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Prof. Jed Z. Buchwald
The Newtonian Origins of Experimental Error
In the mid-1750s the English mathematician Thomas Simpson tried to convince astronomers that it was a good idea to average multiple measurements. He had much work to do, because neither astronomers nor physicists were in the habit of combining multiple measurements to produce a best final value. How then did experimenters and observers work with discrepant data before statistical methods became common at the beginning of the 19th century? We will first tour the worlds of Tycho Brahe, Robert Hooke, René Descartes and Johannes Hevelius to see how they worked with data. And then we turn to the young Isaac Newton, who developed an altogether novel way with measurements, the very way that became ever after the foundation of experimental method, for it was Newton who first decided that bad numbers could be put together to generate good ones.
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