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Friday, November 04, 2005

Isaac Newton's great swindle

Translation of Historias de economistas ilustres: Los trapicheos de Isaac Newton by Francisco Cabrillo published in Libertad Digital on 4-Nov-2005.

There are not many who would question that Isaac Newton is one of the greatest scientists of all times. So some people might find it strange to find his name included, not in a series dedicated to physicists or mathematicians where we would normally expect to see him, but to the biographies of economists. There are two reasons that explain his appearance here. The first is that he spent a substantial amount of his professional life working on questions related to the economy. The second is that one of his most important scientific contributions, the invention of differential calculus, has become one of the fundamental analytical tools for economists since the latter part of the 19th century. Without a doubt, this was his great contribution to economic theory.

Newton was born in Woolsthorpe, England, in 1643 into a well-to-do family of low social standing. He never knew his father, who had died three months before he was born. His mother quickly re-married, which resulted in a rather unfortunate childhood where he was more cared for by his grandmother than by his mother and step-father. It seems that neither the parents nor the child felt much respect for each other.

After studying sciences at Cambridge he was appointed Professor of Mathematics by the university when he was only twenty-six years old. He was forty-three when his most important book, the “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), was published. His connection with economic life in England started later. In 1696 he moved to London as warden of the Royal Mint, responsible for the release of the coinage. Taking an interest in the monetary problems of the day, he investigated a number of technical issues regarding the system of money in Britain, amongst which was the relative value of gold and silver.

However, this article is not concerned with his role in the Royal Mint, but with his contribution to the development of economic analysis: the invention of differential calculus. The origin of this great invention is one of the most debated topics in the history of mathematics. The great German philosopher and mathematician, Leibniz, has at least as great a claim as Newton to be considered the original creator of calculus, which has influenced not only physics and mathematics but also all subsequent scientific progress. The truth is that both worked completely independently on the subject. It seems that Newton created his model, which he called the “method of fluxions” in the year 1671, before Leibniz achieved a satisfactory notation for his calculus on which he had been working for some time. But Newton didn't publish the results of his investigations at the time, and they reached the printing presses later.

The two mathematicians wrangled over who got there first. Between 1673 and 1677 they exchanged several letters, and although they were written in academic language, they clearly showed that each wanted to be considered as the original creator of differential calculus. And both had reasons and arguments that carried weight. Then Newton flew into a rage - something that did not occur infrequently according to those who knew him - and did what every decent intellectual should be ashamed of: he shamelessly fabricated a scientific report.

He was then the president of the Royal Society. Taking advantage of his role, he named a committee to investigate whether he or Leibniz should be considered as the original inventor of the calculus. The group should have deliberated theoretically and impartially, but we know that in this unfortunate episode there was everything but objectivity. Newton not only named his own friends for the committee, but also had the arrogance to write the report himself, getting the committee members to rubber stamp it with their signatures. If that wasn't enough, he had an anonymous review of this report, which we know was written by him, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. It is probably not necessary to indicate to the reader which side was favoured by this contrived and manipulated committee. I have always thought that Newton would have lost nothing if he had behaved in a more dignified manner.


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“Then Newton flew into a rage - something that did not occur infrequently according to those who knew him - and did what every decent intellectual should be ashamed of: he shamelessly fabricated a scientific report.”

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