Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Greatest Discovery Ever

I'm reading Gregory Zuckerman's The Greatest Trade Ever -- not bad, if a bit "baby-talkish" at times -- and I just learned that Isaac Newton discovered gravity (p. 112)! You see, before Newton, no one realized that things fell to the earth.

I also learned the the trader who made the "greatest trade ever," John Paulson, had a marketing director who told potential clients that paulson "might never match the home runs that some rivals were scoring in adventurous areas..." and that his "returns might be more unpredictable than those who carefully spread their money around..." Soooo... lower returns and higher volatility! Who could resist such a marketing pitch?


  1. I guess "law of universal gravitation" sounded scary.

  2. I think you are being a bit harsh, Gene (as is your wont). In Newton's model, "gravity" isn't just "the thing that makes stuff move toward the ground." I don't know what people thought about (what we now call) gravity before Newton, but it sure was something different. They didn't view it as a force that made all massive objects attract each other, and so could explain both a falling apple and the moon's revolutions about the Earth. (If they did know it was the same phenomenon, then fair enough; but surely Zuckerman is relying on the same pop-physics-history that I am.)

    And as far as Paulson, again you are changing what the director has said, in order to make him sound dumb. Read your own quotation again carefully: What the guy is saying is that Paulson doesn't earn as high a rate of return as the highest earners in the industry, and that he is more volatile than the people with the lowest volatility in the industry. It doesn't follow that his portfolio stinks; one could argue that it's juuuust right.

  3. Well, Bob, I might grant you two -- still it's a strange way to market someone.

    One is just wrong, however. Aristotle had a theory of gravity. Newton was not the first to have the idea that the same force explains the planets orbits and apples falling. He was not even the first to hit upon an inverse square law -- Halley and Hooke had done that, as well as others in the Middle Ages.

    From Wikipedia:
    "What Newton did was to show how the inverse-square law of attraction had many necessary mathematical connections with observable features of the motions of bodies in the solar system; and that they were related in such a way that the observational evidence and the mathematical demonstrations, taken together, gave reason to believe that the inverse square law was not just approximately true but exactly true..."

  4. So you're telling me, Newton wasn't doing integrals under a tree, and an apple hit him on the head?

    And I suppose next you'll tell me Jesus wasn't really born on December 25.

  5. In the case of something that isn't directly observable, but that has to be inferred from things that are observable, demonstration (however imperfect) should really be the criterion of discovery. It is always fun to deflate the giants, but Hooke did not have the mathematical genius to produce anything on the scale of the Principia, and there's a reason Halley was elated to see Newton's proof.

    So while "Newton discovered gravity" is obviously silly, "Newton discovered the law of universal gravitation" is a pretty straightforward reading of the historical record.

  6. "So while "Newton discovered gravity" is obviously silly, "Newton discovered the law of universal gravitation" is a pretty straightforward reading of the historical record."

    I agree! What Hooke and Halley had was not nearly what Newton achieved. I never meant to imply otherwise.


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