Monday 12 December 2011

Newton's Principia Mathematica goes on line.

Today (12 December 2011) the Cambridge Digital Library at the University of Cambridge made available an original copy of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica available on line, part of an ongoing project to make as much of his work available on line as possible, which also includes his student notebooks, other scientific papers etc. The Digital Library hope to expand this project to include a great number of other historic documents held by the university.

Isaac Newton is considered the founder of modern physics, largely on the strength of Principia Mathematica, which lays out laws of motion useful for determining the movement of everything from cannonballs to the solar system, though he had also dabbled in many other areas of what we would now call physics before writing this book; he was developed theories on optics, calculus, gravity and sound, as well as working in mathematics, theology and the occult. If these last two seem out of place to us, then this is a reflection on Newton's times, not the man himself; in the seventeenth century theology and the occult were as important to understanding the universe as mathematics and physics.

Sir Isaac Newton.

All of this makes Newton's work very interesting to a scholar with a scientific take on life, if not actually very revolutionary after 350 years, so it is good to have this resource available. Having said this, I do have a couple of criticisms. The controls on the page are rather clunky; it is necessary to change screen view between tuning pages and zooming (and it is impossible to read without zooming). More importantly the document is in Latin, a language that I read rather slowly, and many modern scholars not at all. This is not a criticism of Newton, in his day Latin was the language of the educated class, and he would not have been taken seriously if he had not used it. But for modern readers it would be useful to have a translation alongside the original script. As it is the scanned seventeenth century document is not even in a format that could be used with a translation website, making the document pretty to look at, but essentially useless for 99% of the human race.

This might seem slightly anti-intellectual of me, Cambridge prides itself on being an elite university, and its scholars may well feel that Newton is best read in the language in which he wrote, but the Internet is basically an egalitarian endeavor, placing a document online is (at least in theory) placing it at the disposal of all mankind, a modern version of the great Encyclopedia of revolutionary France. It is not just the physical appearance of the document that is important, but also the meaning of its content. Without this it is no more than a pattern of Egyptian Hieroglyphs reproduced on a mug, a pattern shorn of its purpose.