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<   No. 2213   2009-02-16   >

Comic #2213

1 Ishmael: Hey! You're Isaac Newton!
1 Isaac Newton: That is my name, but I am at a loss as to how you know it, sir.
2 Ishmael: I'm a big fan! Tell me, what led you to using an inverse square law to describe gravity?
2 Isaac Newton: Inverse... what?
3 Ishmael: Oh... Here, I'll show you. I've got some paper.
4 Ishmael: It involves a bit of calculus.
4 Isaac Newton: Calculus??

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I hope Isaac Newton needs no introduction. It's hard to imagine what modern life would be like without Newton. Of course many of his discoveries would eventually have been made by other scientists, but he contributed so much to our understanding of the universe at such an important period in history that it's almost certain that technology and the society that it supports would not have advanced as far as it has today without him.

Surveys of both scientists and the general public have agreed many times that Newton was the most influential scientist in history. In fact, Michael H. Hart, in his book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, ranked Newton as the second most influential person ever, second only after Muhammad and edging Jesus Christ into 3rd place and Buddha into 4th. While this ranking is obviously debatable, the fact that Newton can even argue for a position in the top 10 shows just how important a figure he is.

So, Newton figured out a lot of stuff that nobody before him had ever managed to understand. How did he do it? Perhaps he had a little help...

2021-10-10 Rerun commentary: I'm actually taking a big liberty with this comic.

Explaining the inverse square law doesn't really require calculus to understand. You can get an intuitive feeling for it with just a simple diagram (see the one on the linked Wikipedia page). Johannes Kepler in fact published his conclusion that light spreads according to an inverse square relationship in 1604, some 39 years before Newton was born (and hence well before Newton developed calculus).

Although calculus will let you derive the exact mathematical formulation and prove that the power is exactly a square rather than, say 2.1 or 1.9.

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