“Learn from the masters” we are told, and there is an MAA book with that title. It is better to read the works of great minds, the theory goes, than those of those who are less great, or who are even ordinary.
Well, maybe. The Great Books movement is still struggling along here and there, but its glory days have passed. (For those who missed it, its idea was that the best education consisted in reading the greatest books, and no others. It began in the 20s and in 1952 the 54 volumes of the Great Books of the Western World, mostly by dead white males, were published. There was a second edition — eliminating Apollonius’s Conics! — in 1970.)
The case for reading the originals in mathematics is less strong than it is in other fields. The reason is that, as time goes on, mathematics is presented better. When I read some of what the masters originally wrote, I am sometimes seized with exasperation — “Why is he doing that?” I think. “What a waste of time!” It is not that I am smarter than the original writers — far from it! — but that others have come later and stood on their shoulders. Similarly will future generations look back and wonder at our obtuseness. (Also, they will think that we were quaint. Thus does the present always condescend to the past.)
So, should we read this selection from Newton’s writings? Of course! But not for instruction. What we can get, and a good thing to obtain, is an impression — dim and perhaps mistaken, but the best we can do — of what it was like to live, work, and think in that alien world of the past.
The book originally appeared in 1953 and has been reprinted several times since. It contains excerpts from Newton’s Principia, the Optics , and from many letters, as well as Cotes’s preface to the second edition of the Principia. There is almost no mathematics, the editor choosing, as the title indicates, to concentrate on philosophical questions. “Whence is it,” Newton asks, “that nature does nothing in vain, and whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world? To what end are comets, and whence is it that planets move all one and the same way in orbs concentric while comets move all manner of ways in orbs very eccentric, and what hinders the fixed stars from falling upon one another? How came the bodies of animals to be contrived with so much art, and for what ends were their several parts?” Though we cannot answer all the questions, Newton says, “Though every true step made in his philosophy brings us not immediately to the knowledge of the first cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued.”
Yes, Newton is worth reading.
Woody Dudley, now retired, still hopes to comprehend the idea of “force” some day.