Newton gets more credit than his due, as did Einstein and most certainly Darwin. What drives their fame is not so much their accomplishments or even their "genius", but their philosophy and birthday. These men were born in an age that was desperate for change, and they provided the justification in spades.
Darwin's advances are easiest to dismiss, and indeed, if it were not for a major renovation of his 1851 theory around 1930 called Neo-Darwinian Theory, which ascribed genes to DNA, and mutations to random transcription errors, it is likely we would attribute his insights to Lamarck, and replace his speculations with Mendel. Even today, NDT is on the ropes, having more contradictions than confirmations in the field of molecular biology, but it shows no sign of being discarded. For Darwin provided something neither Lamarck nor Mendel could, a purposeless explanation for apparent design, an escape from the tyranny of final causes, a refuge from the cosmological proof of God's existence. Darwin completed the materialist transformation needed to make atheism respectable. Therefore no honor bestowed was too great for this humble man.
Einstein's story is more complex, because he tore down as much as he built up the materialist superstructure. Despite this dangerous proclivity, Einstein mollified all his cultural critics by ascribing to a Spinozan atheism. His background as a Jewish refugee from Hitler's purge also endeared him in the public consciousness. But his major accomplishment was removing the last odor of Aristotle from Modern Physics. If you recall, Aristotle had supposed that objects have "souls", such that rocks are attracted to the Earth because they are made of the same substance. All such attractions were seen as organic, spiritual, desirous. Materialism rejected such "spooky-action-at-a-distance", preferring only contact forces. Particles bouncing in the void, however, nicely repel but only with great difficulty attract. Descartes, following a long line of materialist scientists, had supposed that the vacuum was filled with particles, and the interaction of swirling vorticies was the way in which the heavenly bodies communicated and moved in circles. So when Newton proposed that gravity acted through empty space with an attractive inverse square law, he resurrected the spirit of Aristotle. Such was his crime, that Newton famously defended himself by saying "Hypotheses non fingo", or "I make no (metaphysical) hypotheses", yet his gravitational theory remains even today a touchstone for new age theories. Einstein's fame, then, arose from his geometric theory of gravity that exorcised the ghost of Aristotle. For this one act, he was forgiven for having unleashed quantum mechanics on the world.
But Newton was without fault. Not only had his physics of forces and discrete bodies brought necessary precision to the vague ideas of Epicurus, but his invention of the calculus effectively discretized the field of analytic geometry begun by Descartes. It was a perfect synergy of math, physics and materialism, that not only described reality more accurately than ever before, but also described it in a philosophically particulate way. The accomplishment made materialism not just a theory of reality, but the theory of reality. All the old religious nostrums of spirit and flesh, angels and men, quintessence and earth-air-fire-water were overthrown, For the first time, science was free of all religious overtones, and began its separate journey alone into the vast forests of knowledge.
Therefore every physics book and physics class begins with forces and bodies and motion as a laboratory analogy to the atoms and the void that make up the materialist universe. Despite the centrality of friction in Aristotle's physics, every modern laboratory is filled with contrivances to minimize friction--air tables, pulleys, dry-ice pucks, pendula, well-oiled carts. This is because atoms cannot possess friction or they would all come to rest, so the laboratory environment also must be artificially constructed to reinforce the materialist analogies of Newtonian mechanics. Even today, Newton remains more than a paradigm for materialism, but its chief tutor.
In the second and third year of a physics major, the deviations from materialism are taught--Bohr's energy levels, Heisenberg's uncertainty, Young's double-slit interference of single photons. Yet they are taught as deviations, as if Reality were still Newtonian, but forced to behave in devious ways by irresponsible experimentalists. The physicist is given Pauli's dictum that with his left eye he sees particles, and with his right eye waves, and if he were to open both eyes he would go crazy. Then in crafty synthesis, Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation is presented, that the universe is essentially dualistic and unknowable, even God doesn't know which slit the particle went through. Einstein's objections to this "incomplete" theory are duly noted, and then with a high pitched cackle, Bell's Inequality experiments are presented to prove Einstein wrong.
Not only is materialism defended, but it is a Gnostic, dualist materialism. Not only are particles devoid of any purpose, but sometimes they act as non-particles, as waves, absent of any meaning save confounding our naive realism. Does any firm reality exist? The world of atoms and the senseless void goes swirling around and
around our heads while the whirlpool of meaninglessness sucks at our
feet. Like Pauli, we open both eyes to the vertigo of standing on the edge of a chasm that opens beneath us, and before we lose our balance we rush back to the safety of Newtonian particles, contenting ourselves that Newton is "generally valid" barring a few strange scenarios. Yet we are left with a dull ache for the once bright forests filled with game.
And in such a manner the way is barred, the road is blocked, and scientific progress is halted.
My Russian colleague and I spend considerable time in the smoker's corner by the front door, discussing these topics. I said, for perhaps the tenth time, that I wanted to teach Physics like Feynman, beginning with energy and waves, so as to avoid the Newtonian indoctrination. He had not just taught physics at a Russian university, but had been chair of the department.
"It doesn't work." he answered flatly. "I tried for four years. It is impossible." I bristled. American pragmatism meets European ideology.
"How do you know it won't work," I asked, "suppose the limitation is materialist indoctrination?" "No", he replied, "it is reality."
I was insistent. "But you only say that because you were raised in a Communist materialist culture! How do you know it is reality?" It is always dangerous to bring up Communism with an ex-Russian, as I knew full well. "You are a genius! Please tell me then, what do you propose to teach? And don't give me that useless philosophy talk."
I paused. How would I counter three centuries of Newtonian materialism?
Learning from the masters, Einstein and Newton, that the physics must follow the metaphysics, I reasoned that since Gnosticism and dualism were the reigning paradigm, I must insist on trinities, that reality consists of three interrelated aspects, Newtonian particles, Shroedinger matter-waves, and the coherence that ties them both together. That is, a rock dropped in a pond generates a circular ripple that recedes in all directions. Waves dissipate, spreading their influence widely with less and less vigor. But when a wave is made up of coherent wavelets, then, seemingly out of nowhere, it can amass into a giant wave again. Ocean currents off the coast of South Africa provide the conditions for these "monster" waves of 60 and 100 feet that can annihilate unsuspecting ships. Such coherence is what makes a laser so bright and so focussed. Coherence is the difference between a live cow and a dead one. Coherence is the information streaming along telephone lines, versus the static of a dead connection. Drawing the analogy even more directly, God the Father is a spirit, the matter-wave; God the Son came in the flesh, the particular presence; and God the Holy Spirit is the coherence, bringing the two together with meaning.
Newton has provided us the math for particles. And 70 years of quantum mechanics have provided a set of clumsy tools for waves. (I say clumsy, because I was never very good at it, even using the latest Cohen-Tannouji bra-ket approach, and some have suggested that wavelets are a better basis vector for QM than the hoary Fourier transforms.) But what of coherence? This is a very young field, with the non-linear soliton solutions for coherent travelling waves only appearing in my graduate school days. The hindrance here, I am afraid, is the mistaken emphasis on randomness, on Gaussian statistics. The mere existence of coherence suggests that we must be very far from randomness. Fortunately Bayesian statistics are beginning to be understood and used, and it appears that a convergence of Bayesian statistics, non-linear waves (string theory), and purpose-driven metaphysics (Intelligent Design) may provide the framework for a Newtonian revolution of reality. It is my secret hope that such a framework will finally explain the Schwinger-like coherence that causes cold fusion, which would set us free from the tiresome defense of coal-fired and nuclear power plants.
For all this heavy lifting in metaphysics has real consequences. Maybe young physics majors will be spared the tedious introduction to 8 weeks of 17th century Newtonian metaphysics, 18th century physics, and 19th century vector calculus. For just as Newton gave us the Rocket and Einstein the Bomb, so it may be that the Trinity will give us the Eternal Light.