Selected Queries from Newton’s Opticks, 4th ed.


Qu. 18. If in two large Vessels of Glass inverted, two little Thermometers be suspended so as not to touch the Vessels, and the Air be draw out of one of these Vessels, and these Vessels thus prepared be carried out of a cold place into a warm one, the Thermometer in vacuo will grow warm as much and almost as soon as the Thermometer which is not in vacuo. And when the Vessels are carried back into the cold place, the Thermometer in vacuo will grow cold almost as soon as the other Thermometer. Is not the Heat of the warm Room convey’d through the Vacuum by the Vibrations of a much subtiler Medium than Air, which after the Air was drawn out remained in the Vacuum? And is not this Medium the same with that Medium by which Light is refracted and reflected, and by whose Vibrations Light communicates Heat to Bodies, and is put into Fits of easy Reflexion and easy Transmission? And do not the Vibrations of this Medium in hot Bodies contribute to the intenseness and duration of their Heat? And do not hot Bodies communicate their Heat to contiguous cold ones by the Vibrations of this Medium propagated from them into the cold ones? And is not this Medium exceedingly more rare and subtle than the Air, and exceedingly more elastic and active? And doth it not readily pervade all Bodies? And is it not (by its elastick force) expanded through all the Heavens?


Qu. 19. Doth not the Refraction of Light proceed from the different density of this Aethereal Medium in different places, the Light receeding always from the denser parts of the Medium? And is not the density thereof always greater in free and open Spaces devoid of Air and other grosser Bodies, than within the pores of Water, Glass, Crystal, Gems, and other compact Bodies? For when light passes through Glass or Crystal, and falling very obliquely upon the farther surface thereof is totally reflected, the total Reflexion thereof ought to proceed rather from the density and vigour of the Medium without and beyond the Glass, than from the rarity and weakness thereof.


Qu. 20. Doth not this Aethereal Medium in passing out of Water, Glass, Crystal and other compact and dense Bodies into empty Spaces, grown denser and denser by degrees, and by that means refract the Rays of Light not in a point, but by bending them gradually in curve Lines? And doth not the gradual condensation of this Medium extend to some distance from the Bodies, and thereby cause the Inflexions of the Rays of Light, which pass by the edges of dense Bodies, at some distance from the Bodies?


Qu. 22. May not planets and comets, and all the gross bodies, perform their motions in this ethereal medium? and may not its resistance be so small as to be inconsiderable? For instance, if this ether (for so I will call it) should be supposed 700,000 times more elastic than our air, and above 700,000 times more rare, its resistance would be about 600,000,000 times less than that of water. And so small a resistance would scarce make any sensible alteration in the motions of the planets in ten thousand years. If any one would ask how a medium can be so rare, let him tell me how an electric body can by friction emit an exhalation so rare and subtle, and yet so potent? And how the effluvia of a magnet can pass through a plate of glass without resistance, and yet turn a magnetic needle beyond the glass?


Qu. 28. Are not all Hypotheses erroneous, in which Light is supposed to consist in Pression or Motion, propagated through a fluid Medium? For in all these Hypotheses the Phaenomena of Light have been hitherto explained by supposing that they arise from new Modifications of the Rays; which is an erroneous Supposition.


If  Light consisted only in Pression propagated without actual Motion, it would not be able to agitate and heat the Bodies which refract and reflect it. If it consisted in Motion propagated to all distances in an instant, it would require an infinite force every moment, in every shining Particle, to generate that Motion. And if it consisted in Pression or Motion, propagated either in an instant or in time, it would bend into the Shadow. For Pression or Motion cannot be propagated in a Fluid in right Lines, beyond an Obstacle which stops part of the Motion, but will bend and spread every way into the quiescent Medium which lies beyond the Obstacle. Gravity tends downward, but the Pressure of Water arising from Gravity tends every way with equal Force, and is propagated as readily, and with as much force sideways as downwards, and through crooked passages as through strait ones. The Waves on the surface of stagnating Water, passing by the sides of a broad Obstacle which stops part of them, bend afterwards and dilate themselves gradually into the quiet Water behind the Obstacle. The Waves, Pulses or Vibrations of the Air, wherein Sounds consist, bend manifestly, though not so much as the Waves of Water. For a bell or a Cannon may be heard beyond a Hill which intercepts the sight of the sounding Body, and Sounds are propagated as readily through crooked Pipes as through streight ones. But Light is never known to follow crooked Passages nor to bend into the Shadow. For the fix’d Stars by the Interposition of any of the Planets cease to be seen. And so do the Parts of the Sun by the Interposition of the Moon, Mercury or Venus. The Rays which pass very near to the edges of any Body, are bent a little by the action of the Body, as we shew’d above; but this bending is not towards but from the Shadow, and is perform’d only in the passage of the Ray by the Body, and at a very small distance from it. So soon as the Ray is past the Body, it goes right on.


To explain the unusual Refraction of Island Crystal by Pression or Motion propagated, has not hitherto been attempted (to my knowledge) except by Huygens, who for that end supposed two several vibrating Mediums within that Crystal. But when he tried the Refractions in two sucessive pieces of that Crystal, and found them such as is mention’d above; he confessed himself at a loss for explaining them. For Pressions or Motions, propagated from a shining Body through an uniform Medium, must be on all sides alike; whereas by those Experiments it apperas that the Rays of Light have different Properties in their different Sides. He suspected that the Pulses of Aether in passing through the first Crystal might receive new Modificications, which might determine them to be propagated in this or that Medium within the second Crystal, according to the Position of that Crystal. But what Modifications those might be he could not say, nor think of any thing satisfactory in that point. [Mais pour dire comment cela se fait, je n’ay rien trove jusquici que me satisfasse. C. H. de la lumiere, c. 5, p. 91 – “But to tell how this occurs, I have hitherto found nothing which satisfies me.”] And if he had known that the unusual Refraction depends not on new Modifications, but on the original and unchangeable Dispositions of the Rays, he would have found it as difficult to explain how those Dispositions which he supposed to be impress’d on the rays by the first Crystal, could be in them before their Incidence on that Crystal, and in general, how all Rays emitted by shining Bodies, can have those Dispositions in them from the beginning. To me, at least, this seems inexplicable, if Light be nothing else than Pression or Motion, propagated through Aether.


And it is as difficult to explain by these Hypotheses, how Rays can be alternately in Fits of easy Reflexion and easy Transmission; unless perhaps one might suppose that there are in all Space two Aethereal vibrating Mediums, and that the Vibrations of one of them constitute Light, and the Vibrations of the other are swifter, and as often as they overtake the Vibrations of the first, put them into those Fits. But how two Aethers can be diffused through all Space, one of which acts upon the other, and by consequence is re-acted upon, without retarding, shattering, dispersing and confounding one anothers Motions, is inconceivable. And against filling the Heavens with fluid Mediums, unless they be exceeding rare, a great Objection arises from the regular and very lasting Motions of the Planets and Comets in all manner of Courses through the Heavens. For thence it is manifest, that the Heavens are void of all sensible Resistance, and by consequence of all sensible Matter.




Qu. 29. Are not the rays of Light very small Bodies emitted from shining Substances? For such Bodies will pass through uniform Mediums in right Lines without bending into the Shadow, which is the Nature of the Rays of Light. They will also be capable of several Properties, and be able to conserve their Proper­ties unchanged in passing through several Mediums, which is another Condition of the Rays of Light. Pellucid Substances act upon the Rays of Light at a distance in refracting, reflecting, and inflecting them, and the Rays mutually agitate the Parts of those Substances at a distance for heating them; and this Action and Re-action at a distance very much resembles an attractive Force between Bodies. If Refraction be perform’d by Attraction of the Rays, the Sines of Incidence must be to the Sines of Refrac­tion in a given Proportion, as we show’d in our Principles of Philosophy: And this Rule is true by Experience. The Rays of Light in going out of Glass into a Vacuum, are bent towards the Glass; and if they fall too obliquely on the Vacuum, they are bent backwards into the Glass, and totally reflected; and this Reflexion cannot be ascribed to the Resistance of an absolute Vacuum, but must be caused by the Power of the Glass attracting the Rays at their going out of it into the Vacuum, and bringing them back. For if the farther Surface of the Glass be moisten’d with Water or clear Oil, or liquid and clear Honey, the Rays which would otherwise be reflected will go into the Water, Oil, or Honey; and therefore are not reflected before they arrive at the farther Surface of the Glass, and begin to go out of it. If they go out of it into the Water, Oil, or Honey, they go on, because the Attraction of the Glass is almost balanced and rendered ineffectual by the contrary Attraction of the Liquor. But if they go out of it into a Vacuum which has not Attraction to balance that of the Glass, the Attraction of the Glass either bends and refracts them, or brings them back and reflects them. And this is still more evident by laying together two Prisms of Glass, or two Object-glasses of very long Telescopes, the one plane, the other a little convex, and so compressing them that they do not fully touch, nor are too far asunder. For the Light which fails upon the farther Surface of the first Glass where the Interval between the Glasses is not above the ten hundred thousandth Part of an Inch, will go through that Surface, and through the Air or Vacuum between the Glasses, and enter into the second Glass, as was explain’d in the first, fourth, and eighth Observations of the first Part of the second book. But, if the second Glass be taken away, the Light which goes out of the second Surface of the First Glass into the Air or Vacuum, will not go on forwards, but turns back into the first Glass, and is reflected; and therefore it is drawn back by the Power of the first Glass, there being nothing else to turn it back. Nothing more is requisite for producing all the variety of Colours, and degrees of Refrangibility, than that the Rays of Light be Bodies of different Sizes, the least of which may make violet, the weakest and darkest of the Colours, and be more easily diverted by refract­ing Surfaces from the right Course; and the rest as they are bigger and bigger, may make the stronger and more lucid Colours, blue, green, yellow, and red, and be more and more difficultly diverted. Nothing more is requisite for putting the Rays of Light into Fits of easy Reflexion and easy Transmission, than that they be small Bodies which by their attractive Powers, or some other Force, stir up Vibrations in what they act upon, which Vibrations being swifter than the Rays, overtake them successively, and agitate them so as by turns to increase and decrease their Velocities, and thereby put them into those Fits. And lastly, the unusual Refrac­tion of Island-Crystal looks very much as if it were perform’d by some kind of attractive virtue lodged in certain Sides both of the Rays, and of the Particles of the Crystal. For were it not for some kind of Disposition or Virtue lodged in some Sides of the Particles of the Crystal, and not in their other Sides, and which inclines and bends the Rays towards the Coast of unusual Refrac­tion, the Rays which fail perpendicularly on the Crystal, would not be refracted towards that Coast rather than towards any other Coast, both at their Incidence and at their Emergence, so as to emerge perpendicularly by a contrary Situation of the Coast of unusual Refraction at the second Surface; the Crystal acting upon the Rays after they have pass’d through it, and are emerging into the Air; or, if you please, into a Vacuum. And since the Crystal by this Disposition or Virtue does not act upon the Rays, unless when one of their Sides of unusual Refraction looks towards that Coast, this argues a Virtue or Disposition in those Sides of the Rays, which answers to, and sympathizes with that Virtue or Disposition of the Crystal, as the Poles of two Magnets answer to one another. And as Magnetism may be intended and remitted, and is found only in the Magnet and in Iron: So this Virtue of refracting the perpendicular Rays is greater in Island-Crystal, less in Crystal of the Rock, and is not yet found in other Bodies. I do not say that this Virtue is magnetical: It seems to be of another kind. I only say, that whatever it be, it’s difficult to conceive how the Rays of Light, unless they be Bodies, can have a perma­nent Virtue in two of their Sides which is not in their other Sides, and this without any regard to their Position to the Space or Medium through which they pass.


What I mean in this Question by a Vacuum, and by the Attractions of the Rays of Light towards Glass or Crystal, may be under­stood by what was said in the l8th, l9th, and 20th Questions.

Qu. 31. All these things being consider'd, it seems probable to me, that God in the Beginning form'd Matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable Particles, of such Sizes and Figures, and with such other Properties, and in such Proportion to Space, as most conduced to the End for which he form'd them; and that these primitive Particles being Solids, are incomparably harder than any porous Bodies compounded of them; even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary Power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first Creation. While the Particles continue entire, they may compose Bodies of one and the same Nature and Texture in all Ages: But should they wear away, or break in pieces, the Nature of Things depending on them, would be changed. Water and Earth, composed of old worn Particles and Fragments of Particles, would not be of the same Nature and Texture now, with Water and Earth composed of entire Particles in the Beginning. And therefore, that Nature may be lasting, the Changes of corporeal Things are to be placed only in the various Separations and new Associations and Motions of these permanent Particles; compound Bodies being apt to break, not in the midst of solid Particles, but where those Particles are laid together, and only touch in a few Points.

It seems to me farther, that these Particles have not only a Vis inertiae, accompanied with such passive Laws of Motion as naturally result from the Force, but also that they are moved by certain active Principles, such as is that of Gravity, and that which causes Fermentation, and the Cohesion of Bodies. These Principles I consider, not as occult Qualities, supposed to result from the specifick Forms of Things, but as general Laws of Nature, by which the Things themselves are form'd; their Truth appearing to us by Phaenomena, though their Causes be not yet discover'd. For these are manifest Qualities, and their Causes only are occult. And the Aristotelians gave the Name of occult Qualities only as they supposed to lie hid in Bodies, and to be the unknown Causes of manifest Effects: Such as would be the Causes of Gravity, and of magnetick and electrick Attractions, and of Fermentations, if we should suppose that these Forces or Actions arose from Qualities unknown to us, and uncapable of being discovered and made manifest. Such occult Qualities put a stop to the Improvement of natural Philosophy, and therefore of late Years have been rejected. To tell us that every Species of Things is endow'd with an occult specifick Quality by which it acts and produces manifest Effects, is to tell us nothing: But to derive two or three general Principles of Motion from Phaenomena, and afterwards to tell us how the Properties and Actions of all corporeal Things follow from those manifest Principles, would be a very great step in Philosophy, though the Causes of those Principles were not yet discover'd: And therefore I scruple not to propose the Principles of Motion above-mention'd, they being of very general Extent, and leave their Causes to be found out.

Now by the help of these Principles, all material Things seem to have been composed of the hard and solid Particles above-mention'd, variously associated in the first Creation by the Counsel of an intelligent Agent. For it became him who created them to set them in order. And if he did so, it's unphilosophical to seek for any other Origin of the World, or to pretend that it might arise out of a Chaos by the mere Laws of Nature; though being once form'd, it may continue by those Laws for many Ages. For while Comets move in very excentrick Orbs in all manner of Positions, blind Fate could never make all the Planets move one and the same way in Orbs concentrick, some inconsiderable Irregularities excepted, which may have risen from the mutual Actions of Comets and Planets upon one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this System wants a Reformation. Such a wonderful Uniformity in the Planetary System must be allowed the Effect of Choice. And so must the Uniformity in the Bodies of Animals, they having generally a right and a left side shaped alike, and on either side of their Bodies two Legs behind, and either two Arms, or two Legs, or two Wings before upon their Shoulders, and between their Shoulders a Neck running down into a Back-bone, and a Head upon it; and in the Head two Ears, two Eyes, a Nose, a Mouth, and a Tongue, alike situated. Also the first Contrivance of those very artificial Parts of Animals, the Eyes, Ears, Brain, Muscles, Heart, Lungs, Midriff, Glands, Larynx, Hands, Wings, swimming Bladders, natural Spectacles, and other Organs of Sense and Motion; and the Instinct of Brutes and Insects, can be the effect of nothing else than the Wisdom and Skill of a powerful ever-living Agent, who being in all Places, is more able by his Will to move the Bodies within his boundless uniform Sensorium, and thereby to form and reform the Parts of our own Bodies. And yet we are not to consider the World as the Body of God, or the several Parts thereof, as the Parts of God. He is an uniform Being, void of Organs, Members or Parts, and they are his Creatures subordinate to him, and subservient to his Will; and he is no more of the Species of Things carried through the Organs of Sense into the place of its Sensation, where it perceives them by means of its immediate Presence, without the Intervention of any third thing. The Organs of Sense are not for enabling the Soul to perceive the Species of Things in its Sensorium, but only for conveying them thither; and God has no need of such Organs, he being every where present to the Things themselves. And since Space is divisible in infinitum, and Matter is not necessarily in all places, it may be also allow'd that God is able to create Particles of Matter of several Sizes and Figures, and in several Proportions to Space, and perhaps of different Densities and Forces, and thereby to vary the Laws of Nature, and make Worlds of several sort in several Parts of the Universe. At least, I see nothing of Contradiction in all this.

As in Mathematicks, so in Natural Philosophy, the Investigation of difficult Things by the Method of Analysis, ought ever to precede the Method of Composition. This Analysis consists in making Experiments and Observations, and in drawing general Conclusions from them by Induction, and admitting of no Objections against the Conclusions, but such as are taken from Experiments, or other certain Truths. For Hypotheses are not to be regarded in experimental Philosophy. And although the arguing from Experiments and Observations by Induction be no Demonstration of general Conclusions; yet it is the best way of arguing which the Nature of Things admits of, and may be looked upon as so much the stronger, by how much the Induction is more general. And if no Exception occur from Phaenomena, the Conclusion may be pronounced generally. But if at any time afterwards any Exception shall occur from Experiments, it may then begin to be pronounced with such Exceptions as occur. By this way of Analysis we may proceed from Compounds to Ingredients, and from Motions to the Forces producing them; and in general, from Effects to their Causes, and from particular Causes to more general ones, till the Argument end in the most general. This is the Method of Analysis: And the Synthesis consists in assuming the Causes discover'd, and establish'd as Principles, and by them explaining the Phaenomena proceeding from them, and proving the Explanations.

In the two first Books of these Opticks, I proceeded by this Analysis to discover and prove the original Differences of the Rays of Light in respect of Refrangibility, Reflexibility, and Colour, and their alternate Fits of easy Reflexion and easy Transmission, and the Properties of Bodies , both opake and pellucid, on which their Reflexions and Colours depend. And these Discoveries being proved, may be assumed in the Method of Composition for explaining the Phaenomena arising from them: An Instance of which Method I gave in the End of the first Book. In this third Book I have only begun the Analysis of what remains to be discover'd about Light and its Effects upon the Frame of Nature, hinting several things about it, and leaving the Hints to be examin'd and improv'd by the farther Experiments and Observations of such as are inquisitive. And if natural Philosophy in all its Parts, by pursuing this Method, shall at length be perfected, the Bounds of Moral Philosophy will be also enlarged. For so far as we can know by natural Philosophy what is the first Cause, what Power he has over us, and what Benefits we receive from him, so far our Duty towards him, as well as that towards one another, will appear to us by the Light of Nature. And no doubt, if the Worship of false Gods had not blinded the Heathen, their moral Philosophy would have gone farther than to the four Cardinal Virtues; and instead of teaching the Transmigration of Souls, and to worship the Sun and Moon, and dead Heroes, they would have taught us to worship our true Author and Benefactor, as their Ancestors did under the Government of Noah and his Sons before they corrupted themselves.

[End of Newton’s Opticks, 4th edition (1730)]