07 March 2015

350th Anniversary of Newton's Miracle Year and the Scientific Peer-Reviewed Journal

Perhaps all we need to see a flowering of creativity is a mini-apocalypse. Not a collapse of society or bombings that destroy buildings and people. Just a loss of electricity for, say, 2 to 6 months. Maybe even a virus targeted at anyone under 65 that blocks them from the internet, TV or radio.

Leo Buscaglia had a great line. His kids would say, "Dad! I'm bored." "Good," he would respond. "Let me know how it works out."

Undistracted by the glut of information in this information age, forced to amuse themselves with their own inventions and insights, it would be fascinating to see what was produced. It was such conditions that created two extraordinary advances in science.

Yesterday was the 350th anniversary of the first peer-reviewed, scientific journal, a model we continue to use to this day. It is also the anniversary of Newton's annus mirabilis, or miracle year. A plague had driven everyone out of Cambridge, and Newton, full of ideas in an intellectually fecund place like Cambridge, suddenly found himself stuck at his mothers's home, alone, with time enough to fully develop his ideas. He went home in 1665 and by 1666 he had developed integral calculus, verified the composite nature of light with experiments and calculated that gravity holds the moon in orbit to the earth (this last proof presumably involved only equations and no actual experiments). It was an extraordinary set of breakthroughs, laying the foundation for Newtonian physics, a cornerstone for Enlightenment thinking.

Whether the same plague forced the British Royal Society to resort to peer reviewed literature instead of their regular meetings is unclear. What is clear is that such journals have made the 350 years since the most extraordinary time in all of history.

Read about the 350th anniversary of  The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society here at the Guardian. Thanks to Bret Bearup's always interesting, often hilarious, mind for alerting me to this big deal. 

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