We have been misreading a key law of physics for the past 300 years
When Isaac Newton wrote down his famous laws of motion on vellum in 1687, he could only hope that we would be discussing them three centuries later.
Writing in Latin, Newton identified three universal principles describing how to control the motion of objects in our world, which have been translated, copied, discussed, and debated at length.
But according to the philosopher of language and mathematics, we may have been interpreting Newton’s precise formulation of his first law of motion a little wrong all along.
Daniel Hooke, a philosopher at Virginia Tech, wanted to “set the record straight” after discovering what he described as a “clumsy mistranslation” in the original 1729 English translation of Newton’s Latin book. principles.
Based on this translation, countless academics and teachers have since interpreted Newton’s first law of inertia to mean that an object will continue to move in a straight line or remain at rest unless An external force intervenes.
It’s a description that works well until you realize that external forces are constantly at work, something Newton must have taken into account in his formulation.
Revisiting the archives, Hooke realized that this common paraphrase implied a misinterpretation that had remained under the radar until 1999, when two scholars discovered the translation of one overlooked Latin word: quatenus, which means “to some extent,” and nothing more.
For Hawk, this makes a big difference. Instead of describing how an object would retain its momentum if no forces acted on it, Hooke says the new reading shows that Newton meant that every change in an object’s momentum — every jolt, dip, yaw, and boom — was due to external forces.
“By putting this (somewhat) forgotten word back in its place, (these scientists) have restored one of the fundamental principles of physics to its original splendor,” Hooke explains in a blog post describing his findings, which were published academically in a 2022 paper.
However, this critical correction never caught on. Even now it may struggle to gain momentum under the weight of centuries of repetition.
“Some people find my reading too wild and unorthodox to be taken seriously,” Hook says. “Others think this is so obviously true that it is hardly worth arguing about.”
Laypeople might agree that this sounds like semantics. Hooke admits that reinterpretation has not and will not change physics. But a closer examination of Newton’s own writings makes clear what the leading mathematician of the time was thinking.
“A great deal of ink has been spilled on the question of what the law of inertia is truly “So,” explains Hooke, who as a student had been puzzled by what Newton meant.
If we take the prevailing translation, which is that bodies move in straight lines until forced otherwise by a force, it raises the question: why would Newton write a law about bodies devoid of external forces when there is no such thing in our universe; When gravity and friction are always present?
“The whole point of the first law is to deduce the existence of force,” George Smith, a Tufts University philosopher and expert on Newton’s writings, told journalist Stephanie Pappas. American Scientific.
In fact, Newton gave three concrete examples to illustrate his first law of motion: The most obvious, according to Hooke, is a rotating top—which, as we know, slows down in a taut vortex due to air friction.
“By giving this example,” Hooke wrote, “Newton clearly shows us how the first law, as he understands it, applies to accelerating bodies subject to forces—that is, it applies to bodies in the real world.”
Hooke says this revised interpretation brings home one of Newton’s most fundamental ideas which was quite revolutionary at the time. That is, planets, stars, and other celestial bodies are all subject to the same physical laws as objects on Earth.
“Every change in velocity and every tendency in direction,” says Hooke—from swarms of atoms to swirling galaxies—“is subject to Newton’s first law.”
Making us all feel once again connected to the furthest reaches of space.
The paper was published in Philosophy of science.
A previous version of this article was published in September 2023.