Newton, Darwin, Einstein (Summer 2000)

Hamilton College Site

Center for Talented Youth: Johns Hopkins University

Instructor: Dr. Robinson M. Yost
Teaching Assistant: Michael Loeffler


Illustration from Visualized Modern History (1932)


Studying the history of science through the careers and influence of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein clearly illustrates the persistent human desire to describe and explain the natural world. In addition, the historical approach to the "scientific" quests of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein imparts a deeper understanding of how different areas of science have drawn upon and contributed to many other areas of human achievement. Scientific theories have been influenced by society, and, in turn, have influenced societal views. Grappling with the history, the ideas, and the tremendous influence of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein are the primary goals of this course.

As a starting point, consider the following:

According to internalists, since correct science reflects nature, it is unaffected by the human traits of ambition, ideology, prejudice, or dishonesty. . . . According to externalists, by contrast, the science that people produce, just as everything else they do, reflects their biases and wishes and social environment. . . . In reality and quite obviously, internalist and externalist positions are both right and both wrong, because some bits or aspects of science lend themselves to internalist explanation whereas others yield naturally to externalist exegesis.

Henry H. Bauer

Required Readings:

• Bowler, Peter J., Evolution: The History an Idea (2d. ed., 1989)

• Cassidy, David, Einstein and Our World (1995)

• Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter & Margaret C. Jacob, Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism (1994)

• Jacob, James R., The Scientific Revolution: Aspirations and Ideas, 1500-1700 (1998)

• in-class handouts


Purposes of this course:

• Improving analytical reading, writing, & speaking skills.

• Learning how scientific ideas develop in specific historical circumstances.

• Practicing analyzing & interpreting facts in historical context.

• Practicing thinking historically & asking thoughtful questions.

Assignments: Tardiness & Breaks:

• Readings notebook • please be on time, return from breaks on time

• Timed essays • 15 minute break each morning session

• In-class writings

Courtesy & Participation:

• each student is expected to participate and contribute to general class discussions

• we will also work in small groups/everyone will contribute to the discussion

• please be polite when you participate, use common courtesy with everyone in the class

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

1) Introduction [Monday, July 17]

• syllabus/quiz

• historical facts: evidence & interpretation

• reading historical sources/examples of historical context

• what is history?/what is science?

2) Background to Newton [Tuesday, July 18]

• Greco-Roman philosophy/Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen

• medieval universities & translation/Scholasticism

• Renaissance humanism/A Scientific Revolution?

• Mechanical Philosophy: Descartes, Gassendi, and others

• Protestant Reformation/Cavaliers versus Roundheads

3) Newton’s Natural Philosophy: Part I. [Wednesday, July 19]

• early life & education: Cambridge, geometry, & experiment

• theories of gravity: Hypotheses non fingo?

• theories of light: Hypotheses non fingo?

• two different traditions: Principia & Opticks

• Sir Isaac Newton: The Gravity of Genius [VIDEO]

4) Newton’s Natural Philosophy: Part II. [Thursday, July 20]

• Never a deist: Newton’s roles for God

• Reaction to Newton’s work: British & Continental

• popularization: Newton for the public

• deism, materialism, & atheism: Newton and religion

5) Newtonians & the Age of Reason [Friday, July 21]

• apotheosis of Sir Isaac Newton: Enlightenment ideals

• what’s a "Newtonian"?: flavors of Newtonianism

• experimental philosophy & mathematical physics

• the triumph of "Newtonianism"? 

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

6) Tradition & Change in the Enlightenment [Monday, July 24]

• Theories of the Earth's Origins & Argument from Design

• Classifying Living Things: Chain of Being & Linnaeus

• Water & Fire: Neptunism and Vulcanism

• Evolution in the Enlightenment: Erasmus Darwin & J.B. Lamarck

7) Changing Views of Man & Nature [Tuesday, July 25]

• Human Nature & Society: Laws to be discovered

• Adam Smith & Thomas Malthus: Laissez Faire Economics

• Geology (1800-1859): Charles Lyell

• Paley, Cuvier, & Chambers

8) Charles Darwin [Wednesday, July 26]

• early life & education

• Voyage of the Beagle: Galapagos Islands

• development of a theory: natural selection

• Alfred Russell Wallace & publication: Origin of Species

• Charles Darwin: Evolution's Voice [VIDEO]

9) Reception of Darwinism [Thursday, July 27]

• promoting evolution: T. H. Huxley, Asa Gray

• objections to natural selection

• Purpose & Progress in Nature: Theistic Evolution

• Religious & Moral Problems

10) Darwinism Applied: Used, & Abused [Friday, July 28]

• "Social Darwinism": Society & Imperialism

• Herbert Spencer: Survival of the Fittest

• Eugenics: Selective Breeding for Humanity

• "Darwinism": the broader impact? 

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

11) Nineteenth-Century Physics [Monday, July 31]

• Theories of Light & Electro-magnetism

• Theories of Energy & Thermodynamics

• Turn-of-the-Century Physics: Ether & Energy

• Michelson-Morley Experiment: Where's the Ether?

12) Albert Einstein [Tuesday, August 1]

• youth & education

• 1905: annus mirabilis (the "marvelous year")

• Special theory of relativity: riding a beam of light?

• photoelectric effect: packets of light?

• NOVA: Einstein Revealed: Part One [VIDEO]

13) Einstein's Age [Wednesday, August 2]

• World War I & Uncertainty

• Quantum Theory & Uncertainty

• Desperate times: Nationalism & Antisemitism

• 1915: general theory of relativity

• NOVA: Einstein Revealed: Part Two [VIDEO]

14) Einstein's Impact [Thursday, August 3]

• Impact on Physics: Relativity

• Impact on Physics: The Quantum

• Popular Reception of Relativity

• Cultural Resonances: Philosophy, Visual Art, Literature

15) Class Conclusion [Friday, August 4]

• wrapping up: final discussion & party

• significance of Newton, Darwin, Einstein

• importance of science?

• importance of history?