Newton on the Ganges

rohit gupta | Updated on August 22, 2014

Lo and behold: A 1728 chart of the East Indian Ocean from the Islands of Maldivy to Cambodia. Image: raremaps.com

Rohit Gupta

Science has crowdsourced information for ages; Newton even tapped into the resources of the trusty sailors of the East India Company

The British Raj in India is of particular importance to the history of science because — writes David Arnold: “... the English East India Company was as old as modern science itself. Founded in 1600, the Company shared its early years with the Scientific Revolution, and by when the Royal Society of London was founded, was already a flourishing concern with trading bases at Surat, Madras and Masulipatnam.”

Of the colonial sciences, one of the most dominant was geology, since a survey of India’s natural resources was of direct commercial importance to the Company. However, the survey unfolded with many tangential explorations by hobbyists, a good example being their interest in meteorites. One of these fell at Sherghati near Patna in Bihar, on August 25, 1865, and recent analysis of the rock show it to have originated on the planet Mars.

Commenting on the culture of science in India at that time, Kevin Kichinka writes about this meteorite in an essay called ‘The Fall of Shergotty:’ “India was considered an unequaled venue to observe falls. Clear skies and a dense population allowed for multiple observations of a single event. As soon as a meteorite fell, researchers, government officials, even the police were sent to retrieve specimens. All haste was made to collect pieces before the indigenous population had a chance to worship or destroy the meteorite. Witnesses were interrogated as if the strewn field were a crime scene, leaving behind observations both accurate and dubious but an excellent historic record of the times.” This would be tantamount in modern terms to crowdsourcing science through citizens.

In the 19th century, such events naturally triggered speculation about the origins of meteors and causes using the well-known framework of Newton’s gravitation. Were the fall of meteors an attempt by an invisible god to mark places for pagodas like the Buddha preached long ago? Or were they remnants of a comet that was passing the orbit of Earth? Was it possible that such a comet would collide with their planet someday?

A Burmese prince once wrote to the journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, for he was “anxiously looking out for a Comet that is to appear this month, and which I believe by the calculations of some French Astronomer is to destroy the earth.” The philosopher prince further posits a few very interesting questions to the journal (to which they indeed replied with entire calculations). He asks, “on what data does Sir Isaac Newton found his hypothesis of the heat of a Comet being 900 times greater than red-hot iron?” And “Is not the height of the atmosphere increased at new and full moon in the same manner that the waters of the ocean are raised, but to a much greater extent? If so why does the barometer not indicate it by rising?” Both questions might be worth considering even today.

Isaac Newton’s masterwork Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) was first published in 1687, whence it gradually started its journey across the world. An interesting proposition is to trace how its ideas spread across South Asia along with agents of the British Empire, and other European visitors. Or, when did the first copy of Principia enter the Indian peninsula?

As early as 1718, the infamous ex-governor of Madras — Elihu Yale (after whom Yale College is named) donated a copy of Newton’s book to Harvard. As late as 1801, an establishing syllabus for the East India College — for training future servants of the Company, included both Oriental literature and Newton’s Principia. However, his influence over South Asia went far beyond the pages of Principia because Newton was at a crucial time the master of the mint in London.

Simon Schaffer tells us, “Newton also stood at the centre of the financial revolution that saw the establishment of the Bank of England in 1695, the recoinage of 1696 as a response to the circulation of bad metal, and the emergence of paper credit and the growth of the stock market in London. He was one of the few East India Company proprietors who owned more than ten thousand pounds in stock.”

A symmetric question would be to investigate the influence of India on the works of Newton.

Edmund Halley, whose observations were used by Newton, was well-travelled with the ships of East India Company and “he exploited information networks of the trading corporations and dockyard experts, such as those used in his friend John Seller’s Oriental pilot.” Halley was often “conversing with navigators acquainted with all parts of India, and having spent a considerable time in the Tropicks...” which suggests that the web of East India Company was fully exploited by these scientists to crowdsource scientific data.

The records of tidal patterns from all over the world were needed by Halley and Newton to prove his theory of gravitation, and who could do the job better than sailors of the East India Company?

( Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah)

Follow Rohit on Twitter >@fadesingh

Published on July 25, 2014

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