David Lindley: beyond common sense

Issac Newton himself was in fact perspicacious enough to recognize that absolute time was not a demonstrated fact, and among the postulate he carefully set out at the beginning of this treatise on the laws of motion was one that said “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.” The generations of scientists who followed Newton mostly lacked his keenness of mind, and took the existence of absolute time to be so obvious as not to bear remarking o. In this particular sens, Newton would indeed have understood Einstein, who seized on this one unproved element in Newtonian theory and , by altering it to accord with the fact, rebuild our understanding of space and time. Both Newton and Einstein were keenly aware that what is constructed with assumptions rather than by demonstration is not guaranteed to survive. For most of rest of us, who grow up with common sense views derived from our learning and experience, absolute Newtonian spacetime seems to be right as a matter of course, a model not needing investigation or verification. This is why the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian thinking produces a moment of panic, of feeling that the ground at one’s feet has turned into air, with the true solid ground far below

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