Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771


Monday, October 29, 2007 / 3:30 PM, Building 3 Auditorium

Bülent Atalay

"The Greatest Englishman Ever: Neutron Activation and the Resolution of a Newton Puzzle"

ABSTRACT -- In 1687 Isaac Newton, the greatest mathematician and scientist in history, published his book, "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Matematica," sowing the seeds of the Industrial Revolution. Had it not been for the industrial revolution, our quality of life would not have been dramatically different than that of people who lived five hundred or a thousand years ago. Then just 5-6 years later, in 1693, Newton suffered a nervous breakdown. For three centuries historians, physicists, physicians, and psychologists had speculated about the cause of the mental breakdown in someone for whom the line between sanity and insanity was never well defined in the first place. But during the past two decades, Newton's own writings and a forensic analysis involving nuclear physics — neutron activation performed on his hair— appear to have resolved the question of what caused the nervous breakdown. Herein lie a number of ironies: arguably the greatest brain in history had destroyed the greatest brain in history; the science he launched was invoked in order to explain how he had done it. Unfortunately, it was three hundred years too late for Newton.

In this lecture the life and world of Sir Isaac Newton and his astonishing legacy will be examined, along with neutron activation — a forensic technique which can detect trace elements comparable to a needle in a haystack the size of the Cheops pyramid.

SPEAKER -- Bülent Atalay received an early classical education in England and the United States, attending Eton (UK) and St. Andrew's School (Delaware). He went into physics by accident when a secretary in the college admissions office misread his career aspirations as "physicist" instead of "physician," but he found he had latent interests in physics. His professional training - BS, MS, MA, Ph.D. and post-doctoral work in theoretical physics - took place at Georgetown, UC-Berkeley, Princeton and Oxford.

He is a professor of physics at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia, and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. An accomplished artist, Atalay has presented his works in one-man exhibitions in London and Washington, and his two books of lithographs - "Lands of Washington" and "Oxford and the English Countryside" — can be found in the permanent collections of Buckingham Palace, the Smithsonian, and the White House. In 2004 his book "Math and the Mona Lisa: the Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci" was published by Smithsonian Books, and after just three years has already been published in nine languages with two more pending. He is currently working on a second book in the same genre, "Leonardo's Universe," scheduled for release by National Geographic Books in early 2008.

Next Week: "Biosphere II", Jane Poynter, Paragon Space Corporation
Engineering Colloquium home page: https://ecolloq.gsfc.nasa.gov