Newtonmas in Uncertain Times

Three hundred and eighty-two years ago today (depending on which calendars you use), Isaac Newton was born. For a scientist, that’s a pretty good reason to celebrate.

Reason’s Greetings Everyone!

Last month, our local nest of science historians at the Niels Bohr Archive hosted a Zoom talk by Jed Z. Buchwald, a Newton scholar at Caltech. Buchwald had a story to tell about experimental uncertainty, one where Newton had an important role.

If you’ve ever had a lab course in school, you know experiments never quite go like they’re supposed to. Set a room of twenty students to find Newton’s constant, and you’ll get forty different answers. Whether you’re reading a ruler or clicking a stopwatch, you can never measure anything with perfect accuracy. Each time you measure, you introduce a little random error.

Textbooks worth of statistical know-how has cropped up over the centuries to compensate for this error and get closer to the truth. The simplest trick though, is just to average over multiple experiments. It’s so obvious a choice, taking a thousand little errors and smoothing them out, that you might think people have been averaging in this way through history.

They haven’t though. As far as Buchwald had found, the first person to average experiments in this way was Isaac Newton.

What did people do before Newton?

Well, what might you do, if you didn’t have a concept of random error? You can still see that each time you measure you get a different result. But you would blame yourself: if you were more careful with the ruler, quicker with the stopwatch, you’d get it right. So you practice, you do the experiment many times, just as you would if you were averaging. But instead of averaging, you just take one result, the one you feel you did carefully enough to count.

Before Newton, this was almost always what scientists did. If you were an astronomer mapping the stars, the positions you published would be the last of a long line of measurements, not an average of the rest. Some other tricks existed. Tycho Brahe for example folded numbers together pair by pair, averaging the first two and then averaging that average with the next one, getting a final result weighted to the later measurements. But, according to Buchwald, Newton was the first to just add everything together.

Even Newton didn’t yet know why this worked. It would take later research, theorems of statistics, to establish the full justification. It seems Newton and his later contemporaries had a vague physics analogy in mind, finding a sort of “center of mass” of different experiments. This doesn’t make much sense – but it worked, well enough for physics as we know it to begin.

So this Newtonmas, let’s thank the scientists of the past. Working piece by piece, concept by concept, they gave use the tools to navigate our uncertain times.

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