Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Smartest Man in Human History

That’s right I said it, but don’t take my word for it. Listen to Astronomer/Physicist and fellow science ambassador Dr. Neil Tyson discuss Sir Isaac Newton in this TIME special:

Much like Einstein’s famous E=mc2, the reigning champion in the realm of famous equations prior to Einstein was Newton’s F=ma. An even more elegant and simple equation since there is no square involved.

Last time we provided an example of how to “read” and equation in English. Lets try this again with our second most famous equation in science history:

Translation: “The force (F) on any object must be equal to (=) the mass of the object (m) multiplied by the acceleration (a) of the object”

This may seem painfully obvious to you, but at the time, this was some mind-blowing stuff. Acceleration can be an abstract idea to some, so let's clear this up right now. Acceleration is a rate. It describes the change in velocity of an object.

Newton’s concept comes down to a firm base in position of where something exists in space. A simple concept that we all are quite used to. “My car is parked in the garage” is an example of a position of an object. You could also say, “my house is on 101 Newton Avenue”, but there’s a big difference between a car and a house: a car moves!

Since you car actually moves from time to time, its position must change. The rate of positional change of your car is known as velocity (or speed). If we take this idea one step further, we can determine the rate at which an object changes its speed over time. This rate is known as acceleration. A car cannot move without accelerating first, and it cannot stop without decelerating.

Back in Newton’s time, the distinction between speed and acceleration wasn’t very clear to most people and many actually considered them the same thing. Newton however, realized something amazing: of these 3 (position, velocity and acceleration) the human body can only “feel” acceleration. You feel the same whether you are sitting in your house or at work. If you were riding in a car on a perfectly smooth road with your eyes closed, you would not sense that you are moving at all! The only way to know you are moving would be using your eyes. However, when you accelerate or decelerate, you can “feel” it. Your body is forced into your seat when you are accelerating. A force therefore is something you can physically feel.

Newton correctly, and for the first time in history, realized that the force you feel on your body must be directly related to your body’s acceleration. Conversely, in order for an object to change is velocity (speed up or slow down), it MUST experience a force. Sometimes the force you experience is a bad thing…in a car accident, the force that hurts you is due 100% to how fast you decelerate to a stop.

But Newton also realized that mass plays a large role in this relationship because the heavier an object is…the more force it takes to speed it up and slow it down. So as you can hopefully see, there is something oddly fantastic about this because it describes something visceral and basic in your experience as a human being: the sense of physical feeling. Anytime you feel motion as a human being, you must be accelerating in some fashion.

Believe it or not from this formula, spawned forth all modern forms of travel, machinery, weapons, our understanding of the solar system, and even how we measure the passage of time! If it wasn’t for Newton, it might have been another 1000 years before this law of nature was realized, and we’d still all be travelling by horse, never going more than a few miles away from our homes…

...An interesting Newton Fact: The smartest man to ever live wasn't smart enough to avoid the 18th century's largest economic bubble when he lost over a million dollars (in today's money) when the South Sea Company's stock crashed in 1722.

He later remarked: "I can measure the motions of celestial bodies, but I cannot measure human folly."

Keep this in mind any time you here economists who believe they actually know how the economy works. If Newton couldn't figure it out, its doubtful anyone else can.

1 comment:

  1. Newton would be ashamed that atheists have flocked to the fields of origins. He was one of the first to realize that God used mechanisms as secondary causes for creation and marveled at the beauty of the "mousetrap", cause and effect, way God chose to create.
    Yet today we have people thinking because they can understand some of the mechanisms---there is no Agent. Which is like knowing how a car works but claiming it built and designed itself.