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Book Summary: The Upright Thinkers

Author: Leonard Mlodinow

Substory: The Newtonian Culture: That Makes Us Think Like A Scientist

Today we all reason like Newtonians. We speak of the force of a person’s character, and the acceleration of the spread of a disease. We talk of physical and even mental inertia, and the momentum of a sports team. To think in such terms would have been unheard of before Newton; not to think in such terms is unheard of today. Even those who know nothing of Newton’s laws have had their psyches steeped in his ideas. And so to study the work of Newton is to study our own roots.

Because Newton’s vision of the world is now second nature to us, it takes effort to appreciate the astonishing brilliance of his creation. In fact, in high school, when I was first introduced to “Newton’s laws,” they appeared so simple that I wondered what all the fuss was about. I found it odd that it had taken one of the smartest people in the history of science many years to create what I, a boy of fifteen, could learn in just a few lectures. How could concepts so easily accessible to me have been so difficult to grasp a few hundred years ago?

My father seemed to understand. While I tell my kids stories of inventions like Post-it notes, my father usually turned to tales of the old country. When people looked at the world hundreds of years ago, he told me, they saw a reality very different from what we perceive today. He told me of the time when, as a teenager in Poland, he and some friends had put sheets over a goat, which then raced through his family’s home. The elders all thought they had seen a ghost. Okay, it was the night of the Jewish holiday Purim, and the elders were all rather drunk, but my father didn’t use their inebriation to explain away their reaction—he said they were merely interpreting what they saw in terms of the context of their beliefs, and the ghost concept was one they were used to and comfortable with. I might consider that ignorant, he said, but what Newton would tell the world about the mathematical laws of the universe probably seemed just as strange to people of that day as his elders’ ghosts do to me. It’s true: today, even if you’ve never taken a course in physics, a bit of Isaac Newton’s spirit resides within you. But had we not been raised in a Newtonian culture, those laws that are now so self-evident to us all would have been, for most of us, incomprehensible.