He proved that light is lumpy. It is made up of tiny particles we now call photons and not as continuous waves. So this is sort of like saying light is also made up of light atoms. This he did in his paper on the photoelectric effect, which was to win him the Nobel Prize in 1921. Just consider that without this work we wouldn't have solar panels. So when people say Einstein gave us the knowledge to split the atom and hence nuclear power which many perceive as bad, it is worth remembering he also gave us the knowledge to harness solar power. * He then published two papers on his special theory of relativity giving us a new view of reality itself. He explained that Newton was wrong about the meaning of space and time. In fact both time and space can be stretch ands squeezed in a way that might sound crazy but is extremely beautiful. Without relativity they we would not have been able to study the building blocks of matter: the subatomic particles we hurl round accelerators like CERN at close to the speed of light. * In 1910, Einstein explained why the sky is blue! How many people know that? * In 1915, he proved Newton wrong again when he explained that the force of gravity causes space and time to curve. This theory, his general theory of relativity, led to a whole new field of science called cosmology and led to ideas such as the Big Bang, black holes, parallel universes and so on. * In 1917, he described the theory behind the laser. So he gave us the knowledge to invent CD and DVD players.

Sir John Enderby FRS puts the case for Isaac Newton.

The very first thing to note about Newton is the date of his birth, 1642. This was the same year as the death of Galileo and some 18 years before the creation of the Royal Society. Thus the transition from an era of superstition, dogma and the persecution of those brave enough to challenge the ancient lore of Aristotle was still in its infancy. But by the end of Newton's life in 1727, the transition to the modern scientific method had been achieved and in this he himself played a decisive role. All subsequent advances, notably those of James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein relied on the principle that simple laws, supported by experiment, can interact to provide an explanation of the complexity of the Universe. This approach is exemplified by the greatest scientific work in the history of mankind, the Principia Mathematica , written by Newton and finally published with the help of Edmund Halley and Samuel Pepys in 1687. This book set out the mathematical principles of "natural philosophy" and showed how a universal force, gravity, applied to all objects in all parts of the universe. This amazing insight once and for all ruled out the belief that somehow laws related to earth bound objects were in some sense inferior to those which governed the heavens, Although the Principia alone would justify Newton as the greatest scientist ever, we must not forget his contributions to optics which include the construction of a telescope, and the fact that white light is composed of the same system of colours one sees in a rainbow. To quote from Einstein himself, [Newton] "in one person combined the experimenter, the theorist, the mechanic and, not least, the artist in exposition."

Tell us what you think in the comments, if you like. Who's your favourite? Carry on chatting on the topic beyond the deadline if you like.... I don't care about that. -cvj (* Thanks cmj!)

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