Seiler on Science

Thoughts on the history of science, with a special focus on the relationship between religion and science through history, all coming from an Objectivist perspective. ("Seiler" is pronounced "Sy-ler")

Location: Virginia, United States

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Birth of a New Physics, a book by I. Bernard Cohen

Recently the local DC Objectivist Salon (DCOS) had a meeting to discuss the book The Birth of a New Physics, by I. Bernard Cohen (originally published in 1960, then revised and updated by the author in 1985). Here is a brief report on the book.

The late professor I. Bernard Cohen was one of the first Americans to get a PhD in the History of Science, and he had an illustrious career in that field, focusing on the Scientific Revolution, but also writing about subjects as diverse as the American founding fathers and the history of computing. Having read chapters from a range of his books, I can attest that he is generally a good writer with a great respect for human achievement.

The Birth of a New Physics is a short book (184 pages) which attempts to present the essential scientific developments leading to the birth of classical physics, that is, the mechanical physics taught in basic high-school and college classes today. It does not present the wider historical context of these developments; but instead it focuses the reader's attention on the chain of basic discoveries.

The story begins with "Aristotle's Physics of Common Sense," which was, with minor changes, the dominant view of physics for almost two millennia. Beneath the celestial spheres, the motions of objects can be divided, in this view, into "natural" and "violent" motion. The center of the earth is the center of the cosmos and the natural place sought by all heavy objects. If I drop a stone, it falls to the ground. This is its natural motion. It is seeking its natural place, which is as close to the center of the earth as it can get. Motion in any other direction can only take place when an external force is applied; this is “violent” motion. If I push something like a cart, it rolls, and when I stop pushing, it soon comes to a stop. In this view, force causes motion; when force is withdrawn, the motion soon stops.

This geocentric view of Aristotle and Ptolemy was not doubted until after the work of the Polish canon Nicholas Copernicus, whose book Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was published in 1543. Most people are not aware that the Copernican system was basically as complicated (and as accurate) as that of Ptolemy. The Copernican system was not at all convincing because Copernicus did not have a good answer to the major objection: When you throw an object straight up, why does it come straight down, if the ground is in motion?

This question was not fully answered until the work of Galileo, and two chapters present Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope and his brilliant experiments with the inclined plane. This led him to the basic law of inertia.

The following chapter presents the ideas of the “tortured mystic” Johannes Kepler, who discovered the elliptical shape of planets’ orbits. Kepler is somewhat unique in this story. He “stumbled onto his great discoveries in a weird groping that has led one of his biographers to call him a ‘sleepwalker.’ Trying to prove one thing, he discovered another, and in his calculations he made some major errors that cancelled each other out.” Although Kepler is most famous now for his three laws of planetary motion, he was most proud of his "discovery" that the nested Platonic solids explain the number of the planets and their distances from the sun.

The final and climactic chapter of the book presents Isaac Newton's grand synthesis, which was based on a masterful integration of the discoveries of Galileo and Kepler. Newton’s synthesis is summed up by his three laws of motion and his law of universal gravitation.

The Birth of a new Physics is flawed with respect to organization, and to a lesser extent, clarity. Tacked onto the end of the book are sixteen “supplements” which read like a random list of extra comments. Although some of these are quite interesting, most of them should have been folded into the main text or left out entirely. In several places Cohen seems to count on the reader knowing a definition which he doesn’t present until several pages later. In other places Cohen adds needless digressions which interrupt the main flow of ideas.

However the book largely succeeds in its mission: to concisely present the essential chain of discoveries leading from the physics of Aristotle to that of Newton. This is actually the only book I know of which attempts to do this. Moreover, unlike many of today’s academic historians of science, Cohen does not have a cynical view of science. Cohen has a genuine and deep respect for scientific achievement, and that makes this book a pleasure to read.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just found your blog through the Objectivist Roundup. I really enjoy the history of science. I look forward to reading more of your blogposts.

Any idea of when your book might be ready? It sounds very interesting.

Aquinas Heard

June 24, 2010 at 12:04 PM  
Blogger FMS said...

Thanks for the comment and your interest in my book. Unfortunately progress on the book has been very slow, so right now I can't even give a guess as to when it will be finished.

June 24, 2010 at 3:03 PM  
Anonymous Dana H. said...


Just discovered your blog. I love your essay on the "Conflict Thesis" ( and can't wait to see your book. Will you be at OCON this year?

June 25, 2010 at 7:56 AM  
Blogger FMS said...

Thanks for the comment; I'm glad you liked my essay. And no, unfortunately I will not be at OCON this year. Hopefully next year!

June 27, 2010 at 7:31 AM  
Blogger Allen jeley said...

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April 7, 2016 at 5:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

(((My Book-in-Progress on the Conflict Between Science and Religion in History)))

Is your book available or still in progress?
I'm an atheist; Dawkins & Hitchens level.

I think one can make a case for the evolutionary value of religion. In dual gender species (humans included) control of the female breeding stock is a common behavior throughout the animal kingdom. With our "able" but not brilliant cognitive organ (brain) the gender who can not produce offspring devises all manner of myths and tales to control the female breeding stock; visibly obvious in the Islamic diasporas. Natural selection would favor a species where the non-offspring producing gender is sexually aggressive, at all levels.
Religious myth (tribal myth), which are almost exclusively male supremacist, is one device invented to provide a supply of females for the continuation of the group/tribe. When the power of the myth is challenged, the power of the fist can be invoked.

Good luck with your book and thanks for all the thoughtful essays.

Keith Howard

May 30, 2016 at 8:46 AM  
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