Archive for History of Exact Sciences

, Volume 64, Issue 3, pp 269–300 | Cite as

The early application of the calculus to the inverse square force problem

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The translation of Newton’s geometrical Propositions in the Principia into the language of the differential calculus in the form developed by Leibniz and his followers has been the subject of many scholarly articles and books. One of the most vexing problems in this translation concerns the transition from the discrete polygonal orbits and force impulses in Prop. 1 to the continuous orbits and forces in Prop. 6. Newton justified this transition by lemma 1 on prime and ultimate ratios which was a concrete formulation of a limit, but it took another century before this concept was established on a rigorous mathematical basis. This difficulty was mirrored in the newly developed calculus which dealt with differentials that vanish in this limit, and therefore were considered to be fictional quantities by some mathematicians. Despite these problems, early practitioners of the differential calculus like Jacob Hermann, Pierre Varignon, and Johann Bernoulli succeeded without apparent difficulties in applying the differential calculus to the solution of the fundamental problem of orbital motion under the action of inverse square central forces. By following their calculations and describing some essential details that have been ignored in the past, I clarify the reason why the lack of rigor in establishing the continuum limit was not a practical problem.



I would like to thank Niccolo Guicciardini for numerous discussion and many helpful comments and corrections of an earlier draft of this manuscript.

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This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.


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© The Author(s) 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Physics DepartmentUniversity of California Santa CruzSanta CruzUSA

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