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Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton's Masterpiece Hardcover – September 3, 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1616147457 ISBN-10: 1616147458 Edition: 0th

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 500 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (September 3, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1616147458
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616147457
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #92,238 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Pask (Mathematics for the Frightened) offers an insightful and expansive look into Isaac Newton's complex and illuminating 1687 publication on classical mechanics, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, aka the Principia. The emeritus math professor (at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia) begins with a review of Newton's life and the 17th-century science scene. Copernicus's heliocentric theory and Galileo's observations had recently overturned ancient Greek and Islamic cosmological models that posited Earth as the center of the universe, and Kepler's laws of planetary motion demonstrated that the planets moved in ellipses, not perfect circles. Newton drew on the work of his predecessors and contemporaries, as well as his own experimentation and brilliant intuitions, and after years of secretive work, the intense, enigmatic, and mercurial thinker reluctantly published the Principia at the urging of astronomer and fellow Royal Society member Edmond Halley, who also funded its printing. Newton wrote very much in the style of the ancient Greeks to explain how gravity affects motion on Earth and in the heavens while simultaneously defining the differential calculus that would become an invaluable tool for the centuries of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians that would follow. Breaking the Principia down into easily digestible portions and suffusing his narrative with modern insights, Pask reveals the genius that built modern physics. (Aug.)


“An insightful and expansive look into Isaac Newton’s complex and illuminating 1687 publication on classical mechanics... Breaking the Principia down into easily digestible portions and suffusing his narrative with modern insights, Pask reveals the genius that built modern physics.”
—Publishers Weekly

“I believe the two most important works in our journey to understand how the natural world works are Darwin’s Origins and Newton’s Principia. But while Darwin can be read by the nonspecialist, a contemporary reader will usually struggle with Newton’s unfamiliar mathematical notation. Pask’s splendid book is greatly to be welcomed, making the power and elegance of the Principia accessible to the general reader. It is particularly good at clarifying the Scientific Revolution’s combination of thoughtful experiments and analytic thinking, showing mathematics as nothing more—but also nothing less—than a way of thinking clearly.”
—Professor Robert M. May, Baron of Oxford, OM, AC, Fellow of the Royal Society

More About the Author

Colin Pask - A Little Personal History

I was born in Great Gonerby, a little village just outside the town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, England. My father was a dairy farmer and I grew up interested in the countryside and farming (but there was already an older brother to take over the farming business!) At age 11 I started at the King's School in Grantham following in the footsteps of Sir Isaac Newton, who was born (rather earlier) in the village of Woolsthorpe, also just outside Grantham.

I had developed a great interest in natural history and especially ornithology, an interest that remains strong today, and probably I should have had a career in biology. However, little biology, especially at the higher levels, was done at the King's School presumably because it was a boys school! On the other hand the grammar school for girls had more biology and less physics. (That school too has had its notable pupils: Margaret Thatcher and more importantly Johanna, who became my wife.)

So my final years at school were devoted to studying Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Physics, plus German and and other odd bits and pieces. Then it was off to the University of London where I entered Queen Mary College's physics program with an emphasis on theoretical physics and mathematics.

I then decided to come to Australia! People at Queen Mary College said I was insane - nobody goes to Australia. However, they relented when I told them I was coming to work with Professor John M. Blatt. (His 1952 book with Victor Weisskopf, "Theoretical Nuclear Physics" was the bible in that subject and was even reprinted in 1979, and he was also famous for work on superconductivity.) So it was that Johanna and I sailed for Australia late in 1964.

I gained my PhD from the University of New South Wales and after a brief time at Duke University I became a lecturer in the Department of Applied Mathematics at UNSW. Some of my first lectures were in numerical analysis, classical dynamics and fortran programming. We loved the life in Sydney and our children Melanie and Daniel were born there.

In 1971 I took up a Queen Elizabeth Fellowship in the just established Department of Applied Mathematics in the Research School of Physical Sciences at ANU. I stayed on there in the Institute of Advanced Studies as a Fellow and progressed to Senior Fellow in 1978. My research interests developed in optics and vision (into biology at last!), especially in waveguide theory and fibre optics, with various offshoots into coherence theory and things like numerical analysis and nonlinear classical dynamics. The whole family enjoyed a stay in Germany while I was on leave to work on insect vision at the Max Planck Institute in Tubingen.

Also during that time the family completed undergraduate degrees: Johanna - honours in Prehistory and Geography, Melanie - Education, primary school teaching, Daniel - Communications-Journalism. I got to proof-read a lot of very interesting essays!

In 1986 I became Professor and Head of the Department of Mathematics (later the School of Mathematics and Statistics) in University College, that part of the University of New South Wales in the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. So once again I work for UNSW and get to interact with undergraduate students, which I greatly enjoy after spending so (too?) long in a purely research environment. In 2000 I became Presiding Member of the University College Academic Board. The Head or Dean of the whole University College is called the Rector and I also did a stint as Deputy Rector.

I have now published over 140 research papers in international journals in physics, biology, optical engineering and mathematics. I have enjoyed giving lectures on many topics, ranging from introductory mathematics for first year undergraduate students to specialist lectures to selected international post-doctoral students at a NATO Summer School. Supervising many post-graduate students has been a great pleasure.

I gave up being Head of School after 12 years to concentrate more on some things Professors like to do - research, teach and write. Who knows, I may even get to play more croquet, a game Johanna and I took up a few years ago. (And which involves lots of challenging classical dynamics!) Also a few years ago we moved from our family home in Canberra to build a smaller house on the edge of the bush adjoining Queanbeyan so once again I can enjoy natural surroundings every day. Daniel lives in Canberra. Melanie, husband Peter and daughters Aysha and Mia live in Sydney. We share our house with a cocker spaniel and our bushland with a little mob of kangaroos, a wombat or two, several possums, many kinds of birds, numerous lizards and the occasional brown snake.

I "retired" at the end of 2007 so now I can work on just the things I want to do, like writing some books!

work address: School of Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Sciences
University of New South Wales @ ADFA
Australian Defence Force Academy
Canberra, ACT 2601


Customer Reviews

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I have really enjoyed reading through the principia with Colin Pask guidance and insights.
Stephen E. Kennedy
The writing style is conversational and lively, and the reader will imagine the author explaining this subject as he is reading this excellent book.
The Peripatetic Reader
Even for readers without a strong quantatative background this book is accessible and always relevant.
Rob Thomas

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By The Peripatetic Reader on December 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Colin Pask has produced a highly readable book of philosophy and science. In this book he methodically explains, rule for rule, book by book, Newton's Principia. Pask's book indeed has something for everyone:

For the history-oriented, it is a history of the development to modern science. Modern science began with Newton, but, as Newton readily acknowledged, he "stood on the shoulders of giants," meaning that he refined and organized what preceded him into a rational system. Pask begins with a short description of the history of Western science and describes Newton's influences and the philosopher-scientists who preceded him and explains the significance they played as reflected in the Principia. Pask provides an excellent, brief, biography of Isaac Newton, and the Royal Society and the members who coaxed Newton into publishing his book.

For the philosophically-oriented Pask briefly touches on Newton's alchemical leanings. Newton's system was a fully integrated one, incorporating philosophical and religious aspects of the universe with the scientific. While Newton wrote prodigiously on scientific matters, his literary output on alchemical subjects far outnumber the scientific. Pask could have spent more time explaining this aspect of Newton's work more fully.

For the religiously-oriented, Pask contains Newton's thoughts about God. In this regard, Pask wisely chose to explain the third and last edition of the Principia. Previous editions were reluctant to assign a cause of the gravitational pull of earth or impetus of motion. In his last edition Newton plainly stated that God was this cause, the first cause, of gravity and motion. God was ultimately unknowable, but through God's attributes God could be experienced, if not in a superficial manner.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By John McCowan on January 14, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I read Newton's masterwork several years ago and was stunned and overwhelmed by the brainpower and colossal amount of detailed work it represented - to the extent of frequently losing the thread of the story it was revealing. This book is a great help in highlighting the logical path through Newton's labyrinth of exposition and detail whilst converting both the language and the mathematics into more familiar modern terms. This greatly enhances the appreciation of what Newton achieved and how he did it.

The purely technical content of the book is spiced with sufficient additional information about the man, his contemporaries and successors to provide a human interest factor as relief to its logical rigours without veering from its main purpose.

The comprehensive and explanatory references to the additional information available to those wishing to soak themselves even more thoroughly in appreciation of Newton's genius is another notable feature of the book.

It is not a book for the mathematically illiterate, but it is not intended to be and that is certainly not a shortcoming.

As befits such a massive subject, it's a pretty hard slog through, but the long tramp is well worth it.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By G. Wagner on December 9, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
If you, like me, have ever tried to read Isaac Newton's masterwork, the //Principia//, like me you have probably given up in confusion and distress. It is not a very approachable work. But in //Magnificent Principia//, author Colin Pask walks the reader carefully through it, with an infectious enthusiasm that makes the work's brilliance evident.||Colin Pask has a great love for his subject, the //Principia//,and he wants to share that with his reader, but he understands the huge hurdles between Newton and the modern reader. He translates his extensive understanding of mathematics and physics into layman's terms, and also translates Newton's own esoteric symbolism into terms familiar to the modern reader. The book quotes extensively from Newton, then Pask explains what was meant, moving chapter by chapter, book by book. Original diagrams are reproduced, and some of the Newton's original problems, juxtaposed with modern diagrams and solutions, but Pask also summarizes extensively to avoid overwhelming the reader. I really enjoyed Pask's commentary on the avenues of physics first opened by Newton, as well as some of the subsequent developments. Most of all, I enjoyed Pask's informal, conversational style, and his wonder at the genius of Newtonian physics; he can't help but share his obvious enjoyment. He certainly converted me!
I received a copy from the San Francisco Book Review in exchange for an honest review. The opinions are entirely mine.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By older & more bewildered in NYC on August 25, 2014
Format: Hardcover
i've given five stars because it would not be fair to give anything else...BECAUSE I AM TOO STUPID TO READ THIS BOOK.

i should have done more homework in reading the reviews. i read a few, and thought that this might be a sort of PRINCIPIA For Dummies. from what i can tell, nothing could be further from the truth.

in just leafing through the book, i realized that the math and the diagrams were so far beyond my understanding that i started to laugh at my own ignorance.

i am going to put my copy up for sale on amazon for 1¢ just so i can get it into the hands of a student who might actually understand it...and then i'm going to look further for a REAL Principia For Dummies, as i find the ideas fascinating and i would like to understand more of what Newton wrote. any suggestions??
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