Mistranslation Of Newton’s First Law Discovered After Nearly 300 Years

For hundreds of years, we have been told what Newton’s First Law of Motion supposedly says, but recently a paper published in Philosophy of Science (preprint) by [Daniel Hoek] argues that it is based on a mistranslation of the original Latin text. As noted by [Stephanie Pappas] in Scientific American, this would seem to be a rather academic matter as Newton’s Laws of Motion have been superseded by General Relativity and other theories developed over the intervening centuries. Yet even today Newton’s theories are highly relevant, as they provide very accessible approximations for predicting phenomena on Earth.

Similarly, we owe it to scientific and historical accuracy to address such matters, all of which seem to come down to an awkward translation of Isaac Newton’s original Latin text in the 1726 third edition to English by Andrew Motte in 1729. This English translation is what ended up defining for countless generations what Newton’s Laws of Motion said, along with the other chapters in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

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Citizen Science Hack Chat With Ben Krasnow

Join us on Wednesday, April 29 at noon Pacific for the Citizen Science Hack Chat with Ben Krasnow!

For most of human history, there was no such thing as a professional scientist. Those who dabbled in “natural philosophy” were mainly men — and occasionally women — of privilege and means, given to spend their time looking into the workings of the world. Most went where their interest lay, exploring this facet of geology or that aspect of astronomy, often combining disciplines or switching to new ones as they felt like it. They had the freedom to explore the universe without the pressure to “publish or perish,” and yet they still often managed to pull back the curtain of ignorance and superstition that veiled the world for eons, at least somewhat.

In their footsteps follow today’s citizen scientists, a relatively small cohort compared to the great numbers of professional scientists that universities churn out year after year. But where these credentialed practitioners are often hyper-focused on a particular sub-field in a highly specialized discipline, the citizen scientist enjoys more freedom to explore the universe, as his or her natural philosopher forebears did. These citizen scientists — many of whom are also traditionally credentialed — are doing important work, and some are even publishing their findings in mainstream journals.
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