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Archive for November, 2015

A very interesting essay from Alex Vilenkin on whether the universe has a beginning and what this implies. If you want my opinion, “nothing” does not equal “physical system with zero energy”.

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I recently commented on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s chiding of Isaac Newton for failing to anticipate Laplace’s discovery of the stability of the Solar System. He has commented further on this episode and others in this article for Natural History Magazine.

Tyson’s thesis is as follows:

… a careful reading of older texts, particularly those concerned with the universe itself, shows that the authors invoke divinity only when they reach the boundaries of their understanding.

To support this hypothesis, Tyson quotes Newton, 2nd century Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy and 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. The remarkable thing about Tyson’s article is that none of the quotes come close to proving his thesis; in fact, they prove the opposite.

Newton and God

Tyson is quotes from Newton’s General Scholium, an essay appended to the end of the second and third editions of the Principia.

But in the absence of data, at the border between what he could explain and what he could only honor—the causes he could identify and those he could not—Newton rapturously invokes God:

“Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; … he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. … We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes; we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion.”

To be blunt, what part of “he governs all things” doesn’t Tyson understand? God’s “dominion” – the extent of his rule – is “always and everywhere”. Clearly, Newton is not invoking God only at the edge of scientific knowledge, but everywhere and in everything. The Scholium is not long, so I invite you to read it; you will nowhere find Newton saying that God is only found where science has run out of answers. You will find him saying (echoing Paul) that “In him are all things contained and moved.” (more…)

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Warning: long post!

Abstract: Neil deGrasse Tyson has argued that Isaac Newton’s religious views stymied his science, preventing him from discovering what Laplace showed a century later – that the planetary orbits are stable against perturbation. This conclusion is highly dubious. Newton did develop perturbation theory, and applied it to the moon’s orbit. His lack of progress is explainable in terms of his inferior geometrical, rather than algebraic, approach. Laplace built on the important work of Clairaut, Euler, d’Alembert and Lagrange, which was not available to Newton. Laplace’s discovery was not definitive – computer simulations have showed that the Solar system is chaotic. And finally, Newton does not give up on science and invoke God at the first sight of ignorance, saying rather “I frame no hypothesis”. His “Reformation” of the Solar System is plausibly not supposed to be miraculous. I conclude that scientists (myself included) are terrible at history. (more…)

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