This is a story about Newton I read once when I was a child. Now that book is lost and I can only tell you what I remember.

When Newton was young, he had been already famous in curiosity and smart. His family hired a helper. One day, she asked him to go to the market with her because she wasn't good at math. At the market, there was a problem that needed to calculate $3 \times 7$. So the helper asked Newton. After a quick thinking using logarithm, he got the result that $3 \times 7$ must larger than $20$ and smaller than $22$...

So, my question is how did he do that calculate? How to use logarithm to get the result $20<3\times7<22$? Thank you so much.

The story countinues:

... and about to say the result. Before he could finish his math, a near by person had been listened to the conversation and jumped in: "$3$ times $7$ is $21$". "Wow, you are smarter than my Newton", said by the helper. "Indeed, you are smarter than Newton", Newton laughed away.

  • $\begingroup$ I am assuming algorithm was the word that was meant in this case. $\endgroup$ – Chantry Cargill Sep 22 '14 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ Nope. I read it in my mother language (Vietnamese). In Vietnamese, logarithm and algorithm don't sound similar, so I can tell that I remember exactly. $\endgroup$ – Ooker Sep 23 '14 at 2:11

This story is very unlikely to be true, but anyway...

$$\log(3 \times 7) = \log(3) + \log(7)$$

Assuming we're using base-10 logarithms and that Newton has memorized some base-10 logs to two decimal places:

$$\eqalign{ 0.47 <& \log(3) < 0.48\cr 0.84 <& \log(7) < 0.85\cr 1.31 <& \log(3)+\log(7) < 1.33\cr}$$

Since $\log(20) < 1.31$ and $\log(22) > 1.34$, that gives you the answer.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I have searched this story on Google but can't find it anywhere, so I can't tell that it is true or not. $\endgroup$ – Ooker Sep 23 '14 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ Finding it on Google would be, um, no guarantee of its veracity. $\endgroup$ – Robert Israel Sep 23 '14 at 2:10
  • $\begingroup$ so can I ask how do you know that this story is not true? $\endgroup$ – Ooker Sep 23 '14 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ Newton was not a particularly precocious child, according to his biographies, and would not have had any exposure to advanced mathematics. Apparently he didn't read Euclid until the age of 20 or so. See e.g. www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Newton.html $\endgroup$ – Robert Israel Sep 23 '14 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ while it could be not unusual to remember values for $\log(2)$, $\log(3)$ and $\log(7)$ (I do remember them :-) ), it strikes me as odd to remember the value of $\log(11)$... $\endgroup$ – mau Sep 23 '14 at 14:48

It is from Shaw's play In Good King Charles's Golden Days.

MRS BASHAM. Oh, do look where youre going, Mr Newton. Someday youll walk into the river and drown yourself. I thought you were out at the university.

NEWTON. Now dont scold, Mrs Basham, dont scold. I forgot to go out. I thought of a way of making a calculation that has been puzzling me.

MRS BASHAM. And you have been sitting out there forgetting everything else since breakfast. However, since you have one of your calculating fits on I wonder would you mind doing a little sum for me to check the washing bill. How much is three times seven?

NEWTON. Three times seven? Oh, that is quite easy.

MRS BASHAM. I suppose it is to you, sir; but it beats me. At school I got as far as addition and subtraction; but I never could do multiplication or division.

NEWTON. Why, neither could I: I was too lazy. But they are quite unnecessary: addition and subtraction are quite sufficient. You add the logarithms of the numbers; and the antilogarithm of the sum of the two is the answer. Let me see: three times seven? The logarithm of three must be decimal four seven seven or thereabouts. The logarithm of seven is, say, decimal eight four five. That makes one decimal three two two, doesnt it? What's the antilogarithm of one decimal three two two? Well, it must be less than twentytwo and more than twenty. You will be safe if you put it down as--

Sally returns.

SALLY. Please, maam, Jack says it's twentyone.

NEWTON. Extraordinary! Here was I blundering over this simple problem for a whole minute; and this uneducated fish hawker solves it in a flash! He is a better mathematician than I.

  • $\begingroup$ I find this totally hard to believe. It is more believable that Newton admitted to chopping down the apple tree. $\endgroup$ – marty cohen Oct 18 '14 at 3:58
  • $\begingroup$ another version, right? $\endgroup$ – Ooker Oct 18 '14 at 18:50

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