Thursday, June 21, 2007

Apocalypse later: Newton's calculation of end of the world

Newton was a deeply religiously man. This should not be that shocking since most scientists were religious a few hundred years ago - perhaps owing to the fact that the best and the brightest were going into clergy and were inspired to know about the world created by the God they worshiped. So its interesting that news stories express such a shock when they find that a scientist like Newton was also religious.

Sure, Newton is a more extreme case. He wrote more on theology than on physics and mathematics, and he was also into alchemy and astrology. But, this was 300 years ago...and lot of the occult sciences had not been completely discarded. So here is a story about documents showing Newton's prediction of end of the world:
Newton, who died 280 years ago, is known for laying much of the groundwork for modern physics, astronomy, math and optics. But in a new Jerusalem exhibit, he appears as a scholar of deep faith who also found time to write on Jewish law -- even penning a few phrases in careful Hebrew letters -- and combing the Old Testament's Book of Daniel for clues about the world's end.
And it seems that we don't have to start selling off stuff yet:

In one manuscript from the early 1700s, Newton used the cryptic Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the apocalypse, reaching the conclusion that the world would end no earlier than 2060.

"It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner," Newton wrote. However, he added, "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."

Phew. Ok, we still have time. And here is the customary surprise over Newton's religious interests:

The Newton papers, Ben-Menahem said, also complicate the idea that science is diametrically opposed to religion. "These documents show a scientist guided by religious fervor, by a desire to see God's actions in the world," she said.
Lets be surprised again for Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), Copernicus, Mendel, Boyle, Linnaeus, etc. However, science has indeed changed in the past few hundred years. While, today any scientist can be religious (there is a big range here and how you define it), combing Bible for physical explanations of the world would justifiably lead to a skeptical response. A case in point (though he is justifying what is in the Bible through physics): Frank Tipler

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