Flub Newton (or: #newtonfail)

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

You know those days when you lock yourself out of the house because you left your keys in your pants and your pants in the closet? Take comfort knowing that we all make mistakes. Even Sir Isaac Newton, who was smart enough to figure out gravity and stuff like that.

Father and son sleuths Patrick and Paul Selvadurai used digital imagery to scan Newton’s hand-sketched work, looking for errors. Patrick is a professor of civil engineering and applied mechanics at McGill; Paul is a McGill grad now doing his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. In a paper entitled “Historical Notes: A Momentary Lapse of Concentration by the Genius?” (published in last month’s issue of Mathematics TODAY, the bulletin of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, UK) they revealed that the so-called master of mathematics, physics and astronomy made a boo-boo.

On a sketch Newton made during the time he was finishing his famous Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), Newton miscalculated 15 x 15. The Selvadurais’s digital imaging analysis conclusively proves that the number written by Newton was 125, rather than the correct answer of 225.

Patrick Selvadurai’s reaction? “For a moment, you want to cry,” he told the Gazette, “because you hold Isaac Newton in such high esteem.”

The error does not bring to question Newton’s entire body of work. There’s every indication that Newton did, in fact, know that that 15 squared is 225. This finding proves only that Newton, like every other researcher, could be victim to a momentary lapse of concentration. They say “to err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer” but in this case, Newton might have benefit from having an Apple computer around, instead of, you know, just apples.

On a happier note, belated congratulations to the Selvadurai team for another collaboration: another of their father-son papers, this one published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society, was awarded the 2011 Outstanding Paper Prize by the International Association for Computer Methods and Advances in Geomechanics at the International Conference held in Melbourne this past May.

Photo: 1689 Portrait of Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller (public domain)

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