What Would Newton Do?

What Would Newton Do?

What Would Newton Do?

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 23 2007 9:34 PM

What Would Newton Do?

Monday, the Boston Globe ran an editorial that I found very irritating. The writer, Jeff Jacoby, points out that perhaps the greatest scientific mind of all time, Isaac Newton, was not only very religious, but was a young-Earth creationist. For Jacoby, this shows that science and religion can work hand in hand:

For Newton, it was axiomatic that religious inquiry and scientific investigation complemented each other. There were truths to be found in both of the "books" authored by God, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature -- or as Francis Bacon called them, the "book of God's word" and the "book of God's works." To study the world empirically did not mean abandoning religious faith. On the contrary: The more deeply the workings of Creation were understood, the closer one might come to the Creator. In the language of the 19th Psalm, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork."

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Jacoby also has some fun with the idea that Newton today would never get a position at a University, let alone Cambridge, and in fact Jacoby spends much of his editorial on that subject:

When Genesis 1:1 says "In the beginning," [Newton] determined, it means 3988 BC.

Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely "intelligent design" but out-and-out divine creation.

I call shenanigans.

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Let me be clear: I am not saying that some aspects of religion and science cannot get along. But pointing out that Newton was a creationist is a total non-sequitor, and Jacoby's conflating it with modern Universities just accentuates his error.

Newton was indeed one of if not the finest mind of his time... but he was of his time. You can't simply pluck Newton out of the historical timeline and then mock Universities today for not accepting someone of his beliefs. You have to take this to its logical conclusion: if Newton were born today (or, let's say, 30 years ago so he would be applying for tenure now), he wouldn't be a young Earth creationist in the first place.

In Newton's time, the largest telescopes were the ones he himself built. The sciences of geology, biology, astronomy, and anthropology were in their youth; at that time, the very foundations of the sciences were being (pardon the word) created, but the details, ah the details were lacking.

Consider: When Newton lived, Uranus and Neptune had not yet been discovered. Neither had any asteroids. The nature of the Milky Way Galaxy was almost totally unknown; they lacked the instruments and mathematics necessary to understand much of what they saw (math, incidentally, that Newton invented). They couldn't possibly have known the terrible age of the Earth, how the continents moved. The discovery of radioactivity was 150 years in the future when Newton lay dying, and its use as a clock for geologic eras was still more years later.

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If Newton were born today, he wouldn't have to invent the parabolic mirror telescope; instead, he could use one-- perhaps one orbiting the Earth. He wouldn't have to invent calculus; by the age of 20 he would have mastered it. He could then use it, apply it to his observations. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and that allows us to see very far indeed. Newton was one of those giants, but today's Newton would see even farther.

If Newton were born today, he wouldn't be a creationist. He'd be a cosmologist.

So please, spare me the ridiculous comparisons of smart people who are or were creationists. In Newton's time it was all there was, but today we understand so much more. And of course there is more to see, and always, always more to learn.

But all that we have learned so far is unequivocally at odds with young Earth creationism, and Universities are absolutely right for not wanting to have a YEC teach their classes.

The analogy is ridiculous, and insulting. Newton didn't see far because he was a creationist, he saw far because he was a genius. Asking what it would be like for him today is the wrong question, since it is posed so poorly. But a much more fair question to ask is: how much farther might he have seen had he not been a creationist? And how many Newtons are out there now, but having their vision dimmed by the fog?