Isaac Newton Day!

The Dharma on this page is usually the result of a combination of effort by the various Teachers of Loka Hatha Yoga, but because of the significance of today's holiday, we specially recognize the efforts of Gary TwoHorse Green, a Teacher of Bhakti Yoga who first instructed in the importance of venerating Sir Newton, and is the reason we celebrate this holiday. He said that the best way to venerate Sir Newton was by remembering that Sir Newton invented the doggy door.  We have also consulted with local mathematician and historian, Professor Doctor Edward Bonan Hamada of Colorado Mesa University - and encourage everyone to spend some time learning mathematics and history today from your own instructors, in honor of Isaac Newton Day.

Sir Isaac Newton began developing the method of Calculus (calculation) in 1664 when he read recent work on optics and light by Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. In repeating their observations, Newton became curious at the refraction of light by a glass prism. Inspired by the mathematical reasoning of René Descartes, he investigated – and through a series of increasingly elaborate and exact experiments, saw mathematical patterns in the phenomenon of color.

Newton discovered that white light could be “broken” into numerous colors (a “rainbow”), and then recombined into white light by the use of prisms and lenses. Measuring the composition of white light’s elemental colors, Newton understood the properties of each color were different: the same white light, being bent and slowed more or less depending on whether it went through the thick or thin part of the triangular prism, resulted in a continuous pattern of color. Continuous patterns can only be understood mathematically through calculation.

Newton realized the size of each color band in the rainbow could be algebraically predicted through a continual calculation – if the angle through which it was refracted on entering or leaving the prism was known. Soon, no matter the angle of refraction, he could anticipate the result. This concept, of holding a factor constant, and calculating the effects of variables, led to the scientific method.

Newton kept his method of mathematics (known as Calculus) hidden from all but his closest friends until 1704, when he published a book on it he titled “Opticks.” Today, we spell the word “Optics” (no “k”): over time, written English language has changed, but the words are still spoken the same way. What do you think Newton would make of our modern use of emojis and emoticons? :)

Calculation is different than simple counting: calculation is undertaken through algorithms which anticipate the outcome, rather than measure it. Series of additions and subtractions can be systematically organized through algebra. These systems contain elements (the series, and their required additions and subtractions). Understanding how each system’s elements interact permits the result to be calculated, or anticipated.

“Calculation,” or “calculus,” is the process of mathematics which enables continuous computation. “Computation” is a system of logic which permits the truthfulness of assumptions to be tested by comparing the relationship of known facts to uncertain facts under varying (variable) conditions. Computation was invented by Muḥammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, and forms the foundation of modern philosophical reasoning - an achievement which Loka Hatha Yoga also celebrates as a holiday. Continuous computation through calculation permits an observation of the interactions of elemental components which formulate the computations, even as they varied (in algebra, these elements are known as “variables” and “constants”). In short, Newton’s method of calculus permitted modern scientific method, which relies on experimentation to control the variation and constancy of these algebraic elements.

Newton was the first scientist. Though his predecessors and teachers studied natural phenomenon through al-Khwarizmi’s algebraic philosophy, Newtonian Calculation permitted people to understand how these things worked.

Newton is known not only for understanding light, but for discovering gravity – and the laws which govern force in the Universe, creating the science of Physics. He also created the science of History, beginning by publishing an edition of Geographia Generalis by the German geographer Varenius in 1672, and, after he died, his friends published his work on The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728). He also tried applying the scientific method to theology - Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John (1733) was also published after he died, and is famous for his many other achievements in science and mathematics, and his numerous inventions, one of his greatest achievements is often overlooked... the doggy door!

Newton couldn't have made such an impact on the world of mathematics through advances in optics if he hadn't been experimenting. Coincidentally, it was his experiments in optics which led to him having an impact on the pet world as well.

The story goes that during these experiments, Newton's cats kept bothering him, wanting to come in and out - as felines are apt to do. At some point, he became irritated sufficiently and altered his door so the cats could come and go as they pleased. The invention of the cat door quickly led to the invention of the doggy door.

Yet there remains no direct evidence that Newton actually invented the pet door – only stories. Did he, or didn’t he? Newton’s method of science can help us understand not only whether this story is true, but if it is false, the reason why it came to be understood as true. But this mystery will not be solved by numbers: we require a different form of science, “History.”

Newton created history as a kind of non-mathematical science. But even though no mathematics is required, history uses the same method as mathematical sciences do. To practice historical investigation requires we compare the unknown fact to known facts, just as in any scientific investigation.

In practice, a historian will take facts which were known to have happened and attempt to understand whether a third fact did happen. For example, if it is known that there were cookies in a jar, and now they are gone, and it is also known that cookies cannot leave the jar without someone taking them from that jar, a historian would acquire the knowledge that the cookies were taken from the jar. Further investigation could result in the discovery of who took the cookies.

The following statement is true – but is this proof that Newton invented the pet door? "No mention is made by Newton in any of his correspondences of any pets"

By analyzing this, we see it is not evidence that Newton either had cats or did not have cats: while it is true, not everyone writes about their pets. Maybe he just didn’t write about his pets! We need proof – one way or another – that Newton either had cats or did not. The following is also true – is it a fact? "At a meeting of the Royal Society on 24th December 1719, Newton mentioned his dog in passing: she had recently gone blind with cataracts"

This is indeed a fact – one which proves Newton had dogs. But it is not a fact which proves Newton had cats. We do know Newton kept a dog, but nothing certain about whether he kept a cat: we need additional information. Let’s continue our investigations...

What about these facts? Do they prove Newton had cats? "A biographer of Newton, Richard S. Westfall, in his book “Never at Rest” said Newton was a vegetarian because he loved animals, and could not tolerate the necessary cruelty required to kill them." "Voltaire, a contemporary of Newton, said Newton had cultivated this sentiment of humanity, and he extended it to lower animals. With Locke he was strongly convinced that God has given to them a proportion of ideas, and the same feelings which he has to us. He could not believe that God, who has made nothing in vain, would have given to them organs of feeling in order that they might have no feeling. He thought it a very frightful inconsistency to believe that animals feel and at the same time to cause them to suffer. On this point his morality was in accord with is philosophy. He yielded but only with repugnance to the barbarous custom of supporting ourselves upon the blood and flesh of beings like ourselves, whom we caress, and he never permitted in his own house the putting them to death by slow and exquisite modes of killing for the sake of making the food more delicious. This compassion, which he felt for no other animals, culminated in true charity for men. In truth, without humanity, a virtue which comprehends all virtues, the name of scientist would be little deserved."

No, while it demonstrates Newton liked animals, and had a dog, all we know is if he had cats, he would have loved them. What about this? "Newton was known to have disliked pets in the home, believing them to be dirty and troublesome."

This seems to contradict what we understood so far and may actually be not true: Newton certainly kept a dog! Who says this, and why? Do they have proof of this statement? It contradicts all the facts we have so far, and there is no reason to believe this statement: We still need proof that Newton had cats.

Is this fact evidence that Newton had cats? "John Maynard Keynes, the influential economist, who bought a large number of Newton's non-scientific papers, especially on alchemy, said in his memoirs that Newton remarked his cats were growing fat on Newton’s uneaten food (Newton worked so hard that he ignored the meals brought to him by friends concerned he was not eating)." This fact requires we take Mr. Keynes word for what those letters say – and whether we agree or disagree with his conclusions of economics, he is a scientist who is trustworthy in reporting facts truthfully. This would be proof Newton had a cat. We can compare this truth to the unknown truthfulness of the story of the cat door, and conclude:

1. Newton had cats
2. Newton liked animals enough to be responsive to their needs
3. It is likely that Newton would have damaged his door to permit his cats to come and go as they liked

However, other scientists practicing history, specifically the historians S. Brodetsky, Louis Trenchard More, and Alfred Rupert Hall say that people who knew Newton said “Newton kept neither dog nor cat in his chamber” (chamber is a fancy word for “room”). But maybe Newton simply didn’t own pets during that time? Some people will own a dog or cat, and then not own a dog or cat. So, what do you think?

Did the inventor of calculus, the first scientist, the man who discovered gravity and the fundamental laws of physics, and accomplished so many other great things, also invent the doggy door?

Science teaches us that sometimes, we don’t know for sure whether something is true or not. Newton saw this in mathematics, where the idea that the calculation of 1/x may come close to equaling zero – but never equal zero – seems to counter every day experiences. We are unused to either mathematical or practical limits to our understanding. Newton also saw this in history, and non-mathematical science. We like to think things are very certain – true or false. Yet we have seen this in trying to understand if Newton invented the doggy door. We cannot say Newton invented the doggy door, but we also cannot say that he did not invent the doggy door. We may only say it seems very likely he did. This “theory” is as reliable as Newton’s theory of gravity.

Other theories form the foundation of our modern understanding: we must function upon premises of belief, whether those beliefs are in a theory of gravity, a theory of subatomic particles, Darwin’s theory of evolution, or our own theory that Newton invented the doggy door. And sometimes, as technology improves, we are able to get definite proof: the theory of bacteria was confirmed when technology improved so that Antonie van Leeuwenhoek could actually see microscopic organisms. Newton recognized some calculations can never be computed, and that some things cannot ever be known for sure. The “limit” of understanding requires a reasonable scientist to develop confidence in their beliefs: even when we do not have positive proof and all the facts, it is possible to still make a logical conclusion - that he invented the doggy door.

An Example of Brahmacharya

Isaac Newton was engaged to be married during his teens, but never married. Instead, he took a vow of chastity – a Christian oath of virginity, to abstain from sex. Isaac Newton also practiced the Christian ritual of confession – by writing his sins in a journal, addressed to God. One of these journals remains, from his childhood: he confesses to working on the Sabbath, by washing and “making pies on Sunday night.” He also confesses to “idle discourse on Thy day and at other times”, “Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter” and other childhood misdeeds, like fighting with his sister and wishing some people might die.

Newton did not continue his journal throughout his life. With time, he would adopt increasingly Humanist – and subsequently Atheist – beliefs and discontinue confession and other Christian practices. When he died, he refused the last rites of a Christian.

Indeed, with time, as he left his childhood faith behind, he learned to play cards, go bowling, and do other things Christians should not do. But he never did break his vow of chastity – and always tried to keep his word.

In recognition for his important work, Isaac Newton was Knighted by Queen Ann of England on April 16, 1705, in a ceremony conducted at Trinity College, Cambridge. At the time, that honor was usually granted to military officers and senior figures in the national and local governments, as well as to rich merchants and others with political connections. Newton made this coat of arms for himself.

Alejandro Jenkins of the University of Costa Rica (2014: Isaac Newton’s sinister heraldry, published by Cornell University: http://arxiv.org/abs/1310.7494) studied the origins and meaning of this unusual choice and, investigating Newton’s personal writings, discovered Newton was secretly a Humanist (which is a kind of non-dogmatic practice of theism which aims to improve human affairs as a form of worship). Humanism arose in reaction to the English Christian Theocracy of the 16th Century, a period of time when religious law was used to justify genocide, enslavement, despotism – and even the execution of the King and Parliament.

The left-dominance chosen by Newton suggest through symbolic signs that he was a bastard (though “bastard” means without a father, for knights like Newton, it means without inheritance, or suggesting a new lineage – only men were able to own property in ancient England).

This may speak to his belief that his scientific revolution would begin a new era. But perhaps it is also more personal: Jenkins discovered Newton’s father died before he was born, and Newton, having been born on Christmas Day without a father, was quickly abandoned by his mother to be raised an orphan before later being re-adopted by her. The choice of bones is also an important symbol. Newton looked into his family history and found a distant ancestor carried the symbol of bones during the Crusades. But Newton, may have also intended them to represent a central belief in humanism: that all humans are equal in death.

Professor Doctor Edward Bonan Hamada


I'm not so sure that Isaac Newton is someone who meets a standard of humility. It was actually Leibniz that made the calculus accessible to students.

Since you are a Hatha Yoga practitioner it might be of interest to you that the numbering system we use today originates in India and makes its way to Western Europe via the Muslim world. What is brilliant in the Hindu numbering system is the use of '0'. While some other cultures had a notion of a place holder it was the use of the symbol '0' that allowed the Hindu mathematicians to symbolize 'emptiness' and think about really large numbers like a 'palya' or 'radju'. The Greeks had long debates about whether or not one could talk about 'nothing' but little did they know that 2000 years later there could be an entire television series about 'nothing' (Seinfeld).

I suggest that you watch the series The Story of Maths with Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. It is on Netflix and the first three episodes are well worth the time. The Story of 1 is a great starting place.

0 and 1. Yin and Yang. In Daoist energy work the higher levels of practice are looking for naturalness, emptiness and compassion. The idea of emptiness like the idea of '0' is not about nothing rather it is more closely related to the idea of space. In Zermelo - Frankel set theory the entire mathematical universe is created from the empty set (or at least we think so).

Take care. Aloha, Ed

Further resources:

Green, Gary TwoHorse: Inventor of the Doggy Door, Sir Isaac Newton 
Aczel, Amir: Finding Zero

Story of 1: PBS Home Video
Story of Maths: Athena Home Video.