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Karl W. Giberson


The Warden of Time and Space

Part 2: Newton's Principia.

I believe the souls of five hundred Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or a Milton.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The achievements of great writers, painters, and musicians are accessible to a general audience in a way that the achievements of great scientists are not. In deprecating Newton's genius, the great poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge was retailing a familiar humanist theme, that mere science lacks the exquisite depth and resonance of great art and indeed should be regarded as inferior to it. At the opposite from Coleridge's disdain is the equally uninformed idolizing of an Albert Einstein or a Stephen Hawking: the Scientist as celebrity. But those are not the only alternatives. With a little patience, the outlines of Newton's achivement can be grasped by anyone who is reading these words.

Newton's masterwork is the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), commonly known as the Principia. The first edition appeared in 1687, the second in 1713, and the third and final edition in 1726. Newton wrote the Principia in Latin, and until recently there has been only one complete translation into English, that of Andrew Motte in 1729. While adequate, Motte's translation was flawed in many ways, and, as old books are prone to do, it became a bit of a linguistic fossil over the years as its prose remained the same while the language around it changed.

In response to these concerns the University of California Press brought out an elegant new edition in 1934, nicely bound in leather, with a revised translation by Florian Cajori. Cajori did not prepare a fresh translation from scratch; he simply tried to "defossilize" Motte's English so modern readers could understand it. This Motte-Cajori version has been definitive since its introduction and continues to reside in some very respectable places on bookshelves throughout the English-speaking world; perhaps its most common residence is between ...

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