Thursday, December 25, 2008

Celebrate Ten Days of Newton

It's 26 days until we inaugurate a President who genuinely values science, so let's begin the countdown by celebrating the 366th birthday of the scientist upon whose discoveries all our science and technology rest: Sir Isaac Newton.

In the New York Times, Olivia Judson explains the calendrical reasons why Newton needs 10 full days of celebration.

Some years ago, the evolutionist and atheist Richard Dawkins pointed out to me that Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics and mathematics, and arguably the greatest scientist of all time, was born on Christmas Day, and that therefore Newton's Birthday could be an alternative, if somewhat nerdy, excuse for a winter holiday ...

Yet things are not so simple. It turns out that the date of Newton's birthday is a little contentious. Newton was born in England on Christmas Day 1642 according to the Julian calendar — the calendar in use in England at the time. But by the 1640s, much of the rest of Europe was using the Gregorian calendar (the one in general use today); according to this calendar, Newton was born on Jan. 4, 1643.

Rather than bickering about whether Dec. 25 or Jan. 4 is the better date to observe Newton's Birthday, I think we should embrace the discrepancy and have an extended festival. After all, the festival of Christmas properly continues for a further 12 days, until the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. So the festival of Newton could begin on Christmas Day and then continue for an extra 10 days, representing the interval between the calendars.


Newton does not seem to have been a pleasant man. He feuded with several of his professional colleagues, most famously Robert Hooke and Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz; he was reclusive and secretive and seems to have formed few lasting friendships. But he was also a genius, and his work laid the foundations of our modern understanding of the world. He is a man to celebrate.

In honor of Newton's Birthday festival, I therefore propose the following song, to be sung to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." For brevity, I include only the final verse. All together now!

On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me,
Ten drops of genius,
Nine silver co-oins,
Eight circling planets,
Seven shades of li-ight,
Six counterfeiters,
Four telescopes,
Three Laws of Motion,
Two awful feuds,
And the discovery of gravity!
Happy Newton, everybody!

Merry Newton!

Cross-posted at They Gave Us A Republic.