In From Clockwork to Crapshoot, Roger Newton, whose previous works have been widely praised for erudition and accessibility, presents a. From Clockwork to Crapshoot provides the perspective needed to understand contemporary developments in physics in relation to philosophical traditions as far. From Clockwork to Crapshoot: A History of Physics. Roger G. Newton, Author. Harvard/Belknap $ (p) ISBN

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From clockwork to crapshoot: A history of physics Home From clockwork to crapshoot: A history of physics. I clofkwork particular attention to the change from a deterministic view of nature to one dominated by probabilities, from viewing the universe as running like clockwork to seeing it as a crapshoot.

Written for the general scientifically interested reader rather than for professional scientists, the book presents, whenever needed, brief explanations of the scientific issues involved, biographical thumbnail sketches of the protagonists, and descriptions of the changing crapahoot that enabled scientists to discover ever new facts begging to be understood and to test their theories.

The book is not a detailed history that judges the contributions of every one of the individuals involved in this enterprise, important as some of them may have been, nor does it trace the origin of every new concept to its ultimate source. More modest in scope at the historical micro-level, its focus is on the general development of ideas.

I also thank Holis Johnson, historu our astronomy department, for his advice, and my wife, Ruth, for invaluable editorial assistance. As this activity evolved into what is now called science, it became more than just a collection of disconnected facts.

Important as these remained, they began to serve primarily to anchor a larger conception of the workings and structure of nature, a conception that forms one of the grandest achievements of the human spirit. In the course of this long historical development, as more facts were discovered, concepts changed, sometimes radically. But certain large-scale themes persisted, informing the questions scientists and scientifically inclined philosophers asked and the kinds of answers they expected.

One theme became clearly recognizable early on, and gradually separated the branch now called physics from crapshooot other parts of science: Whether dealing with the reliable functioning of instruments of agriculture, engineering, and war or with a description of the course of the awesome heavenly bodies, the goal of understanding was predictability and its causes. If one does not know these causes, although one phjsics be right [about the facts], crapshooot is as if one knew nothing. Aristotle himself set down laws governing the movements of the heavenly bodies and rules determining the motions of objects on earth.

Surviving the vicissitudes of history, including the fall of the Greek and Roman civilizations and the rise of Christianity and Islam, the effort to understand nature by discovering fundamental laws culminated in the great scientific revolution led by Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.

Before long, the pervading determinism was further eroded: At the most fundamental level, chance took the place of necessity. But another equally important change accompanied the shift from causality to probability, as we shall see. Form reliable prediction of future events at the submicroscopic level no longer within reach, the focus of explanatory theories moved away from their previous Aristotelian purpose of postulating laws of motion to a rather more Platonic goal of explaining structure.

In a certain sense, How? The change in the explanatory aims of physics during the last half century goes even further. Physicists no longer consider it sufficient for physical understanding to point to a force with certain characteristics—or in more modern terminology, an interaction—as Newton had done for the solar system with the force of gravity. If Galileo thought that mathematics was the language of nature, some physicists now go even further, believing that the laws of nature should be mathematical theorems.

The course of this development will be outlined in this book. Seeds of it appeared during the Stone Age, in the invention of such hunting implements as the bow and arrow. Similarly, agriculture owed its development to experimentation and reliance on previously observed outcomes. Very early hints of what eventually grew into medical science appeared in Mesopotamia—roughly the region now making up Iraq and Syria—and in Egypt, where circumcision was practiced as early as bce.

Signs of its use have been found in bodies exhumed from prehistoric graves, and the operation is clearly depicted on the walls of a tomb of the sixth dynasty in Egypt, which ruled c.

Imhotep, the earliest physician known by name—an astronomer and an architect as well, later venerated as a god—lived about bce. Good archeological evidence also indicates that trepanation—cutting out disks from the skull—was performed on living people in prehistoric times.

And some of them survived the procedure—we Beginnings 5 know this because living bone tends to heal itself, and new growth has been unambiguously identified on some of these skulls. Why and how this delicate operation was done is unknown. Individual stars were identified either with specific gods or with the homes of deities. Capricious as the gods were in general, the regular movements of their celestial images offered a reassuring sign of order, while unusual events such as eclipses of the moon or the sun were frightening disruptions of that order.

Anyone able to predict these unsettling phenomena was regarded as possessing extraordinary powers. Though it could be found in other places as well, an intense interest in the movements of the heavenly bodies is definitely known to have existed quite early in Egypt, as the devel- [To view this image, refer to the print version of this title. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, vol.


Note the precision, probably the earliest known date in history. The construction of a calendar, of course, is the surest sign of faith in the regularity of daily life.

Along with such proto-scientific learning, Egyptian technology became increasingly sophisticated as well. The measurements of blocks used for the pyramids constructed during the thirtieth century bce are remarkably precise; for example, the leveling of a foot beam was done correctly with an error of only 0. Similarly, the construction and erection of enormous Egyptian obelisks required not only practical skill but also great technical know-how. Hand in hand with the study of astronomy and the acquisition of technical expertise came a developing knowledge of mathematics.

Early papyri show that the Egyptians knew how to manipulate fractions and even how to determine the volume of the frustum a truncated pyramid of a square pyramid, possibly as early as the nineteenth century bce. But they let their mathematical knowledge rest at this point, never developing it any further. Many historians believe that the Egyptians knew the Pythagorean theorem and used it for land surveillance, but Sarton regards the basis for this belief as no more than guesswork.

What is known about Mesopotamian proto-science and mathematics is based on modern readings of a large number of clay tablets bearing cuneiform inscriptions in the Sumerian and Accadian languages. Cuneiform employs wedge-shaped signs incised by means of a reed on soft clay, quite different from Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Beginnings 7 Sumerian civilization flourished from the beginning of the third until the middle of the second millennium bce, and its number system was position-based, analogous to our own.

In such a system the value of any numeral in a given number depends on its position in relation to the other numerals. But since the Sumerians lacked a zero, their numbers were sometimes ambiguous; and after an early period in which the decimal system was used, they employed a peculiar mixture of bases 10 and The principle of position had to be reintroduced in Europe a thousand years later by way of India, where it had been in use at least since the third century bce.

The Mesopotamian civilizations directed their quasi-scientific attention primarily toward astronomy and commerce. Sumerian astronomers began by constructing a lunar calendar, which they later modified, assuming the year consisted of days and dividing the day into 12 equal hours, the legacy of which echoed through the ages.

But the greatest astronomical achievements of the later Babylonians were many extremely detailed lunar and stellar observations, and in particular an accurate tabulation of the rising and setting of the planet Venus. Living in the fourth century bce, the astronomer Kidenas also known as Kidinnu is believed by some historians to have discovered the precession of the equinoxes—the slow circular motion of the point in the sky above the North Pole approximately the position of the North Star about which the whole body of stars in the northern hemisphere is seen to rotate once every 24 hours.

There is a similar circle above the South Pole in the southern hemisphere. As we now know, the motion is caused by a precession of the axis 8 From Clockwork to Crapshoot of rotation of the Earth, so that the inclination of this axis with respect to the ecliptic wobbles with a period of about 26, years. Historians therefore have good reason to regard the Babylonians as the founders of an early form of scientific astronomy. Two hundred years later, the precession of the equinoxes was clearly discovered by the great Greek astronomer Hipparchus, albeit relying not only on his own observations but also on early Babylonian star data, without which he could not have made the discovery.

From Clockwork to Crapshoot — Roger G. Newton | Harvard University Press

The many unearthed tablets recording business transactions, inventories, payrolls, and accounts testify to the strong interest of the Sumerians in matters of trade. As a result of this preoccupation, they made important advances in problems connected with weights and measures, focusing their mathematical attention primarily on arithmetic, at which they excelled. For example, one of the tablets, of c. Others show that they were able to solve not only simultaneous linear equations for many unknowns but two simultaneous quadratic equations for two unknowns, as well as some special cubic equations though they did not actually use equations as such.

They even manipulated negative numbers, a facility that Europe did not acquire until more than three thousand years later. In geometry, the Babylonians knew the areas of right and isosceles triangles, as well as the volumes of a rectangular parallelepiped a solid with six faces, each a parallelogramof a right circular cylinder, clocwkork of the frustum of a square pyramid.

There is also convincing evidence that they had some knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem, but in circular measurements they were behind the contemporary Egyptians: The manufacture of glass, pottery, and glazes, as well as paints, drugs, cosmetics, and perfumes, was a precursor of the science of chemistry, and the Sumerians produced all of these. Archeologists Beginnings 9 physixs even found a remarkable small cuneiform tablet that contains an actual recipe for the creation of a glaze.

By far the earliest record of its kind, it dates from the seventeenth century bce, and archeologists have unearthed frpm like it from the next thousand years. The famous Code of Hammurabi contains, among its lengthy list of laws and regulations, cloclwork specific pay schedule for the performance of various surgical procedures on persons of different ranks. Frm Hammurabi ruled Babylonia in the first half of the eighteenth century bce, and his specified fees indicate that surgeons were able to perform their art with bronze lancets on various parts of the body, including the eye.


Later Greek sources as well as Egyptian documents going back to the fourth millennium show that the practice of medicine, in both Babylonia and Egypt, was extremely specialized, with different specialists for each part of the body and each disease.

Clay models of the liver made by Babylonians and Hittites—a civilization that flourished in the second millennium in Anatolia and subsequently spread to Mesopotamia—can be seen in various museums around the world. The gradual replacement of bronze by the much harder metal iron in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian region produced a great upheaval that lasted for several centuries around bce. The advantages of the new iron weapons were quickly exploited by their possessors, shifting the centers of power but leaving little time for the disinterested acquisition of knowledge.

As a result, further developments that might have led to advances in science or quasi-science were severely disrupted and had to await a rebirth, which eventually took place in the Aegean area of the Mediterranean. No other civilization anywhere else in the world, so crqpshoot as historians know, developed a comparable level of knowledge at a time prior to bce. During the middle of the second millennium, the eastern Mediterranean had been dominated by the Minoan culture centered on 10 From Clockwork to Crapshoot the island of Crete.

From Clockwork to Crapshoot

Whether the demise of this flourishing civilization should be attributed primarily to the gigantic eruption of the volcano Vrapshoot on the nearby island of Santorini is still a matter of controversy, but the tardiness of the Minoans in adopting iron technology clocwork to their defeat, first by the Dorians from the north, followed by the Phoenicians from the south, who continued to colonize and dominate the entire Mediterranean coast.

The greatest contribution of the Phoenician civilization, without which the subsequent development of Greek culture and all of Western science surely would have been impossible, was the invention of the alphabet.

Even the Hindus learned the art of alphabetical writing from the Phoenicians. In its original form it had no signs for short vowels—and neither Hebrew nor Arabic have such signs to this day—but when the Greeks imitated the Phoenician alphabet, they added symbols for these vowels as well. The newly acquired writing skills enabled them to advance beyond the oral Homeric lore.

As we crapshoott the era of Greek civilization, the state of proto-scientific knowledge in the world may be characterized as descriptive, with aims that were mostly practical or technological, but in part also religious and mystical. In the areas of medicine, agriculture, warfare, hunting, and construction, the accumulated know-how served the purpose of making daily tasks easier and more reliable.

Careful observers of the regularity of celestial bodies used their powers of prediction either for reassurance or for further mystification. At this stage, no attempt was yet being made to understand or explain nature.

This included the art of astronomical observation and a knowledge of specific regularities such as the approximately year cycle, called the saros, which brought the moon and the sun in the same relative position, enabling the more or less reliable prediction of eclipses.

However, the desire to go beyond observations of regularity and to look for a rational explanation for the movements of heavenly bodies— the beginning of astronomy as a science in the modern sense—seems to have been typically Greek. It differed substantially from the occult and mystical astrology that had come down to them from the Babylonians and Egyptians and which oof to retain its appeal for millennia, even to this day. Ionia was the meeting place of many caravan routes from beyond the Black Sea, from Mesopotamia, and from Egypt, and of sea trade with the Aegean islands and all of the hisgory Mediterranean.

His fame was based in part on an enduring but no doubt apocryphal legend that he had correctly predicted using the saros the solar eclipse of May 28,which occurred in the middle of a stand-off between the armies of the Lydians and the Persians. The sudden darkness so impressed the two kings that they ceased fighting and made peace. Whereupon the oracle of Delphi pronounced the person who had had the knowledge and wisdom to predict the event a wise man, and Thales of Miletos remained forever included among the otherwise variable group of legendary Seven Wise Men of the early Greek tradition.

To be able to successfully foretell such an important phenomenon as a solar eclipse was a sign of the greatest intellectual power. Benefiting from extensive travels to Egypt, Thales was both the first Greek mathematician and the first Clockworl astronomer, but he was also a very practical politician and businessman.