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Isaac Newton

One doesn't normally think of Isaac Newton as one of the fathers of modern computing, exactly, but it is not at all inappropriate to include him here: He is a giant figure who has had an effect on Western science somewhat akin to that of Jesus of Nazareth on Judiasm, casting a shadow few can escape, welcomed or not.

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) reserved the accolade "illustrissimus" for only two men: Isaac Newton and Archimedes.

Other thinkers of the first water, from Albert Einstein (who wrote "Newton, forgive me; you found the only way which in your age was just about possible for a man with the highest powers of thought and creativity"(3)) to Subramanian Chandrasekhar (who is making an intense study of Newton's Principia his final career project) have felt similarly indebted.

Newton performed pioneering computations in celestial mechanics, contributed mathematical tools from the calculus to perturbation theory to Newton's Method for root finding used pervasively in contemporary computing, contributed the physical laws used today in almost all physical computations from spacecraft trajectories to blockworld educational programs, and contributed even the telescope design which today acquires most data used for celestial mechanics computations. It was the application of his equations to ballistic trajectories which drove the development of early computing devices.

Not least, Newton as much as any one person can or could, established in the modern analytical, quantitative scientific worldview: He is the great transitional figure between the medieval world of mysterious animistic forces and spirits to be qualitatively teased and appeased, and the modern world of systematic, quantitative experimentation and explanation in the language of mathematics.

Newton's myth has grown so great as to today perhaps almost entirely obscure the man behind it. Like most great mathematicians, Newton's essential contributions came in a few creative years in his early twenties, albeit developed and refined throughout his life.

Physics and mathematics ("natural philosophy", in the language of his day) were in fact to him a passing fancy of his youth: He devoted many times more effort to both his alchemical studies and his heretical biblical studies (he was an Arian, convinced that Trinitarians cooked the Book in order to establish their case) than he ever did to natural philosophy.

He lived a monklike existence devoid of marriage or known affairs and shunned public controversy with a horror which to my eye seems born of insecurity; His fame today rests on works heroically extracted from him by Edmund Halley (of Halley's Comet fame) via a process compared to which tooth extraction sans anesthetic might have appeared bliss itself.

Newton was in many ways a less than admirable character. Rich in creativity and accomplishment almost beyond compare, he could nevertheless find no morsel of generosity for anyone who could in any way be construed as his rival. His professed and evident distaste for public controversy did not prevent him from stooping repeatedly to writing barbed attacks on his percieved rivals to be published under the names of friends. His treatment of John Flamsteed, Royal Astronomer, was nothing short of disgraceful, if not criminal: He virtually destroyed Flamsteed's career, and did his (ultimately unsuccessful) best to destroy the man's lifework, in single-minded pursuit of the lunar data he wanted for Principia.

Curiously, Newton was knighted not for his world-shaking achievements in physics and mathematics, but for his quite trivial services as a willing political flack of the Queen in Parliament. (His greatest recorded political speech was a request to close the window, due to a draft.)

Newton ended his life comfortably and profitably as Warden of the Mint, an initially minor post from which he contrived to gain full control of the Mint (originally exercised by the Master of the Mint).

The definitive biography of Isaac Newton is Never At Rest by Richard S Westfall, Cambridge University Press 1980, ISBN 0-521-23143-4. A less intimidating condensation has been released as The Life Of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press 1993, ISBN 0-521-43252-9.

Newton's Principia was forbidding when first published and remains so today, but is excerpted in The Classics of Science by Derek Gjertsen, Lilian Barber Press 1984, ISBN 0-936508-09-4, along with works ranging from Euclid's The Elements -- Muq uses Euclid's Greatest Common Divisor algorithm -- to Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.

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