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A Reason to Put Science in the Season

December 23, 2010 - 9:45am

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At this time of year, few people would consider decorating their trees with tinsel ...and test tubes. But there’s a good reason to put a bit of science in the season.

Specifically, Christmas Day marks the birth one of the foremost scientists of all time, Sir Isaac Newton. He was born 368 years ago in the town of Woolsthorpe, Linconshire.

Newton is probably best known for being bonked in the head with an apple and discovering gravity as a result. Newton’s most creative years came while he was on a holiday of sorts, staying in the countryside to avoid the plague raging at Cambridge. While there, he seems to have wondered why apples fall downward, instead of sidewise or upward, and realized that the same force pulling them down was keeping the Moon above.

His insight was right. But proving the math took time. Newton eventually came up with his three laws of motion, which were published in the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the Principia, in 1686. Newton’s first law describes inertia – and couch potatoes – by noting that every object stays in rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless acted on by another force. His second law explains how an object’s motion is altered by an external force, “Force equals mass times acceleration (F = m a).” Newton’s third law then describes how forces act on one another, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Those laws were perhaps Newton’s greatest gift to science, though he made many others. Since stars are in season, it’s appropriate to remember that Newton also invented and constructed the reflecting telescope. He dabbled in alchemy and devoted himself to theology. Newton proved that white light can be separated into a spectrum of colors, and also served as Master of the Mint (money, not morning breath). He also left a lump of coal in the stockings of future scientists and engineers by inventing differential and integral calculus (independently of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz).

Perhaps just as importantly – in an unexpected sense – Newton’s monumental work was still nagged by a few infinitesimal inconsistencies. For instance, the orbit of the planet Mercury is off by some 43 seconds per century. Most of us (especially if we’re already running late for the party) would call it a solid century and leave it at that. But Einstein didn’t. A few centuries later, his prediction of a more perfect orbit for Mercury was one of the proofs of his theory of space and time.

Since the Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, providing more than 40 percent of total funding, it’s fitting for us to mark this day. So happy birthday Sir Isaac! And if you need to find us for the rest of the week, we’ll be admiring the test tubes on the tree.

Happy Holidays!

For more information on the Office of Science, please go to: http://www.science.doe.gov/.

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