Newton's optics and atomism
ALAN E. SHAPIRO
After his first optical publications in 1672 Newton was identified by his contemporaries and later generations as a supporter of the corpuscular or emission theory of light, in which light is assumed to consist of corpuscles, or atoms, emitted from a luminous source such as the Sun. While it is true that Newton believed in a corpuscular theory, utilized it in developing many of his optical experiments and theories, and argued vigorously against the wave theory of light, he never believed that it was a demonstrated scientific truth and considered it to be only a probable hypothesis. This distinction explains why, for example, he never set forth a synthetic account of the emission theory and eschewed it in his public accounts of his scientific theories. In order to understand Newton's advocacy and use of atomism in his optics it is necessary to understand his views on hypotheses and certainty in science.
From the beginning of his scientific career Newton was concerned with establishing a new, more certain science to replace contemporary science, which he felt was rife with “conjectures and probabilities. ” 1 He believed that he could establish a more certain science both by developing mathematical theories and by basing his theories on experimentally discovered properties. To establish a more certain science, Newton insisted that one must “not mingle conjectures with certainties. ” 2 To avoid compromising rigorously demonstrated principles by hypotheses, he developed the techniques of clearly labeling hypotheses as such and setting them apart, as with his “An hypothesis explaining the properties of light discoursed of