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# Observation, experiment and intervention in Newton’s Opticks

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In my last post, my analysis of the phenomena in Principia revealed a continuity in Newton’s methodology.  I said:

In the Opticks, Newton isolated his explanatory targets by making observations under controlled, experimental conditions.  In Principia, Newton isolated his explanatory targets mathematically: from astronomical data, he calculated the motions of bodies with respect to a central focus.  Viewed in this way, Newton’s phenomena and experiments are different ways of achieving the same thing: isolating explananda.

In this post, I’ll have a closer look at Newton’s method of isolating explananda in the Opticks.  It looks like Newton made a distinction between experiment and observation: book 1, contained ‘experiments’, but books 2 and 3, contained ‘observations’.  I’ll argue that the distinction in operation here was not the standard one, which turns on level of intervention.

In current philosophy of science, the distinction between experiment and observation concerns the level of intervention involved.  In scientific investigation, intervention has two related functions: isolating a target system, and creating novel scenarios.  On this view, experiment involves intervention on a target system, and manipulation of independent variables.  In contrast, the term ‘observation’ is usually applied to any empirical investigation that does not involve intervention or manipulation.  This distinction is fuzzy at best: usually level of intervention is seen as a continuum, with observation nearer to one end and experiment nearer to the other.

If Newton was working with this sort of distinction, then we should find that the experiments in book 1 involve a higher level of intervention than the observations in books 2 and 3.  That is, in contrast to the experiments in book 1, the observations should involve fewer prisms, lenses, isolated light rays, and artificially created scenarios.  However, this is not what we find.  Instead we find that, in every book of the Opticks, Newton employed instruments to create novel scenarios that allowed him to isolate and identify certain properties of light.  It is difficult to quantify the level of intervention involved, but it seems safe to conclude that Newton’s use of the terms ‘observation’ and ‘experiment’ doesn’t reflect this distinction.

To understand what kind of distinction Newton was making, we need to look at the experiments and observations more closely.  In Opticks book 1, Newton employed a method of ‘proof by experiments’ to support his propositions.  Each experiment was designed to reveal a specific property of light.  Consider for example, proposition 1, part I: Lights which differ in Colour, differ also in Degrees of Refrangibility.  Newton provided two experiments to support this proposition.  These experiments involved the use of prisms, lenses, candles, and red and blue coloured paper.  From these experiments, Newton concluded that blue light refracts to a greater degree than red light, and hence that blue light is more refrangible than red light.

Opticks, part I, figure 12.

In the scholium that followed, Newton pointed out that the red and blue light in these experiments was not strictly homogeneous.  Rather, both colours were, to some extent, heterogeneous mixtures of different colours.  So it’s not the case, when conducting these experiments, that all the blue light was more refrangible than all the red light.  And yet, these experiments demonstrate a general effect.  This highlights the fact that, in book 1, Newton was describing ideal experiments in which the target system had been perfectly isolated.

Book 2 concerned the phenomenon now known as ‘Newton’s Rings’: the coloured rings produced by a thin film of air or water compressed between two glasses.  It had a different structure to book 1: Newton listed twenty-four observations in part I, then compiled the results in part II, explained them in propositions in part III, and described a new set of observations in part IV.  The observations in parts I and IV explored the phenomena of coloured rings in a sequence of increasingly sophisticated experiments.

Consider, for example, the observations in part I.  Observation 1 was relatively simple: Newton pressed together two prisms, and noticed that, at the point where the two prisms touched, there was a transparent spot.  The next couple of observations were variations on that first one: Newton rotated the prisms and noticed that coloured rings became visible when the incident rays hit the prisms at a particular angle.  But Newton steadily progressed, step-by-step, from prisms to convex lenses, and then to bubbles and thin plates of glass.  He varied the amount, colour and angle of the incident light, and the angle of observation.  The result was a detailed, but open ended, survey of the phenomena.

I have argued that Newton’s experiments and observations cannot be differentiated on the basis of intervention, but there are two other differences worth noting.  Firstly, whereas the experiments described in book 1 were ideal experiments, involving perfectly isolated explanatory targets, the observations in books 2 and 3 were not ideal.  Rather, through a complex sequence of observations, as the level of sophistication increased, the explanatory target was increasingly well isolated.  When viewed in this way, the phenomena of Principia seem to have more in common with the experiments of book 1 than the observations of books 2 and 3.

Secondly, the experiments of book 1 were employed to support particular propositions, and so, individually, they were held to be particularly relevant and informative.  In contrast, the observations of books 2 and 3 were only collectively relevant and informative.  Moreover, the sequence of observations was open ended: there were always more variations one could try.

What are we to make of these differences between observation and experiment in the Opticks?  I have previously argued that, while Newton never constructed Baconian natural histories, his work contained other features of the Baconian experimental philosophy, such as experiments, queries and an anti-hypothetical stance.  However, in viewing them as complex, open ended series’ of experiments, I now suggest that the observations of books 2 and 3 look a lot like what Bacon called experientia literata, the method by which natural histories are generated.  I’ll discuss this in my next post, but in the mean time, I’d like to hear what our readers think.