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Isaac Newton is one of the most important scientists in the history of the world. His discoveries have impacted almost every aspect of physics, and a huge part of the first two semesters of any physics course is dominated by his discoveries.
It raises an interesting question: If Nobel Prizes were given out when Newton was alive, how many would he have won?
Join me as I play fantasy Nobel Prizes with Sir Isaac Newton on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com.
My audiobook recommendation today is The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, The Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick.
The Clockwork Universe is the story of a band of men who lived in a world of dirt and disease but pictured a universe that ran like a perfect machine. A meld of history and science, this book is a group portrait of some of the greatest minds who ever lived as they wrestled with nature’s most sweeping mysteries. The answers they uncovered still hold the key to how we understand the world.
You can get a free one-month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.
In a previous episode, I went over the number of Nobel prizes that Einstein could have or should have won assuming they gave out posthumous awards.
This was a relatively easy exercise insofar as Einstein actually did win a Nobel Prize, and I was able to limit the discussion mostly to things that won a Nobel Prize, but Einstein just didn’t get credit.
For Newton, this exercise is much more difficult. Isaac Newton died in 1727, and the first Nobel prizes weren’t given out until 1901.
Moreover, the world of science was really different in the 17th century than it was in the early 20th century. Newton was making discoveries in very basic things compared to later discoveries. He was in fact, picking the low-hanging fruit in the world of physics.
Nonetheless, it was Newton that did it. He laid the foundation on which science is being built today.
So, because this is such a theoretical exercise, I’ll define something as Nobel prize-worthy if it is a discovery that was a significant advance in science, or if it allowed for significant advancements in science. Because I’m doing this almost 300 years after Newton’s death, I have the benefit of hindsight to see which of his advancements have stood the test of time.
Let’s start with one of Newton’s biggest accomplishments, and the one which might cause the most controversy in this discussion: calculus.
As I noted in my previous episode on who invented calculus, Newton certainly invented calculus independently, but never publicized it.
The controversy lies in the fact that there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics.
However, there have been prizes given for the development of techniques that allowed science to advance. For example, the 1993 prize in chemistry was given to Kary Mullis for his development of the polymerase chain reaction techniques for DNA replication. The PCR technique was vital for the advancement of all genetic science.
So in that vein, we’ll give Newton a Nobel prize for calculus as all subsequent physics is dependent on calculus. Nothing else would really exist without it. It really is that important. This isn’t just solving a mathematical problem, it is developing an entire branch of mathematics.
…and for the record, he’ll share this prize with Gottfried Leibniz, who is considered the co-inventor of calculus.
In the same vein, we’ll give Newton a second Nobel prize for the development of the reflecting telescope.
Every single optical research telescope built in the last 100 years is a reflecting telescope (I’ll refer to my previous episode on telescopes).
The Hubble Telescope, the Keck Telescopes, the Gran Telescopio Canarias have all been reflecting telescopes. All extrasolar planets have been discovered with reflecting telescopes. Every planet and planetoid in the solar system was discovered with a reflecting telescope.
Basically, modern astronomy doesn’t exist without this, so you have to give Newton Nobel prize number two.
Now we can start getting into his actual scientific discoveries, and the first thing you have to recognize are his three fundamental laws of motion.
His first law is the Law of Inertia. His second law is the equation, force equals mass times acceleration. His third law holds that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
That these are fundamental are beyond doubt. The real question is how many prizes we award.
I think the answer is three. Each of these is so fundamental that any one of them, had they been discovered by someone else, would have put them in the history books. So, I’ll award Newton three more Nobel Prizes for his fundamental laws, because they are so fundamental.
The next theoretical Nobel prize would be awarded for his work on the theory of gravity.
Newton basically laid down the understanding of a thing called gravity. He made sense of the observations made by Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus.
As he described it:
Every particle of matter attracts every other particle with a force along the straight line joining them and is directly proportional to their masses, while inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
Again, this is one that is incredibly obvious, and it would be theoretical Nobel prize number six.
Next would be Newton’s groundbreaking work with light.
Newton’s work with light was mostly experimental. His biggest discovery was that light was made up of different colors. He was able to separate white light into colors with a prism and then recombine them into white light.
His work with light probably wasn’t quite a foundational as his work with gravity and motion, but it was still really important and for the 17th century, was revolutionary.
So that’s seven prizes so far.
Number eight would be for Newton’s Law of Cooling.
His law of cooling states the rate of heat loss of a body is directly proportional to the difference in the temperatures between the body and its surroundings.
This law laid the foundation for the study of thermodynamics.
Theoretical Nobel prize number nine would be given for the explanation of Newtonian Fluids.
Newtonian fluids are fluids like water. A Newtonian fluid’s viscosity remains constant, no matter the amount of shear applied at a constant temperature. A non-newtonian fluid changes its viscosity when a force is applied.
You can find great videos of people walking quickly across non-newtonian fluids like cornstarch mixed with water. The initial force of a step on it causes the viscosity of the fluid to increase briefly, allowing you to walk over it if you walk quickly. If you stand still, you’ll sink.
The fact that these are called Newtonian and non-Newtonian fluids should give you an idea as to the importance of Isaac Newton’s contribution.
He would probably not be awarded this prize by himself.
There are many other scientific fields that Newton influenced, but it’s hard to grant him a prize because he didn’t actually do anything in those fields.
For example, there are laws in electricity and magnetism which are very similar to Newton’s gravitational equation. They were clearly inspired by Newton, but Newton didn’t do anything with electricity or magnetism.
Likewise, he was the first person to theorize an artificial satellite, but it was really just an application of his gravitational theories.
There is however one more Nobel prize that he would probably have earned.
The final Nobel prize isn’t for science, it would be for economics.
Newton didn’t spend most of his life working on all the scientific discoveries I listed. He spent most of his life working on things like alchemy and trying to decipher biblical prophecies.
He also had a very prestigious job for over 30 years as the head of the Royal Mint.
At the time, England had a problem with coin clipping. This is where people would shave off the edges of a coin. They would keep the shavings, which were made of the same precious metal, and then try to pass on the slightly smaller coin.
Newton oversaw a new coinage system in England where the coins had milled edges. These are small serrations on the edge of a coin. Many coins still have these today including the US quarter and dime.
The edges ensured that if anyone tried to clip the coin, it would be very obvious because the milled edges would be removed and the coin would become smooth.
This might not sound like a big deal now, but for the 17th century, it was a huge deal. It was a landmark in stopping coin debasement and inflation.
So, 10 potential Nobel Prizes is pretty good. It’s one less than what I gave Einstein, but I can’t think of many people who might be awarded more theoretical Nobel Prizes.
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