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Newton’s wars

fig newton.jpg

By Hamish Johnston

The BBC’s Melvin Bragg can’t get enough of Isaac Newton and the great physicist’s battles with his fellow scientists.

This morning Bragg gathered a cabal of Oxbridge historians to chat about the invention of calculus — which was claimed independently by both Newton and Gottfried Leibniz and the subject of a longstanding feud between the two and their respective supporters.

Describing what Newton and Leibniz had in common, Cambridge’s Simon Schaffer began by saying they both have biscuits named after them. I don’t know which one invented calculus, but I do know which biscuit I would rather have with my afternoon coffee!

Shaffer was joined by Cambridge’s Patricia Fara and Jackie Stedall of the University of Oxford in a lively discussion about the characters of Newton and Leibniz and their contributions to calculus.


So who invented what? I came away with the impression that Newton dreamt up calculus in order to study rates of change with respect to time. Therefore his focus was on what we now call differential calculus. Leibniz, on the other hand, was interested in how space is filled — and therefore his focus was on integral calculus.

The panellists seemed to agree that Leibniz was the first to publish his work — but were quick to point out that in the 17th century this didn’t have the kudos it does today. There is also some evidence that Newton had developed his ideas of calculus long before he published them.

However, when the row broke out over who was first, Newton shouted the loudest and appears to have used his influence within the Royal Society to have himself declared the originator of calculus — at least in England.

You can listen to the programme here

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