We are all Newtonians now – or are we?

Commuting days until retirement: 495

Browsing in a bookshop the other day I found a small book about Newton by Peter Ackroyd. His biographies are mostly about literary figures, and I didn’t know about this one – the prospect of Ackroyd on Isaac Newton seemed an enticing novelty. It lasted a few train journeys, and didn’t disappoint. I suppose I was familiar with the outline of Newton’s work, and knew something about his difficult personality, but this filled some of the gaps in my knowledge wonderfully.

Isaac Newton(Wikimedia Commons)

Isaac Newton (Wikimedia Commons)

There are perhaps three central achievements of Newton’s – each one groundbreaking in itself: his elucidation of the nature of light and colour; his invention of the calculus (‘Fluxions’ in his day) as a mathematical technique, and, above all, his unification of the movement of all physical bodies, cosmic and terrestrial, in a mathematical framework bound together by his laws of motion and gravitation. It’s true that calculus was, as we know now, independently hit upon by Leibniz, although at the time there was a fierce controversy, with each suspecting the other of plagiarism. Leibniz had published first, using a more elegant notation, but Newton had certainly been working on his Fluxions for some time before. The flames of the dispute were jealously fanned by Newton, who, once crossed or criticised, rarely forgave an opponent.

Robert Hooke

What I hadn’t realised was that the notion of gravitation, and even the inverse square law governing the strength of attraction, had been discussed by others prior to Newton’s synthesis in Principia Mathematica. It was Robert Hooke – a polymath and versatile scientific investigator himself – who had published these ideas in his Micrographia, without claiming to have originated them himself, and who wrote to Newton to draw his attention to them. They had previous quarrelled over Newton’s work on light and colour, Hooke having claimed some precedence in his own work, but Hooke had conceded to Newton, accepting that he had “abilities much inferior to yours.” This was the sort of thing that was music to Newton’s ears, who wrote back in a conciliatory vein, saying, in the famous phrase, that “if I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” There is some uncertainty as to whether this was a deliberate reference to Hooke’s own short and stunted stature.

But relations with Hooke broke down entirely when he pressed his claim to an acknowledgement in the Principia for his own previous work. Newton was furious, and never forgave him. Hooke was for many years secretary of the Royal Society, a body which, to start with, Newton had an awkward relationship, particularly given the presence of Hooke. But after Hooke’s death, Newton became president of the Society, and the relatively modest reputation which Hooke has today is thought to be due to Newton’s attempts to bury it, once he was in a position to do so. No authentic portrait of Hooke remains, and this is probably Newton’s doing.

By contrast, Newton sat for quite a number of portraits – an indication of his vanity. But he was of course held in high regard by most of his contemporaries for his prodigious talents. Those who got on well with him mostly had the skill to negotiate their way carefully around his prickly personality. An example was Edmond Halley (he of Halley’s comet) who had the task of passing Hooke’s claim to Newton, but managed to do so without himself falling into Newton’s disfavour.


Newton was long-lived, dying aged 84 – perhaps due to his ascetic style of life and his unquenchable enthusiasm for whatever was his current preoccupation. The early part of his life was mostly spent in Cambridge where he became a fellow, and then the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. He lived a mostly solitary existence, and when working on some problem would often work through the night, neglect bodily needs and be deaf to distractions. His absent-mindedness was legendary. Hardly surprising, given these tendencies and his awkward personality, that he was not known ever to have had a close relationship with any individual, sexual or otherwise.  Acts of kindness were not unknown, however, and he made many charitable donations in his later, prosperous years. He did strike up one or two friendships, and was fondly protective towards his niece, who kept house for him when he lived in London in later years.

When his mathematical powers waned with age, he found a new talent for administration in his fifties, when offered the post of Warden of the Royal Mint (and later Master). His predecessors had been lazy placemen for whom the post was a sinecure, and it’s thought that, on his appointment, perhaps 95% of the currency was counterfeit. Over succeeding years Newton turned the full force of his concentration to the task, and put the nation’s currency on a sound footing. Forgers were single-mindedly pursued to the gallows, which was where you ended up in those days if convicted of counterfeiting the currency.

So the last part of Newton’s life was spent prosperously, and in the enjoyment of a vast reputation, presiding over his twin fiefdoms of the Royal Mint and the Royal Society, and doing so right up until his death. But I have not mentioned his two other major intellectual enthusiasms, beside the scientific work I have described. One was alchemy – not then distinct from what we now call chemistry. Alchemists of course are remembered mainly for their efforts to create gold, and hence fabulous wealth – but this was not Newton’s aim. The subject was full of occult knowledge and arcane secrets, and for Newton this was one route to a revelation of the universe’s true, unknown nature, and he pursued it assiduously, having a vast library and spending at least as much time on it as his work in what is for us mainstream science. It also had a practical outcome, since he developed from it a thorough knowledge of metallurgy which he put to use in his work in administering the coinage.

His third passion was his research into the history of Christianity and the church. Newton was a deeply pious man, more in a private than a public way. This was partly because Newton’s particular faith was a heretical one, and would have been dangerously so in the earlier part of his life, when England was ruled by the Catholic James II. Newton was obsessed with the now largely forgotten controversy concerning the opposed church fathers Arius and Athanasius. Arian doctrine (not to be confused with the ‘Aryan’ 19th and 20th century racial dogma) held that Christ was a subordinate entity to God, and denied the Holy Trinity taught by Athanasius, and adopted by the mainstream church. For Newton, Arianism was the true faith, whose origins, he believed, could be traced back beyond the Christian era, and was the only way to approach the reality of God.

It almost goes without saying that these three obsessions were not independent of one another in Newton’s mind. For him they all served the same purpose – to uncover the mysteries of the universe and the nature of God. Gravitation was a controversial topic at the time, in virtue of its assertion that one body could act upon another without physical contact. (Perhaps a sort of parallel with the issues we have today with the phenomenon of quantum entanglement.) For Newton, the concept was all of a piece with the mysterious action of God – a window into the nature of reality.

Of course Newton’s scientific conception of the universe has now been radically modified by the twentieth century developments of relativity and quantum theory. But there’s a more fundamental sense in which we are still Newtonians: his towering achievement was the scheme of the universe as an integrated whole, governed by mathematically described laws (with some honours also going to his predecessor Galileo). This is the framework within which all our modern scientific endeavours take place.


The brothers as they appear in the book (faces obscured)

The brothers as they appear in the book (faces obscured)

So why the note of uncertainty in my title? To explain this I want to digress by describing an image which came into my mind while thinking about it. A few years back, the local people where I live produced a book about our village’s history. An appeal went out for any period photographs that might be borrowed to illustrate the book, and there was a big response. The organiser gave me the task of scanning in all these photos for the book’s publishers, and one them sticks in my mind. It showed two brothers who were local characters during the 1930s standing in a garden, and a closer examination showed that it had been taken at a wedding. They are wearing their best suits, and are sporting buttonholes. Why is the setting not so immediately obvious? Because the photo had been crudely ripped in two down the middle, with both the brothers in the left half. We can see that one of them is the groom, and that the missing right half contained his bride – only her hand is visible, nestling in the crook of his arm.

I found this mute evidence of some anguished estrangement from the past rather moving. What had seemed like a happy union at the time now had the feminine half of it expunged by someone who was determined that she no longer deserved any place in their thoughts. Yes – you get my drift. The enterprise of science now prefers to go it alone along its own, masculine, analytical path, with any attendant mystery ripped out of the picture, leaving only the barest hint. (See my thoughts on atheism in the previous post.)

It’s worth returning to Newton’s own imagery and repeating the often-quoted passage he wrote towards the end of his life:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Although he was an arrogant man in his personal dealings (and the opening phrase here hints at how conscious he is of his reputation), I don’t believe this to be mock-modesty. He also was genuinely pious, and all too aware of the mystery surrounding what he had learned of the universe. Today, we look forward to finishing the task of enumerating the pebbles and shells, and are happy to ignore the ocean. In this sense we are more arrogant than he was, and that’s the source of my doubt as to whether we are really Newtonians now.

Ackroyd, Peter: Newton. Vintage Books, 2007

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