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Thumbnail of William Shakespeare (source)
William Shakespeare
(baptised 26 Apr 1564 - 23 Apr 1616)

English dramatist and poet who remains the world's most-performed playwright. His surviving works include 38 plays and 154 sonnets. Among his poems, he wrote two long narrative poems.

Shakespeare on Earth's Gravity

[Years before Isaac Newton, Shakespeare seems to write about the attraction of Earth's gravity.]

from The Galaxy (Dec 1867).

[p.1006]——Akin to the popular errors by which events are misconstrued, and the thoughts of eminent men are perverted, is the tendency to attribute to such men actions which they did not perform, and discoveries which they did not make, their acts and discoveries having merely had some connection more or less direct with that with which they are popularly credited. For example, there is probably not one man in a thousand, even of those who are called educated, who, if asked who discovered the attraction of gravitation, would not reply, “Newton.” Hence it is that a recent letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, upon the following passage in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida has attracted so much attention. Cressida, speaking to Pandarus, says of her love for Troilus:

But the strong base and building of my love
Is as the very centre of the earth,
Drawing all things to it.

The idea she seems to have borrowed from her lover, for Troilus had previously said to her that his love is

As true as steel, as plantage to the moon,
As sun to day, at turtle to her mate,
As iron to adamant, as earth to centre.

There is no gainsaying this: the attraction of gravitation could not be more clearly expressed; and the conclusion drawn by the Pall Mall Gazette's correspondent, and so generally repeated and concurred in, that “it would really seem as if Shakespeare had anticipated Newton by a hundred years or so in the discovery of one of the greatest natural truths,” cannot be avoided by those who have credited Newton with that discovery.

It is noteworthy that these interesting passages occur in a drama, which, for its wisdom, is the most wonderful and admirable of all that Shakespeare wrote. Little read, even in the circle of Shakespeare's readers, it is yet one of the most delightful of his works, and is of all of them the one that exhibits, in the most impressive and sententious style, his surpassing and all-comprehending knowledge [p.1007] of men and things.

But, notwithstanding the passages above quoted, this play does not transfer the credit of the discovery of the attraction of gravitation from Newton to Shakespeare, or bring the claims of the poet and the astronomer at all into collision. For Newton did not discover the attraction of gravitation, and never claimed the discovery, which, indeed, it would have been most absurd for him to do. That there was a power at the very centre of the earth drawing all things to it, was known centuries before Newton's time, and the knowledge is referred to by many writers who were not naturalists—the poet Dante among the number. Not only so, but Kepler, who lived a century before Newton and was cotemporary with Shakespeare, recognized the attraction of gravitation as a force operating mutually between the planets. Hooke and Halley, before Newton announced his discovery, declared that the heavenly bodies had a gravitation toward each other, and had even begun investigations to determine the mode of the action of this force.

What was it, then, that Newton did discover, and which has made his name famous in the annals of astronomy?

Simply this—the law according to which the force of the attraction of gravitation acts. He discovered that the attraction of gravitation operated not only on the earth's surface, but constantly throughout the universe, and that the same power which caused an apple to fall from the bough to the ground was operating at the same time to keep the earth in its orbit; and finally that this force of gravity, i. e. the strength of its attraction, was inversely as the square of the distance; that is, that the strength of the attraction diminishes in a direct ratio with the increase of the product of the distance through which it acts multiplied into itself. He discovered, in brief, the rule of action of the attraction of gravitation, the most important discovery ever made in pure science; and one upon which all subsequent astronomical calculation is based.

Of this law Shakespeare had no more knowledge than he had of that which governs the action of the electric fluid, and of which the whole scientific world is yet profoundly ignorant.

Text excerpt from The Galaxy: An Illustrated Magazine of Entertaining Reading (Dec 1867), 4, 1006-7. (source)

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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