Sunday, November 11, 2007

An Example of Newton's Genius

It's well known the Isaac Newton was among the greatest scientists, but I never truly appreciated the magnitude of his genius until I came across this anecdote in Richards Feynman's book QED. Newton noticed the light did not completely reflect from a glass surface as he expected. The difference was very subtle, as approximately 96% of the light did reflect. He thought of possible explanations for this, and imagined that there may be holes in the glass' surface that allowed light to pass through. He soon dismissed this idea when he realized that he could polish glass and that this did not seem to change the reflection properties of the material. Polishing the glass would smooth any holes on the surface, and Newton was at a loss to explain this phenomenon. This answer would have to wait more than two centuries for the development of quantum electrodynamics. According to Occam's razor, our hypotheses should be as simple as possible while still be a sufficiently detailed as an explanation. Nature does not lend itself to our intuitions, and a small deviation from our expected results can be very profound in any situation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you made a typo and have it backwards, as 96% of light does *not* reflect (otherwise glass would be mostly opaque).