My second-favorite Newton fact is that, despite inventing calculus, he refused to use it for his most famous work of physics, the Principia. Instead, he used geometrical proofs, tweaked to smuggle in calculus without admitting it.
Essentially, these proofs were thought experiments. Newton would start with a standard geometry argument, one that would have been acceptable to mathematicians centuries earlier. Then, he’d imagine taking it further, pushing a line or angle to some infinite point. He’d argue that, if the proof worked for every finite choice, then it should work in the infinite limit as well.
These thought experiments let Newton argue on the basis of something that looked more rigorous than calculus. However, they also held science back. At the time, only a few people in the world could understand what Newton was doing. It was only later, when Newton’s laws were reformulated in calculus terms, that a wider group of researchers could start doing serious physics.
What changed? If Newton could describe his physics with geometrical thought experiments, why couldn’t everyone else?
The trouble with thought experiments is that they require careful setup, setup that has to be thought through for each new thought experiment. Calculus took Newton’s geometrical thought experiments, and took out the need for thought: the setup was automatically a part of calculus, and each new researcher could build on their predecessors without having to set everything up again.
This sort of thing happens a lot in science. An example from my field is the scattering matrix, or S-matrix.
The S-matrix, deep down, is a thought experiment. Take some particles, and put them infinitely far away from each other, off in the infinite past. Then, let them approach, close enough to collide. If they do, new particles can form, and these new particles will travel out again, infinite far away in the infinite future. The S-matrix then is a metaphorical matrix that tells you, for each possible set of incoming particles, what the probability is to get each possible set of outgoing particles.
In a real collider, the particles don’t come from infinitely far away, and they don’t travel infinitely far before they’re stopped. But the distances are long enough, compared to the sizes relevant for particle physics, that the S-matrix is the right idea for the job.
Like calculus, the S-matrix is a thought experiment minus the thought. When we want to calculate the probability of particles scattering, we don’t need to set up the whole thought experiment all over again. Instead, we can start by calculating, and over time we’ve gotten very good at it.
In general, sub-fields in physics can be divided into those that have found their S-matrices, their thought experiments minus thought, and those that have not. When a topic has to rely on thought experiments, progress is much slower: people argue over the details of each setup, and it’s difficult to build something that can last. It’s only when a field turns the corner, removing the thought from its thought experiments, that people can start making real collaborative progress.