Sabine Hossenfelder wrote an excellent blog posting about the growing awareness that outstanding scientific problems are not getting solved at the same rate as in the past. Her whole article is worth a read, as are all her postings, but this latest contained a mathematical statement that warranted justification. For scientists “How much working time starting today corresponds to, say, 40 years working time starting 100 years ago. Have a guess! Answer: About 14 months.” See Hossenfelder Stagnation Problem.
I have long been fascinated by Newton’s proof of Kepler’s Equal Areas Law and wanted to write about it. Of course, others have as well, but I wanted to emphasize an aspect of the proof that supported my philosophy of mathematics.
Before I get to Newton, however, I wanted to discuss how Kepler himself justified this law, since his approach has a number of fascinating historical aspects to it. I have previously discussed Kepler’s ellipse and in the process of doing that research, I came across a number of articles about how Kepler arrived at his equal areas law. One notable result is that even though now we call the idea that a planet orbits the Sun in an elliptical path with the Sun at one focus, Kepler’s First Law, and the idea that the line from the Sun to the planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times, Kepler’s Second Law, Kepler actually discovered these laws in reverse order. See Kepler’s Equal Areas Law
I had been exploring how Kepler originally discovered his first two laws and became fascinated by what he did in his Astronomia Nova (1609), as presented by a number of researchers. Among the writers was A. E. L. Davis. She mentioned that the characterization of the ellipse that Kepler was using was the idea of a “compressed circle,” that is, a circle all of whose points were shrunk vertically by a constant amount towards a fixed diameter of the circle. I did not recall ever hearing this idea before and tried to track down its origin together with a proof — futilely, Davis’s references notwithstanding. I then tried to prove it myself. It was easy to do with analytic geometry. But in the spirit of the Kepler era (before the advent of Fermat’s and Descartes’s beginnings at fusing algebra and geometry) I tried to prove it solely within Euclid’s plane geometry. Some critical steps seemed to come from the great work of Apollonius of Perga (262-190 BC) on Conics. But for me a final elegant proof was not evident until 1822 when Dandelin employed his inscribed spheres. See Kepler’s Ellipse.
In the process of exploring the compressed circle idea I acquired an immense appreciation and regard for Kepler and his perseverance in the face of the dominant paradigm of his era, namely, the 2000 year old idea that the celestial motions were all based on the most perfect motion of all, that of circles. The kinds of extremely laborious calculations he went through (just prior to the invention of logarithms by John Napier) were daunting, especially considering the trials he was undergoing in his personal life (trying to survive the religious destruction between Catholics and Protestants, along with defending his mother against charges of witchcraft).
Years ago (1963) I got the paperback The Calculus:A Genetic Approach, by Otto Toeplitz, which presented the basic ideas of the differential and integral calculus from a historical point of view. One thing Toeplitz did at the end of his book that I had not seen in other texts was to show the equivalence of Kepler’s Laws and Newton’s Law of Gravity. (Since 1963 David Bressoud has developed this theme in his excellent 1991 text.) I thought I would try to emulate Toeplitz’s approach with more modern notation (vectors) and arguments in hopes of extracting the essential ideas from the clutter.
A by-product of this effort was to reveal strongly the different paths that physics and mathematics follow in understanding physical reality. The mystery is that the mathematics ends up describing the physics so well. I will return to this theme a number of times in other posts. See Kepler’s Laws and Newton’s Laws.
This was one of my more satisfying essays. Several years ago I gave some thought to what it meant for the earth to be considered a magnet. More recently in 2012 an article in the magazine BirdWatching brought it all back when I saw its diagram of the earth as a magnet for guiding migratory birds. Knowing that magnets have north and south poles, where should we expect to find the earth’s north and south magnetic poles? See Earth as Magnet.