Chapter Overview: 7

From Galileo and Newton to
Communication at the Speed of Light

 The Consequences of Intellectual Integration 

“Isaac Newton was placed by fate at a turning point
in the world’s intellectual development.”—Albert Einstein

shutterstock_123780868In the lexicon of Andrew Galambos, the word “revolution” is reserved for a single meaning, as are all words used in science. In Galambos’ lectures the word revolution means “turning around,” a usage derived from the Latin word “revolutio.”

Thus, in physics and astronomy one says that the earth revolves around its axis and also revolves around the sun.

In human affairs people use the word revolution to mean the forcible overthrow of a state or social order. Galambos rejects that meaning on the ground that forcible overthrow of a state accomplishes nothing new, no real turning around; it always substitutes one form of organized coercion for another.

This chapter deals with four revolutions that, in Galambos’ view, signified a true turning around of human understanding and attitudes and enabled astounding technological progress: the Newtonian Revolution; the Liberal Revolution; the Industrial Revolution; and the American Revolution.

The Newtonian Revolution in Science and Technology

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is the person whom Galambos calls “the Anchor Point in History.” Newton’s main accomplishment is the integration of physical science. Newton put together all of the components of previous knowledge of physical science into a single, intellectual structure that allowed an explanation of everything that was then knowable about the physical universe.

Newton had many intellectual antecedents, scientists whose ideas provided the basis for Newton’s integration of physical science. Likewise, the scientists who built upon Newton’s work enable us to enjoy ever-expanding advances in technology today.

GalileoGalileo Galilei (1564-1642) is credited with being the creator of the modern scientific method. On hearing of the invention of the telescope in the Netherlands Galileo built his own powerful telescope and began to examine the stars and planets in the night sky at Padua, Italy.

Galileo observed many objects that humans had never seen before. For example, he discovered that there were far more stars than had been visible with just the naked eye; he discovered four satellites next to the planet Jupiter; and he noticed that the moon’s surface was not smooth.

              Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

To Galileo, these findings falsified the orthodox earth-centered model of the universe.

Galambos illustrates the impact of the Newtonian integration of science with the graph below entitled “The Anchor Point of History.” The graph is symbolic, not representational, so only a few great scientists are represented. The graph shows that Newton integrated a substantial amount of prior knowledge, and that his integration stimulated an outpouring of further scientific discoveries that is still ongoing.

Anchor Point in History

Anchor Point in History

In 1687 Newton published his famous book, Principia Mathematica. Newton’s friend, English astronomer and polymath Edmond Halley (1656-1742), urged Newton to write the book. Halley himself financed publication of Principia.


Newton’s personal copy of the 1st edition of Principia Mathematica

Using Newton’s theories, Halley calculated the orbit of a comet that had appeared in 1683 and predicted that it would return in 1758. That comet did return in 1758 and has ever since been known as Halley’s Comet.

Halley's Comet, taken in 1986

Halley’s Comet is visible from Earth every 75-76 years

The return of Halley’s Comet at the exact time Halley had predicted was a sensational event. People began to believe that the universe truly is comprehensible.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the success of what Newton called his “System of the World,” fostered the attitude that the universe was a huge mechanical system running according to natural laws that human beings could understand and apply to make their lives better.


Joseph Wright of Derby, “A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery” (1766)
This painting reflects the theme of scientific inquiry during the Enlightenment.

This, in turn, led to a paradigm shift in political thinking: if the universe was comprehensible, explanations based on superstition or blind faith were no longer adequate, and intellectuals began to challenge the concept of rule by divine right and even monarchy itself. This widespread examination of the proper role of government was one of the hallmark themes of the Liberal Revolution.

The Liberal Revolution

LencyclopedieThere is an intellectual revolution that is even more profound than the Newtonian Revolution. It is the Liberal Revolution. It includes the Newtonian Revolution and broadens into a transformation of society from the concept of a coercion-based state to a free society in which non-coercive, competing, proprietary governments exist as a desirable replacement for the political state.

The illustration to the left (excerpted from the frontspiece of L’Encyclopedie, an innovative, multi-volume encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772 as a product of the Enlightenment) is symbolic of the Liberal Revolution: The figure in the center represents truth — surrounded by bright light (the central symbol of the European Enlightenment which coincided with the Liberal Revolution). Two other figures on the right, reason and philosophy, are tearing the veil from truth.

The Industrial Revolution as a Newtonian Development

Before the Industrial Revolution the only source of power other than human muscle power was the domestication of draft animals and usage of water wheels and windmills.

A farmer plows a rice field Bali, Indonesia

A farmer plows a rice field in Bali, Indonesia (2008)
Why people of some countries enjoy extremely high standards of living while others do not is one of the central topics of this book. There is a direct relationship between respect for property rights within a nation and the standard of living of its people.

The essential characteristic of the Industrial Revolution was the supplanting of the muscle power of human beings and draft animals by the machine power of engines. First, the engines were driven by steam, then petroleum, and later by electricity. Most recently, humans have been able to generate electricity by atomic power, via turbines driven by conversion of water to steam through heat generated by nuclear fission.

James Watt's steam engine developed 1763-1775

Locomotive powered by James Watt’s steam engine, developed 1763-1775

Following the advent of the Industrial Revolution in 18th century England, transportation evolved with the development of railroads carrying trains driven by coal-burning steam engines, and later by petroleum powered locomotives. The development of the internal combustion engine brought automobiles, motor-powered ships, airplanes, and even rocket ships.

Inside the offices of SpaceX SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

Inside the offices of SpaceX, a company that designs, manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft. The knowledge that enables humans to launch rockets into space has its basis in Newton’s discoveries of the laws of motion. Note also the difference between this modern factory and proverbial sweatshops of the 19th century.

The industrialization that first took off in 18th century England was rooted in the study of mechanics associated with the Newtonian cosmological view that the entire universe was a comprehensible machine.

Newton's System of the World

Newton proved that motions in the universe and motions on earth were explained by the same principles. The Newtonian cosmology of the universe as a giant clockwork machine promoted a drive to mechanize human activities that, in turn, stimulated the development of new machinery and new methods of mass production.

The Industrial Revolution and the
Rising Standard of Living

The Industrial Revolution transformed the quality of life for everybody, including the poor. By the mid-nineteenth century such developments as coal-fired heating in stoves, window glass, kerosene lamps, and a plethora of new, affordable products led to an unprecedented rise in the standard of life and health.

Johannes Vermeer, "Astronomer by Candlelight" (1665) Before the Industrial Revolution, people relied on candlelight for illumination.

Johannes Vermeer, “Astronomer by Candlelight” (1665)
Before the Industrial Revolution, people relied on candlelight for illumination after dark.

New methods of mass production and distribution were the source of these benefits. By the standards of advanced countries in the 21st century, the factories of the early Industrial Revolution were horrid places to work.

However, they were no worse than the preceding working conditions. Workshops and mines had been dank, crowded and polluting long before the Industrial Revolution. Two hundred and fifty years of technological advance since James Watt’s first steam engine have made factories far cleaner, safer, and easier places in which to work thanks to advances in technology.

Factory workers putting radios together at the vast Atwater Kent factory in Philadelphia, 1925.

Factory workers assembling radios at the vast Atwater Kent factory in Philadelphia, 1925. By the 20th century, conditions at most factories had begun to improve significantly.

Advances in biological science are also in the flow-stream of the Newtonian revolution. Infant mortality was extremely high as recently as the mid-19th century. For most of the 18th century in the U.S. and Britain, the infant mortality rate was about 500 out of every 1,000 births. Around one-half of all infants died before their first birthday in the two most advanced countries in the world. Today in the U.S. and Great Britain, the infant mortality rate has been reduced to about seven per 1,000 births.

Infant mortality Accordingly, it is fair to say that but for Newtonian science and post-Newtonian developments in biological and medical science, most people alive today, even in America, would not exist. They would not have survived infancy.

The American Revolution

The American Revolution was a non-violent transformation in people’s attitudes toward government whose genesis lies in the Newtonian revolution.

John Locke (1632-1704), English philosopher and physician

John Locke (1632-1704), English philosopher and physician

The basic ideas of the American Revolution can be traced directly from Isaac Newton to John Locke to Thomas Paine. They are expressed clearly and succinctly in the American Declaration of Independence.

John Locke (1632-1704) read Newton’s Principia in Holland shortly after it was published in 1687. After his return to England in 1688 Locke cultivated a friendship with Newton. Locke developed a view of human society based on the concepts of the scientific method set forth by Newton. First he examined the nature of the individual human being, and then tried to apply the principles of human nature to economic and political problems.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was a serious student of Newtonian science. Shortly after Paine came to America, in 1774, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Common Sense, first published on January 10, 1776, that became the most influential essay in the history of America.

In Common Sense Paine argued not only that the American colonies of Britain should separate from Britain, but also that America should reject rule by monarchy and develop a new form of government based on the principle of individual self rule and representative political democracy. Common Sense caused a true revolution in attitudes in America, and formed the basis for the ideas expressed in the American Declaration of Independence.


The Newtonian Revolution and Galileo’s development of the scientific method led to an explosion in our ability as a species to acquire knowledge. This, in turn led to astounding scientific and technological progress.

We enjoy on a daily basis the fruits of the Newtonian Revolution. One example among many is electronic communication at the speed of light. Today, someone can witness televised events taking place half way around the world, or make cellular phone calls to people in the farthest corners of the globe.

Yet beyond today’s astounding technological advancements, as an outgrowth of the Newtonian Revolution, the principles of the American Revolution point the way to a better future and a new kind of democracy–a democracy of individual self-rule–based not on the will of a politically manipulated majority, but rather on the freedom of mankind to achieve proprietary self-government that would supersede politics by protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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