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Lectures on Natural Philosophy

by Richard Helsham (1730) facsimile edition Edited by Denis Weaire, Patrick Kelly and David Attis

Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: CRC Press
Price: €25.00 (+P&P)

The publication of Isaac Newton's Principia in 1689 marked an epoch in the history of science. Newton's work came to be seen as a new paradigm for science-not only the solution to the problem of planetary motion, but also a theory of mechanics and, perhaps more importantly, a new method for approaching a wide range of scientific problems. However, as scholars created what came to be known as Newtonianism, they faced the problem of presenting it to students. Newton's own book was rather forbidding, and as an astronomical text, it lacked a discussion of many other important aspects of experimental philosophy.

Richard Helsham (1682-1738) faced this problem in his course of lectures at Trinity College in Dublin in the early decades of the eighteenth century. As a youth, Helsham had been a contemporary of George Berkeley at Kilkenny College and shared his interest in the new science. Helsham then became a medical doctor. Jonathan Swift described him in affectionate terms several times in his writings, calling him "the most eminent physician in this city and kingdom."

Helsham saw Newton's method as the key to progress in all areas of science. Having lectured on natural philosophy since the opening of the medical laboratory at Trinity College in 1711, he was appointed professor of natural and experimental philosophy in 1724 and in 1733 added the position of professor of physick (medicine). Helsham's lectures on natural philosophy were so well received that they were published just after his death.

With its intuitive explanations and its coverage of all the major topics of physic, A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy was reprinted at least seven times from 1739 to 1818 and was used as a standard work in the course at Trinity College in Dublin up until 1850. One of the very first textbooks on Newtonian physics, the book provides a remarkable window into the early development of Newtonian physics in a very readable contemporary form.

An appealing aspect of A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy is its familiarity to modern students of physics. Treated in much the same way as a modern introductory course in physics, 23 lectures cover topics such as gravitation, central forces, the composition of motion, collision, simple machines, friction, motion down an inclined plane, projectile motion, hydrostatics, pneumatics, sound, and light. The emphasis is on conveying the ideas and describing the experimental evidence while keeping mathematics to a minimum by concentrating only on simple geometry and algebra. With eleven plates of illustrations, the book contains four appendices that investigate problems, including non-elastic collisions, motion through a resisting medium, and the motion of water through pipes. This edition includes a preface by the editors, setting the book in the context of the Newtonian revolution in physics and the history of Trinity College.

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