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Primer: Newton’s Prism Experiments and Theory of Color December 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Today’s Hump-Day History post is written by frequent visitor Thony Christie, a dedicated amateur historian who “once had a semi-professional background”.  He has approved a few editorial truncations and rephrasings.

Update: Not long after this blog post, Thony started his own blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus.

In 1672 the still relatively young and unknown Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Isaac Newton, published his first piece of experimental philosophy: “A Serie’s of Quere’s Propounded by Mr. Isaac Newton, to be Determin’d by Experiments, Positively and Directly Concluding His New Theory of Light and Colours; and Here Recommended to the Industry of the Lovers of Experimental Philosophy, as they Were Generously Imparted to the Publisher in a Letter of the Said Mr. Newtons of July 8.1672”  in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  The work became a touchstone in the establishment of the short report of experimental results in a serialized publication as a major means of scientific communication.  The Philosophical Transactions had existed for seven years prior to Newton’s contribution, but had been dedicated primarily to reporting the Royal Society’s regular piecemeal correspondence rather than the systematic presentation of experiments and observations, which was at that time accomplished mainly in the book format.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

As to the content of Newton’s first publication, it reported a series of simple but elegant experiments with a beam of sunlight and a couple of glass prisms, in which Newton demonstrated that light is not homogeneous and white, but heterogeneous, and made up of different colours each of which (more…)