Today, we throw Leibniz's cat into the super
collider. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A cartoon in today's paper
shows a TV hearing with the camera on two
scientists. A panel member says:
My question is directed to Professor
Zimmerman. If it's true that you felt Professor
Ditmar's paper ... was totally unsubstantiated
... why didn't you simply ask to review his data,
as opposed to putting his cat into the super
I didn't know whether to laugh or weep. Maybe it's
time to tell the story of
Isaac Newton and
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. If you've ever
studied calculus, you know it was created
independently by Newton and Leibniz. Few of us
appreciate the full fury of the priority dispute
Now Hal Hellman retells the story. Newton was born
in 1642, Leibniz four years later. Calculus
is a means for calculating the way quantities vary
with each other, rather than just the quantities
themselves. The bare bones of that idea had been
hatching before either Newton or Leibniz was born.
But they each wrote a full system of calculus.
In 1665 Newton created his somewhat clumsy
method of fluxions. He feared criticism and
sat on his work 'til 1704. Then he published it as
an appendix to his book on Optiks. The odd
thing is, he began his fight with Leibniz long
before he published anything. Leibniz wrote his
calculus around 1673, and he used the notation we
still use today -- derivatives expressed as dy/dx,
and so on. He too sat on his work for a long time.
He published it in 1684 (still twenty years ahead
A surprised Newton took the offensive. But both men
had cronies egging them on.
Johann Bernoulli, who used Leibniz's calculus
to maximize functions, goaded Leibniz into fighting
Newton. Newton was surrounded by toadies whom
Leibniz called the enfants perdus, the
lost children. Newton choreographed
the attack, and they carried the battle.
They accused Leibniz of plagiarism, a charge that
falls apart when you trace the details. In the end,
Newton's campaign was effective and damaging. He
emerged with the credit. But when people like
Leonard Euler and the Bernoullis erected the field
of applied analysis, they used Leibniz's
Leibniz worked in an astonishing variety of fields.
He was first to state the conservation of energy.
He worked for a reunification of Catholics and
Protestants. That may well've been fed by his
optimistic metaphysics. It was he who
claimed we live in the best of all possible worlds.
born when both Newton and Leibniz were on in years,
wouldn't stand still for that. While his mistress,
Emily de Breteuil,
translated Newton's Principia into French,
Voltaire wrote Candide. And Candide's friend
Dr. Pangloss made vicious sport of Leibniz's
Leibniz died poor and dishonored, while Newton was
given a state funeral. Yet history validates
Leibniz. For as time passes, so does the potency of
Newton's assault. And Leibniz gradually finds his
place as one of the great thinkers of all time.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds