Celebrity Throwdown? Einstein versus Newton

By cjohnson | November 18, 2005 8:25 pm

I was told about this a while ago* and clean forgot until just now. There is still time.

You’ll recall my (faux) rant about the “Greatest ….” business that is popular in Britain. I co-opted the idea and did a series on physics papers (yes, we get to vote on that soon), physics textbooks, and popular science books. The point is that the discussion point itself is silly, but the act of having the discussion is valuable. That’s why it is worthwhile….

Well, the Royal Society has decided to do a battle between Einstein and Newton. Who was the greater? Etc, etc. Yeah, I know. But…..

You must vote on their website by the 22nd November.

On the site, you’ll see the cases made for each by two Professors, Jim Al-Khalili and John Enderby. I reproduce the cases here:

Professor Jim Al-Khalili puts the case for Albert Einstein:

In the space of just a few months during 1905, the centenary of which we are celebrating this year as International Year of Physics, Einstein published several papers that were to change the face of physics:

* He proved mathematically that atoms exist (in his Brownian motion paper). Until then scientists could not agree on whether matter was made up of atoms or not.
* He proved that light is lumpy. It is made up of tiny particles we now call photons and not as continuous waves. So this is sort of like saying light is also made up of light atoms. This he did in his paper on the photoelectric effect, which was to win him the Nobel Prize in 1921. Just consider that without this work we wouldn’t have solar panels. So when people say Einstein gave us the knowledge to split the atom and hence nuclear power which many perceive as bad, it is worth remembering he also gave us the knowledge to harness solar power.
* He then published two papers on his special theory of relativity giving us a new view of reality itself. He explained that Newton was wrong about the meaning of space and time. In fact both time and space can be stretch ands squeezed in a way that might sound crazy but is extremely beautiful. Without relativity they we would not have been able to study the building blocks of matter: the subatomic particles we hurl round accelerators like CERN at close to the speed of light.
* In 1910, Einstein explained why the sky is blue! How many people know that?
* In 1915, he proved Newton wrong again when he explained that the force of gravity causes space and time to curve. This theory, his general theory of relativity, led to a whole new field of science called cosmology and led to ideas such as the Big Bang, black holes, parallel universes and so on.
* In 1917, he described the theory behind the laser. So he gave us the knowledge to invent CD and DVD players.

Sir John Enderby FRS puts the case for Isaac Newton.

The very first thing to note about Newton is the date of his birth, 1642. This was the same year as the death of Galileo and some 18 years before the creation of the Royal Society. Thus the transition from an era of superstition, dogma and the persecution of those brave enough to challenge the ancient lore of Aristotle was still in its infancy. But by the end of Newton’s life in 1727, the transition to the modern scientific method had been achieved and in this he himself played a decisive role. All subsequent advances, notably those of James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein relied on the principle that simple laws, supported by experiment, can interact to provide an explanation of the complexity of the Universe.

This approach is exemplified by the greatest scientific work in the history of mankind, the Principia Mathematica , written by Newton and finally published with the help of Edmund Halley and Samuel Pepys in 1687. This book set out the mathematical principles of “natural philosophy” and showed how a universal force, gravity, applied to all objects in all parts of the universe. This amazing insight once and for all ruled out the belief that somehow laws related to earth bound objects were in some sense inferior to those which governed the heavens,

Although the Principia alone would justify Newton as the greatest scientist ever, we must not forget his contributions to optics which include the construction of a telescope, and the fact that white light is composed of the same system of colours one sees in a rainbow. To quote from Einstein himself, [Newton] “in one person combined the experimenter, the theorist, the mechanic and, not least, the artist in exposition.”

Tell us what you think in the comments, if you like. Who’s your favourite? Carry on chatting on the topic beyond the deadline if you like…. I don’t care about that.


(* Thanks cmj!)

  • vk

    Newton. I think Sir John Enderby makes the case very persuasively.

    Einstein was the greatest physicist of his age, and the greatest since Newton. However, I think on the whole, his influence on the course of physics was not as pervasive as Newton’s.

  • Amanda

    Ok, this topic and the link back to the best popular science book has lured me into leaving my first blog comment. I absolutely agree with Peter Woit. Crease and Mann’s book “The Second Creation” is fantastic. Unsurpassed by any other popular science book I have read before or since, and I have read many in the comments list.

  • a cornellian

    I am going to second vk.

    I have to ask though, why not also consider someone more activly involved in the formulation of qunatum?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Amanda! Welcome to the blogosphere!


  • Pingback: 【格志】 谁更伟大?()

  • Dissident

    Drat! I have to… agree. :(

    Newton was the quintessential theoretician, combining intuition and superior analytical abilities. Unlike Einstein, he really did it all pretty much unaided by others. And what he did pretty much defined physics for the next couple of centuries.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com/ Count Iblis

    Perhaps they can’t be compared. It could be that Einstein would have done less well than Newton in developing classical mechanics, while Newton would have done less well than Einstein in developing relativity.

  • TM

    At the beginning of any scientific discipline, there is a unique opportunity to define the new field and make fundamental discoveries that then set the field’s agenda for a long, long time. Newton did this for physics, Darwin for biology. It is not inevitable that such a figure will appear, but it is possible.
    After this moment, it is never possible to make such a great leap forward, for Newton moved physics from a little to a lot (as did Darwin), and after that, all one can do is add incrementally to a lot, even if some additions – like relativity and quantum theory – are big increments.
    Since no one can match Newton due to historical circumstances, the very fact that Einstein could – in a relatively mature science – make such enormous contributions that it does not seem absurd to compare him to Newton powerfully suggests that he was, in fact, the greater physicist.

  • DM

    Of course Einstein was *really* great, but I will certainly go for Newton.

  • http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk Rob Fenwick

    Thanks for the link – I doff my (very English) cap to you.

    Rob Fenwick (Web Manager for the Royal Society)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Hi Rob Fenwick! Thanks… do visit again from time to time….!


  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    As an aside, it pains me how much the essay on Einstein uses the phrasing “Einstein proved…” You can’t really mathematically prove that something is true in the physical world without talking about the assumptions that you fed into the argument to get that proof out.

    He should have said stuff like “Einstein showed, mathematically, that Browian motion implies that matter must be made of atoms.” “Mathematically, Einstein constructed a theory of gravity superior to Newtons, in which the very fabric of space-time curves, causing objects to move”

    Sorry, rant over.

    However, I do have to go with Einstein on this. A lot of Einstein’s results, particularly the 1905 ones, were wholly unexpected, while Newton’s ideas seem to me to be extentions and codifications of the work of the 16th and 17th century empiricists like Galileo.

    Though maybe I’m somewhat hard on newton because of some of his more crackpotty ideas (he calculated that the trajectory of a comet would intersect with the sun sometime in the 2100s, and stated that the event of this comet intersecting the sun would be the end of the world), and his stubborn insistence on a global stationary reference frame even when Liebniz’s correspondence showed that this wasn’t all that great an idea.

  • Fzplus

    I voted Newton, but now I am unsure…

    Seen from the light of history, his work certainly seems very significant, but I’m not entirely certain that Newton was irreplaceable. Einstein solved a number of bottlenecks that people were coming up against, but Newton? Certainly some people were working on the same sort of thing – would they have succeeded without him?

    And if we are talking lasting benefits to humanity, again that is unclear. It can be argued that Newton’s personality actually held back science for some time, because people were afraid of contradicting him. Einstein’s work was immediately built upon – indeed leaving Einstein himself somewhat left behind, whilst with Newton, not really. Of course, there’s the nuclear fission issue, but it is still early to tell if that is going to be a long term good thing or bad thing.

  • http://thomas.loc.gov X

    I’m surprised at all these physicists, talking as though “greater physicist” is a measurable quantity.

    One might argue about “greater baseball player” because e.g., one could imagine asking about the performance of “team + player A” vs. “team + player B” – though even that gets far-fetched.

    But what is meaning of declaring Newton to be greater than Einstein or vice versa?

    Does it mean that if you are allowed to retain memory of only one physicist, which will it be? Does it mean that in Encyclopedia Galactica, if only one human were to be named, it should be the one deemed “greater”? Does it mean the one physicist you would take with you to a desert island? Does it mean a decision about whose portrait should hang in the Head of Physics Department office? Does it mean whom you think would most likely win in a physics Olympiad? Whom you’d hire or give tenure first?

    Does it mean greater influence on history? But then who knows, perhaps if Newton’s discoveries had been spread over a number of people and a period of time, without the great prestige of Newton behind them, they would have been surpassed earlier. Perhaps without the great prestige of Einstein behind it, this dream of recovering the theory of everything from pure thought, as Einstein is imagined to have received General Relativity, would not be so infectious in the halls of physics today. But in any case, how do you subtract either Newton or Einstein from today’s physics in a meaningful way?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    X… [Sigh] Before getting all surprised at us, please read the fist link I gave in the post. In fact, even less effort is required… just read the first full paragraph of the post. Of course it is immeasurable…. it is the discussion itself that is the point, not the result.

    As to which defintion of greater to use….. take your pick….I like some of your choices! take your pick and then declare, with reasons.

    Come on in… the water’s lovely.



  • http://capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com/ CapitalistImperialistPig

    Newton vs. Einstein – that is tough. Either one of them is almost in the same class with Archimedes, Galileo, and Darwin. Got to give that #4 spot to Ike though, even if he was an SOB.

  • Cygnus

    Not that such a comparison makes much sense, but I’d have to pick Einstein over Newton, for Special Relativity alone. I mean, most of Newton’s work – as extremely elegant and important as it was – was a quantifying of already existing ideas about how nature behaves, except for the unifying idea of the same force acting on terrestrial and celestial objects. Einstein’s special relativity was on the other hand a total overturning of our ideas of absolute time.

    If only Einstein hadn’t been so against Quatum Mechanics, he’d have won hands down. 😉

  • Joe

    As has been noted, we need to suspend belief in the ridiculousness of the undertaking. Let’s begin:

    The Einstein essay is MUCH weaker than the Newton essay. The authors do have something in there about cosmology, but really, who could possibly make the discovery of quantum mechanics sound like this: “when people say Einstein gave us the knowledge to split the atom and hence nuclear power which many perceive as bad, it is worth remembering he also gave us the knowledge to harness solar power…he gave us the knowledge to invent CD and DVD players.” Pathetic. I’m all for the practical importance of physics, but this sounds like pandering to a pernicious version of “relevance” which serves only to narrow the imagination.

    Now consider: “The very first thing to note about Newton is the date of his birth, 1642… the transition from an era of superstition, dogma and the persecution of those brave enough to challenge the ancient lore of Aristotle was still in its infancy. But by the end of Newton’s life in 1727, the transition to the modern scientific method had been achieved and in this he himself played a decisive role.” Einstein’s advocates don’t give us anything that can begin to compete with that!

    Einstein had a deeper appreciation of science. That may not be surprising given the times he lived in, but it is a fact, and he made use of it. There is a case that Einstein had deeper physical insight, for example in his use of statistical arguments. I recommend Lee Smolin’s essay here as one of the best centenary appreciations. “Deeper physical insight” may sound decisive.

    But. Enderby makes the important point (using a quote from Einstein) that Newton did ground breaking experimental work, in addition to theory. That must count very heavily.

    At least a portion of Newton’s reputation must come from his almost super-human mathematical powers (Einstein was an ordinary mathematician by the relevant standard). To the extent that mathematics is not physics, perhaps some of this portion should be subtracted before comparison. On the other hand mathematics is absolutly essential (of the essence) to physics.

    We should discount for the inflation of Newton’s reputation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by a sort of personality cult, although today the fashion seems to have swung the other way. (There is a proper demystication from serious historians, by the way, of the proposition repeated above that Newton was some sort of lone genius.)

    In my heart I want to go with Einstein. On balance I think the combination of theory with experiment must give it to Newton, but only just.

  • http://capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com/ CapitalistImperialistPig

    Inspired by Clifford’s throwdown, let me suggest a related topic. Who is the greatest living physicist? I posted the following on my own blog, but since it’s lightly trafficed I will reproduce here: A young friend of mine who is a grad student at U of New Mexico was telling me about going to the regular seminars that Murray Gell-Mann comes down from Santa Fe to give. He added that he had stopped going because G-M was to bitchy or something of the sort. I said: “Don’t stop going – he’s the greatest living physicist!” Are there even any other contenders? Suggestions welcomed, but will likely be met with an argument!

  • http://capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com/ CapitalistImperialistPig

    Doh! to -> too.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com/ Count Iblis

    I think that the more we know the more difficult it is for us to value the contributions made by people a long time ago like Newton and even Einstein. When comparing Newton to Einstein we tend to be biased against Newton.

  • Morton

    I just started Quicksilver by Stephenson, and then ran
    across this blog. http://www.blogwise.com has been a nice method to surf the blog-o-sphere.
    On the question, though;
    All giants, in science, stand on the shoulders of
    other giants. The challenge of this question is of course that the answer is both, or neither.

  • http://capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com/ CapitalistImperialistPig

    So far the Newton knockers seem pretty clueless about his acomplishments. I suggest they might read one of the many excellent Newton biographies. It’s utterly preposterous to proclaim that all Newton did was clean up the details of what was already known. The notion that Einstein’s accomplishment is somehow diminished by his refusal to accept the conventional quantum wisdom is equally silly.

  • spyder

    bittergradstudent mentioned Liebniz, and for me i think that is what made the difference in my vote. Newton was constantly challenged by Liebniz, a pair of amazingly plastic minds that were capable of envisioning as many possible explorations of their known and proximally known universe. This “competition” forced them to focus vast energies on every detail, struggling not just to be “RIGHT” but for the blessings of power and patronage that would enable greater and broader questioning.

    Einstein had his pool of “competitors” but none seemed to be his equal, neither in the capacity to inquire with the necessary incredible focussed meditative energies (as in seeking resolution to his thought problems) or in “imagining” the furthest possible reaches of the relevancy of his big ideas. He had his job, he had his few worldly interests, he had Newton and Liebniz before him.

    I was happy that the Royal Society allowed us two votes. Thus i could equivocate and vote for both; although i side more w/ Newton.

  • Joe

    Spyder, that’s an interesting point about debate.

    I would suggest that Cygnus, who says opposition to quantum was a major mark against Einstein, underestimates the importance of the debate over quantum. Einstein may have been on the wrong side but I believe his opposition was, at the time, productive. Does anyone think that the EPR paper was not worth writing? Would we have had the Bell inequalities or Aspect’s experiments without it? Does anyone think that the Bohr-Einstein debates were not worth while? They may not have come up with useful answers, but they made people think, and made people realise they needed to think harder. I think it is unlikely that the final chapter has been written on quantum (on any other theory of physics), and Einstein was certainly correct to question it when others around him seemed to take it as dogma that no more could ever be said.

  • X^2

    spyder, I do not think that is accurate. There were many people who could match or arguably better Einstein. Poincare, Hilbert, Godel, von Neumann, Weyl perhaps even Heisenberg. Each of them was a better physicist or mathematician or sometimes both. Specifically, it is well known that Einstein was neither a good physicist nor a brilliant mathematician. He was simply a person who extended his integrity to his deductions on how nature might behave and he seemed, also to be able to consistently ask the correct questions and turn in the right direction of exploration.

    It should be noted as well that Hilbert formulated a theory of general relativity from a langrangian in only a few weeks; simulatanously with einstein who had given a lecture on his incorrect form of the theory which, Hilbert had attended and was able to note the error. Both corresponded and it cannot be said who truly was first nor whose ideas were independently original, although Hilbert did concede priority. Nonetheless, Hilbert did in weeks what took Einstein decades. Although the direct route of deducing – from consequences in his special theory with respect to the accepted Newtonian concept – taken by Einstein, was the more difficult and he required much help, including from, Grossman (especially) and Emmy Noether.

    What is it that Hilbert said? “Every street urchin in our mathematical Göttingen knows more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Nevertheless, it was Einstein who did the work, not the great mathematicians.”. I think that statements encapsulates best, the skill of Einstein. He knew when to let go [and move forward].


    Some truly brilliant people though, would be Gauss or William Hamilton or especially, George Green. The farmer with no (well 1 year, age 8 to 9) schooling who worked on a forerunner of Electromagnetism and invented techniques in vector calculus from his barn. While raising some 8 or 9 kids.

  • http://thomas.loc.gov X

    Very well, Newton wins by virtue of being the superior theologian.

  • http://iso42.blogspot.com Wolfgang

    Newton was certainly a better Alchemist than Einstein …

  • X^2

    Also, I feel that people are assuming that Einstein magically pulled from thin air completely new results. Such is not the case, both times, in General and Special Relativity, most of the work had already been done by others. It simply took Einstein’s insight and bravery to willingly put two and two together.

    For special relativity, it could have readily formulated after Maxwell finished his work. Lorentz, Fitzgerald, Poincare and some few others had already postulated much along the same lines as Einstein, none of them simply went far enough with connecting the philosophy with the mathematics.

    The same again applies for General Releativity, whose mathematics had been laid down many decades prior by those like Riemann, Ricci and Levi-Civita. Einstein simply had to give up notions of Euclidean geometries holding everywhere, coupled with his equivalence principle he was up and cruising to a complete theory.

    Important as well to know is that Einstein contributed greatly to Quantum theory in the earlier years, his qualm simply, was with probablistic intepretation of nature that quantum physicist applied to nature wholesale. He lost touch with progress simply because he became obsessed with his search for a unified theory.

  • Cygnus

    Joe said: “I would suggest that Cygnus, who says opposition to quantum was a major mark against Einstein, underestimates the importance of the debate over quantum. Einstein may have been on the wrong side but I believe his opposition was, at the time, productive. Does anyone think that the EPR paper was not worth writing? Would we have had the Bell inequalities or Aspect’s experiments without it? Does anyone think that the Bohr-Einstein debates
    I totally agree. My last comment about quantum theory, was just a flippant remark (hence the smiley) which I though was well suited to an excercise as absurd as comparing two great scientists living in different eras.

    If it seemed from my comments that I think “all Newton did was clean up the details of what was already known”, then I’m not as good at communication as I should like to be. Having leafed through parts of the Principia, it is impossible to not to be awestruck by the sheer mathematical beauty of his arguments.
    In fact if you think about it Newton’s idea of a Universal law of gravitation, in itself is as revolutionary for its times as Special Relativity. So when we’re making these comparisons, it’s abvious that they are simply subjective views on the lines of six-year-old Superman vs. Godzilla discussions.

  • agm

    Ok, so there things to add. Einsten was one of the seminal figures in establishing the first round of quantum mechanical theory (the pre-1920s stuff, not the material of the Solvay conferences), both from his Brownian motion work, and from his photoelectric effect work, which many accounts paint as the first evidence to really start convincing the world of physics that quanta were more than a mathematical convenience. There was the laser. There was Bose-Einstein statistics and condensation. Going back to the Solvay conferences, Newton had his Liebnitz, Einstein had Bohr. He was the founder of one of the two major branches of early-20th century physics and a major contributor to the other.

    Do not confuse the search for an electromagnetic theory of matter (for example, see this review paper), which is the project that Lorentz and his fellows were engaged in, with relativity. They are quite different theories, different aims, and one failed. The math remained because it was useful, and because it can be related to a valid physical theory.

    Of couse, this is really a silly exercise anyways, because at some point the theories and experiments we now think to be the best, that tell us better than anything before about the world, will be surpassed by even better ideas and experiments (for example, what if Chad Orzell were to end up finding an electric dipole moment!), and there are people who have done physics every bit as ground breaking as either Newton or Einstein but who are being compared here. Why is Maxwell, with his completion of electrodynamics and displacement current not in the running? What about Michelson and Morley? Hubble and cosmology? Copernicus and solar centricism? Heimlich and his maneuver?

  • Joe


    You’re right that much of the mathematics was in place for both the special and general theories. But I think you’re underestimating Einstein’s contribution here. Consider special relativity: Poincare had the mathematics but never really accepted Einstein’s interpretation (died 1912). That seems a strong indication that the interpretation was not an obvious step. Similarly, with general relativity Einstein had the key physical insight – the equivalence principle.

    I think what I find attractive about Einstein is that he shows physics is more than mathematics. It needs an extra spark of insight that turns a formal manipulation of symbols into a description of reality. He may not have shined at mathematics or experiment, but this quality of physical insight is so rare and so central to physics that it pushes Einstein to the front rank.

    (Newton’s idea of universal gravitation was a similar step. The mathematics of objects on earth and objects in the heavens was arguably in place (although not so completely as with relativity). The revolutionary step was to realise that they were governed by the same laws.)

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com/ Count Iblis

    X^2: ”Important as well to know is that Einstein contributed greatly to Quantum theory in the earlier years, his qualm simply, was with probablistic intepretation of nature that quantum physicist applied to nature wholesale. He lost touch with progress simply because he became obsessed with his search for a unified theory.”

    If he had a large following for his search to find the unified theory, the situation would be similar to string theory today. :)

  • Zelah

    Lets see now,

    Newton was a great experimentalist, Einstein was not.
    Newton was Coinventor of Calculus. Einstein does not invent Tensor Calculus.

    Newton 2, Einstein 0.

    Einstein invents SR.
    Newton invents Universal Gravitation.

    Newton 3, Einstein 1.

    Einstein by his work on atomic systems, finalises CLASSICAL PHYSICS.

    Newton 3, Einstein 2.

    Einstein wastes last 30 odd years on QGr. Newton on Alchemy.

    Newton 2, Einstein 1.

    Thereby I am with Newton.

    However in my humble opinion, it is easier to list the greatest Scientists than to do the above!

    Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Darwin, Einstein.

    Why is this list so easy? Most Scientists are SPECIALISTS. Even Feymann, although he would dabble essentially was a theoretical physicist

    (I understand, that he wrote a paper on Quantum computers, but he did not really publish the paper which put the field on the amazing path of that it finds itself today – that would be Deutsch work).

    To be truly great, one has to go beyond one narrow specialisation.

    Are there going to be truly great scientists in the future? Now that is the question?

    An amateur mathematician

  • Johan Richter

    I will vote for Newton. Proof:
    The proof will be based on two lemmas.

    Lemma 1: Newton was the better mathematical physicist. Proof:Obvious, he did after all co-discover calculus and thus developed the mathematical tools used by physicists in addition to presenting no theories.

    Lemma 2: Newton was the better experimental physicist. Proof: Also obvious. Einstein, did he do any experiments at all?

    Conclusion: While Einstein maybe was the better “not-mathematical-but-still-theoretical” physicist that simply is not enough to outweigh Newtons accomplishments. So Newton was the beter physicist. QED.

  • Johan Richter

    It should be that he presented new theories of course, not that he presented no theories.

  • Aaron

    As much as I adore Einstein, I have to conjecture that if it came down to a fistfight, Newton would win. Newton was a hardass.

  • Aaron

    “I will vote for Newton. Proof:”

    The fact that you voted for Newton requires no proof! 😉

  • Aaron

    Uhoh. Multiple Aarons now….

  • Pingback: Newton Knocks Stuffing Out Of Einstein | Cosmic Variance()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar