How Many Colours?
Isaac Newton’s first optical paper (published in the Philosophical Transactions in February1672) was controversial: Newton argued for a new theory of light and colour when no one else thought the old one was inadequate, and he argued that his new theory was certainly true! A debate followed, in which Newton defended his claims against the objections of optical heavy weights, Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens, and Ignace-Gaston Pardies. One major sticking point between Newton and his critics concerned the number and division of colours. Newton argued that the number of different original colours was indefinite, but his critics objected to this inflated ontology. Each critic argued, for different reasons, that there were only two original colours. I examine Newton’s responses to these objections. I argue that they are revelatory of Newton’s unique methodology: a mathematico-experimental approach that eschewed ‘hypotheses’ in favour of ‘theories’. Nowadays, Newton’s first optical paper represents a landmark in the science of optics. Its exploitation of the correspondence between refraction and spectral colour provided a new approach to the study of light. And its views on the properties and nature of light, set a new agenda for the field.
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