Oberwolfach Reports


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Volume 3, Issue 1, 2006, pp. 553–584
DOI: 10.4171/OWR/2006/10

Published online: 2006-12-31

Mini-Workshop: On Isaac Newton's Work

Ivor Grattan-Guinness[1] and Helmut Pulte[2]

(1) Bengeo, Hertford, UK
(2) Ruhr-Universit├Ąt Bochum, Germany

`Helpful' is not quite the word that comes to mind when considering Isaac Newton'. (Alan Shapiro)

A widely known legend is encapsulated by Alexander Pope's famous two-liner: `Nature, and Nature's laws lay hid in night. God said, let Newton be! and all was Light.' The built in claim is somewhat oversimplified even for Britain; and it certainly does not capture the complex web of enthusiasm, acceptance, doubt, emulation, objection and opposition that characterises the Continental reactions. The need to consider the actual states of affairs within Newtonianism in general is especially significant, since from the 1740s onwards Britain became breathtakingly mediocre in mathematical research, so that almost everything that mattered was done in Europe.

The purpose of the workshop was to outline and study the details of these complexities. The summaries below show that we divided up the post-Newtonian corpus largely by subject matter and topic. Two presentations dealt with important contemporaries; Leibniz, and the Bernoulli family with Hermann: the book will contain more chapters of this kind. In addition, only one chapter tackled a community as such, namely the French mathematicians from 1780 to 1830: several chapters of the book will be of this type.

While we tried to take Newton's own contributions to be more or less known and clear, Newton's own presentations of his theories, often cryptic in the extreme, forced us back to his texts on many occasions. An important hierarchy of interpretation was exposed: what we today think that Newton was (not) saying, and what we today think that Newton's successors thought that he was (not) saying.

The mini-workshop brought together 15 participants from seven countries, including the two editors of the book. Funds made available by the US Junior Oberwolfach Fellows Funds allowed one of our younger members to take part. Most sessions lasted 75 minutes, including up to 30 minutes of discussion. The measure of further consultation in the evenings and on afternoon walks was considerable. Some subsets of us were already quite well known to each other, but all of us made new contacts and friendships, which will help signally in the preparation of the book over this and the next year.

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Grattan-Guinness Ivor, Pulte Helmut: Mini-Workshop: On Isaac Newton's Work. Oberwolfach Rep. 3 (2006), 553-584. doi: 10.4171/OWR/2006/10