In all this Newton was a true child of the century which Whitehead memorably dubbed as the century of genius. Galileo started his career with a major plagiarism in technology as he presented the telescope to the Venetian State as his own invention. That he was quickly found out, mattered little. The principle that the winner takes all became a standard in scientific and technological races as well. No wonder that all glory for the discovery of the law of free fall has been customarily ascribed to Galileo, although he was first only in deriving the time-squared measure of space covered in a fall. Many before him had taken that fall for a constantly accelerating motion. This must have been all too well known to Galileo who acquired his first introduction to non-Aristotelian concepts of inertial and accelerated motion through studies of textbooks introduced in Italy through the Jesuits’ Collegio Romano. Nor could he remain ignorant of the works of scholars, mostly Dominicans at the University of Salamanca, the chief cultivators of a still earlier physics taught at the Sorbonne. Something similar will almost automatically be suspected of Descartes if one recalls that he was the product of a Jesuit college at La Fleche. While Galileo learned about an important new physics from second-hand sources, Descartes almost certainly delved into books printed in the early 1500s, when publishers still saw sales potential in printing medieval lecture-notes penned a hundred or so years earlier.

This takes us back to around 1400 when the in-thing for academics was to obtain copies (almost invariably written in quasi-shorthand) of Buridan’s commentaries on Aristotle’s On the Heavens. Even greater was the demand for similar commentaries by Oresme, Buridan’s successor in the chair of philosophy at the Sorbonne. Oresme discussed in detail the advantages of assuming the daily rotation of the earth – birds, clouds, and even stones dropped from a tower – did not fall behind on a fast rotating globe. Oresme’s answer was that the earth’s rotation was imparted even to such bodies and was kept undiminished by them. In stating this around 1370 Oresme simply gave a special application of the teaching of Buridan about the origin of the steady motion of celestial bodies.

But before rushing to Buridan’s epoch-making statements anticipating Newton’s first law, a word is to be said about Copernicus. In one aspect, however important for the future of physics, Copernicus was not an innovator at all when he put the sun in the center of the planets (and of the universe). His discourse was very matter-of-fact when he confronted the objections that, on a rotating earth, birds, clouds, and bodies dropped from a tower would fall behind. This simply proves that by Copernicus’ times the solution given by Oresme to the problem had become widely accepted. The solution in question could not come to Copernicus from any of the three Greek sages – Herakleides, Ekphantus, and Hicetas – whom he quoted as early advocates of the rotation of the earth, nor from the one he did not quote, Aristarchus of Samos, the chief spokesman of heliocentrism in classical Antiquity.

Even if Descartes had not heard of Buridan and Oresme, he as a champion of Copernicus could not fail to note in the latter’s masterwork the essence of what in his hands became a formal statement of the law of inertia, known today as Newton’s first law. Had Descartes reflected on his debt to Copernicus, he would still not have informed his readers about it. The geniuses of the century of genius found it uncongenial to have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge their indebtedness to others. Much less were they willing to credit medievals, who at that time had already been relegated to the “Dark Ages,” a libelous though very successful cultural label produced by Renaissance humanists, who were all too often virulently scornful of science.

Stanley Jaki, The Savior of Science


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