Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton’s Masterpiece,

Prometheus Books
, 2013. $26.00 (528 pp.). ISBN 978-1-61614-745-7 Buy at Amazon

Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, has defeated readers for more than three centuries. It consists of a baroque system of propositions followed by abridged demonstrations expressed in a scientific language that today seems unfamiliar. Passages recognizable as belonging to mathematics or physics are interspersed with metaphysical considerations and theological and historical references. In addition, as most contemporary interpreters acknowledge, Newton deliberately made the Principia difficult to read by formulating laws and propositions in a “mathematical way.” He made that move partly for reasons having to do with his personal idiosyncrasies, including his desire to avoid philosophical disputations.

Mathematician Colin Pask’s Magnificent “Principia”: Exploring Isaac Newton’s Masterpiece belongs to a respectable tradition: books that attempt to translate the abstruse Principia for the common reader. However, the common reader differs widely from one author to the next. Niccolò Guicciardini’s Reading the “Principia”: The Debate on Newton’s Mathematical Methods for Natural Philosophy from 1687 to 1736 (Cambridge University Press, 1999) addresses the professional historian of science. The same historian can also turn to William Harper’s Isaac Newton’s Scientific Method: Turning Data into Evidence About Gravity and Cosmology (Oxford University Press, 2011) for useful insights into the amazing amount of empirical work grounding Principia’s theoretical achievements. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s Newton’s “Principia” for the Common Reader (Oxford University Press, 1995) addresses the student and the scientist with little interest in the historical context of Newton’s Principia. Chandrasekhar’s main purpose is to reconstruct Newton’s mathematical physics in contemporary language.

Pask’s common reader is the graduate student. His book presents a clear and widely accessible introduction to the Principia. The method of exposition is simple: Pask takes Newton’s propositions one by one, explains their significance for the development of mechanics, and translates the results into modern scientific language. At each stage, the reader is guided by the following questions: What did Newton do? How did he do it? How does it fit into the scheme of mechanics and its applications? And how do we carry out such things today?

Many chapters contain illuminating examples of Newton’s peculiar style: the way he would set a problem, which is then translated to modern terms, or his working methods, which are compared with modern theoretical approaches. On display throughout the book is Newton’s liberal and opportunistic use of various mathematical methods, his attempt to reach a maximum of mathematical generalization, his use of interesting limiting cases, and his numerous—and sometimes bewildering—shortcuts.

Pask gives only a sketchy description of the historical context, and he doesn’t address at all a number of relevant and thorny philosophical issues. The reader who wants to understand Newton the man will need to supplement Pask’s portrait with other writings. That said, Magnificent “Principia” certainly provides a useful introduction to Newton. In combination with the original Principia and other more historically minded works, it would make an excellent class text that will benefit the graduate student for years to come. And happily, some of that supplemental material is referenced by Pask in the brief but useful lists of further readings that conclude each chapter.

Dana Jalobeanu is a lecturer in the department of philosophy at the University of Bucharest in Romania. She is a founder and program coordinator of the university’s Research Center for the Foundations of Modern Thought and a member of its Center for the Logic, History and Philosophy of Science.