Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton’s Masterpiece

Colin Pask. Prometheus Books, $26 (500p) ISBN 978-1-61614-745-7
Pask (Mathematics for the Frightened) offers an insightful and expansive look into Isaac Newton’s complex and illuminating 1687 publication on classical mechanics, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, aka the Principia. The emeritus math professor (at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia) begins with a review of Newton’s life and the 17th-century science scene. Copernicus’s heliocentric theory and Galileo’s observations had recently overturned ancient Greek and Islamic cosmological models that posited Earth as “the center of the universe,” and Kepler’s laws of planetary motion demonstrated that the planets moved in ellipses, not perfect circles. Newton drew on the work of his predecessors and contemporaries, as well as his own experimentation and brilliant intuitions, and after years of secretive work, the intense, enigmatic, and mercurial thinker reluctantly published the Principia at the urging of astronomer and fellow Royal Society member Edmond Halley, who also funded its printing. Newton wrote very much in the style of the ancient Greeks to explain how gravity affects motion on Earth and in the heavens while simultaneously defining the differential calculus that would become an invaluable tool for the centuries of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians that would follow. Breaking the Principia down into easily digestible portions and suffusing his narrative with modern insights, Pask reveals the genius that built modern physics. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/10/2013
Release date: 09/03/2013
Genre: Nonfiction
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