The Cambridge Companion to Newton

By I. Bernard Cohen; George E. Smith | Go to book overview

7
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.


HYPOTHESES IN NEWTON'S 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

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The Cambridge Companion to Newton
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Figures vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Preface xiii
  • Introduction 1
  • Notes *
  • 1 - Newton's Philosophical Analysis of Space and Time 33
  • Notes *
  • 2 - Newton's Concepts of Force and Mass, with Notes on the Laws of Motion 57
  • Notes *
  • 3 - Curvature in Newton's Dynamics 85
  • Notes *
  • 4 - The Methodology of the Principia 138
  • Notes *
  • 5 - Newton's Argument for Universal Gravitation 174
  • Notes *
  • 6 - Newton and Celestial Mechanics 202
  • Notes *
  • 7 - Newton's Optics and Atomism 227
  • Notes *
  • 8 - Newton's Metaphysics 256
  • Notes *
  • 9 - Analysis and Synthesis in Newton's Mathematical Work 308
  • Notes *
  • 10 - Newton, Active Powers, and the Mechanical Philosophy 329
  • Notes *
  • 11 - The Background to Newton's Chymistry 358
  • Notes *
  • 12 - Newton's Alchemy 370
  • Notes *
  • 13 - Newton on Prophecy and the Apocalypse 387
  • Notes *
  • 14 - Newton and Eighteenth-Century Christianity 409
  • Notes *
  • 15 - Newton Versus Leibniz: from Geometry to Metaphysics 431
  • Notes *
  • 16 - Newton and the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence 455
  • Notes *
  • Bibliography 465
  • Index 481
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