I read Paul Graham’s essays when they get linked on the other blogs I read, which is semi-regularly. The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius has just showed up on Hacker News, wherein Graham argues that to do great work requires natural ability, determination, and an obssessive interest in a particular topic, with the last one serving as a good proxy for either of the first two.
I often agree with what he writes in an overall sense, but I can’t say that this chimes with my experience or knowledge. While those successful tend to have a deep interest in some area they work on, I feel this is more acquired just by working in that area over many years. Hobbies can pay dividends – or they can just be side streets. In Graham’s often-referred to area of startups, I’m reminded of Stewart Butterfield, who founded Flickr after he really wanted to make a game, then tried to make a game again, founding Slack after it didn’t hit off. In the context of the essay, you could call this an obsessive interest in something – it’s just not an obsessive interest in the thing that wound up making him successful!
On Newton’s interest in physics, alchemy, and the occult, I am reminded of Scott Alexander’s parable of lightning, which states that those interested in finding the truth of things will find them equally in nature as in political or religious writings (and that those more sensible won’t comment on the latter). I don’t think there was a particular reason for Newton to believe that his work on physics would be more valuable than his work on the occult. Additionally, it seems possible that his work on the occult was part of the driving force towards his work on physics: the hope that the movement of celestial bodies was driven by occult forces acting at a distance, instead of physical fluid vortices filling interplanetary space, as advanced by Descartes’ theory of Vortices.
The first book of the Principia was published in 1687. The two main Solar System models of the time were the heliocentric Copernican system (with improvements by Kepler, changing to elliptical orbits to remove epicycles) and the geocentric Tychonic system, a successor to the previous Ptolemaic system. The Copernican system required the movement of the Earth and predicted the observation of certain experimental features (such as stellar parallax) which were not observed, which served as good arguments against it at the time.
One such effect was the Coriolis effect, as argued by Giovanni Battista Riccoli in his 1651 work Almagestum novum. This argued that if the Earth rotated, the ground would move more slowly nearer the poles, so a cannonball fired towards the north should strike slightly east of its target, due to the Earth’s rotation. This exists, but was too small to detect at the time: the lack of detection served as an argument against.
In the lack of experimental observations, the arguments given were philosophical with occasional reference to scripture (for stellar parallax not to be observable, the stars would have to be extremely far away, and hence extremely large, which was considered absurd, but well within the capabilities of God). Those in favour of the Copernican system were at a disadvantage from the Catholic church – those books advocating the Copernican system were unreadable without permission, as part of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum until 1758.
Newton’s Principia provided a principle from which Kepler’s laws could be deduced, and implied a heliocentric system. This gave a very elegant solution, from first principles, explaining the movement of the planets. Unfortunately, there was still no experimental evidence confirming the Earth’s movement – the first that I know of being James Bradley’s observation of stellar aberration in γ Draconis in 1725-6.
With many scientists (and internet commentators) now less religious the theological contributions seem lesser (and were, at least, less likely to be published during Newton’s lifetime). But Newton “stood on the shoulders of giants” in both the natural and spiritual worlds. At the time, there was no indication that the orthodoxy of the church would lose power, or that the Bible (and associated texts) did not strictly hold the secrets of the world.
Finally, a comment on one of the footnotes:
Working to understand the natural world counts as creating rather than consuming.
This sounds intuitively wrong to me, and I think Graham’s arguing for it because he’s argued that creating is good while consuming is not, but wants to say that working to understand the natural world is good too. I’d argue that no matter what you’re working to understand, be it the natural world or the world of Game of Thrones, that’s consuming: when you decide to create something based on what you’ve learned, be it the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or The Unofficial Guide to Game of Thrones, that’s the thing that’s valuable to others.