Newton v. Einstein

The Times of London reports that in a poll of both scientists and public, Isaac Newton crushed Albert Einstein as to the question of who made the greater contribution to science. Among scientists (Royal Society members), Newton got a whopping 86.2%; the public gave him a clear 61.8%.

Even taking into account the nationalistic bias, this result seems right to me. The fact that Einstein’s conception of the universe is now more accepted than Newton’s misses the point. My understanding is that Newton created the very notion of a universe that can be coherently explained by mathematical laws: Einstein freely admitted that relied on Newtonian concepts in developing his own framework.

Two other things stand out:

1) Einstein quickly fell behind in his own discipline. He never accepted quantum mechanics, and by the late 1920’s was something of a dinosaur. (We should all be such dinosaurs!). His famous argument that “God does not play dice with the universe” is something of a misquotation, but it gets the essence of his contention.

2) But for me, here’s the trump card: when developing his system of optics, Newton realized that existing mathematical concepts were inadequate for his purposes, so he invented calculus in order to get him over the hump. That’s just extraordinary. (Leibniz published first, leading to a pretty ridiculous competition between the two men for the credit when they really both should get it). Einstein used non-Euclidean geometry to develop general relativity: the closest equivalent would be if he had invented it himself.

I suppose it goes without saying that none of this should be taken to diminish Einstein’s achievement, and general relativity’s notion of cuirved space represents breathtaking creativity. But Newton wins this one. That’s why we don’t have “Fig Einsteins.”

—Jonathan Zasloff

UPDATE: A reader points out that Fig Newtons are in fact named after Newton, Massachusetts, not Sir Isaac. Who knew? (Besides the reader, of course.). I was being somewhat facetious, but suburban Bostonians can rest assured that their honor has not been slighted.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.