Friday, December 24, 2004

Oh! Apple tree, oh apple tree...

/ merry / newtonmas /
Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.
Alexander Pope

Tomorrow we will be celebrating the birth of Sir Isaac Newton, who was born on Christmas day 1642. A fine and appropriate alternative to the crassly commercialized shopping frenzy surrounding the birth of (the possibly non-existent) Jesus of Galilee, it can be adjusted to modern capitalist consumerism requirements by co-opting much of the Christmas celebration (pagan in origin itself of course), as in the substitution of the Christmas tree with the apple tree, or this specially designed Newton tree; the fat and sartorially challenged Santa Claus riding on reindeer (I mean, reindeer?) with the 17th century man of science, Newton's friend and financer of the publication of Sir Isaac's major opus Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Edmund Halley, riding on his Comet, according to its well defined trajectories (but alas showing up only every 76 years); the nativity scenes with the apocryphal apple falling on Newton's head etc.

The fact that sir Isaac, was by all accounts a nasty and jealous ole bugger, (enjoying sending counterfeiters to the gallows as Governor of the Mint) is by no means an obstacle to celebration (although had, say, Albert Einstein been born in a more opportune date, he would be a preferable alternative, on grounds of character alone), since we will be celebrating the man's ideas, contributions and, through them, rationality and the modern scientific method - not the petty old Don himself. Another beautiful detail is that using the modern calendar (which his theory of gravitation helped refine and standardize with an unprecedented accuracy) he was not born on Christmas but on January the 4th, possibly leading to heretical alternate celebrations of Newtonmas - much as the Slavic Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on January the 7th because the *real* calendar is the *old* calendar...(showing a stubbornness in the face of facts that transcends the bizarre). The wonderfully ironic aspect of the holiday, is that sir Isaac was heavily into Biblical interpretation and chronology, to an unhealthy extent. As John Maynard Keynes (Newton's biographer among many other better-known things) has said:

Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.

So let's switch Magi: from Gaspar, Balthazar and whatshisname let's move on to the celebration of the last (and obviously the best) of their line.

Merry Newtonmas everybody!

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