You are here

Mechanics: From Aristotle to Einstein

Michael J. Crowe
Green Lion Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Rocca
, on

Examining the table of contents for Mechanics from Aristotle to Einstein, we see that Crowe spends 28 pages on pre-Galileo mechanics, 55 on Galileo, 25 between Galileo and Newton, 130 on Newton and his times, 43 taking us from Newton to Einstein, and finally 29 pages on Einstein. Even if you subtract off the 20 or 30 pages in the section on Newton that do not directly relate to him, you will see that Newton gets a disproportionate amount of space (or time, or space-time). This imbalance results from Crowe spending more time discussing Newton’s life and the content and significance of the Principia (and some other works) than he did for the other figures he discusses. Consequently, the book reads not as a complete history of mechanics from Aristotle to Einstein, but rather as a discussion of Newton’s life and work with the rest of the material acting as a prelude to or consequence of that work.

For the sake of greater balance the text would have benefited from more time spent on the context and significance of the work and lives of the other minor and major figures Crowe discusses. The main figures are Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, but he also covers a host of others, such as Oresme, the Mertonians (whom he does not clearly identify), Kepler, Descartes, Huygens, Halley, Leibniz, Voltaire, Faraday, Maxwell, and Planck. Crowe takes time out, after discussing Newton and while examining Einstein’s work, to talk about some philosophy of science and how different individuals’ attitudes toward how science was to be approached influenced their scientific ideas.

Crowe makes really excellent use of original source material (translated, of course). His stated goal is to “understand how the earlier authors saw the world”; he accomplishes this by peppering the text with excerpts from original sources, some short and some long. Prior to each passage he gives some help as to why what you are about to read is significant. This “prep” sometimes includes questions that the reader should ask themselves as they read the original source. After each passage he adds commentary to draw the reader’s attention to the most important portions of what was just read and to give insight into the significance of the work in the history of mechanics.

Some of Crowe’s selections are a little too long and should have been broken into smaller pieces. The readings would have been a little more effective if Crowe had prefaced all of them with questions designed to guide the reader. Finally, on occasion Crowe uses modern notation when discussing works. From a historiographical standpoint, this is objectionable; given his target audience, however, this lapse is understandable and probably necessary.

Mechanics from Aristotle to Einstein has numerous exercises, both essay type and mathematical and/or physical problems. All the questions serve their purpose well enough, but their placement seemed inconsistent. The computational questions sometimes have solutions after them and sometimes do not. This general inconsistency in the placement and types of questions interrupts the flow of the text, making it seem a little unfinished. More of each type of exercise would have been welcome.

Chapter One demonstrates many of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Crowe frequently translates Aristotle’s work into modern notation, but makes a point that he is doing so; as a result, one understands that what is happening. At the end of this chapter he encourages the reader to consider some consequences of the relativity of motion and perspective. This is something he frequently does throughout the text. What is missing from this chapter is a nice historical overview.

At the start of chapters two, four, and six Crowe gives chronologies for the significant figure to be discussed. This was very useful for setting the stage for the discussion of the material and its significance. For consistency as well as clarity it would have been helpful to have similar chronologies in the other chapters.

Crowe states at the end of the first part of chapter one that Aristotle was overly empirical. The evidence for this claim is not clear. Later he seems to claim to have refuted the generally held belief that from about 325 C.E. to 1543 C.E. nothing interesting happened in the history of mechanics. But in fact he seems only to change that time span to 325–1325 C.E., which is hardly that significant.

Overall, Mechanics from Aristotle to Einstein is enjoyable to read. Parts of the text are dense and will be hard to follow without a strong math and or physics background and a fair amount of interest in the subject. Using it as a supplementary text for a great books course for liberal arts students with weak backgrounds (one of the audiences he says he is aiming for) would be very difficult without a lot of hand-holding. For higher level students, such as first semester graduate students in the history of mathematics or science (his other targeted audience) this can be a great resource. By presenting some basic background information and carefully selected readings from original sources with guiding questions and then commentary, Crowe exemplifies how the history and philosophy of mathematics and science (or even history in general) should be approached.

Chuck Rocca is an associate professor at Western Connecticut State University. His research in the past has been in the field of combinatorial group theory but recently he has been moving toward history of mathematics. In particular he is interested in the history of cryptology and the history of mathematics/science around the seventeenth century. He is also interested in the exploration of the responsible use of technology in the classroom. He can be reached at

The table of contents is not available.