From the Phenomenon of
the Ellipse to an Inverse-Square
Force: Why Not?
GEORGE E. SMITH
Even though I focus less on the conceptual side of science than does Howard Stein, and more on the evidential side—especially on why certain sciences have been so much more successful in turning data into evidence than others—no philosopher has influenced my approach to philosophy of science more than he has. This is particularly true of three papers he published within the last decade, one on Locke, Huygens, and Newton (Stein 1990a), one on Newton's deduction of universal gravity from phenomena (Stein 1990b), and most of all “Some Reflections on the Structure of Our Knowledge in Physics” (Stein 1994). One theme that runs through these papers is how extraordinarily different Newtonian science was from anything that went before, so different that the failure of Huygens, for example, to appreciate it is not reason to respect him less, but instead to marvel at Newton. As the following excerpt from a letter of Huygens to Leibniz in 1690 makes clear, although Huygens did understand the Principia itself, he definitely did not understand the approach to science that Newton was pursuing:
Concerning the Cause of the tides given by M. Newton, I am by no means
satisfied, nor by all the other Theories that he builds upon his Principle of
Attraction, which seems to me absurd, as I have already mentioned in the addi-
I wish to thank Kenneth G. Wilson and, as always, Curtis Wilson for reading and
commenting on an earlier draft of this paper; I have ceased being able to distinguish
what I have learned over the years about science from these two and what I have man-
aged to sort out for myself. I must also acknowledge helpful suggestions beyond those
cited below from Babak Ashrafi, Jody Azzouni, David Bloor, I. Bernard Cohen,
Markus Fierz, Bill Harper, Michael Nauenberg, Eric Schliesser, and India Smith, as
well as the assistance of Benjamin Weiss of the Burndy Library.