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

Gardening Leave

Commuting days until retirement: 499

A cold, windy garden, seen from a warm study

A cold, windy garden seen from a warm study

A day off, supposedly to do some gardening, but the sub-zero wind is keeping me indoors. Delicate plants, we office workers.

A chance, at any rate, to reflect on that back and forth journey that the rest of my fellow commuters have resumed for the week. When you look at all those other blank faces on the train, you do wonder about what’s behind them. When they look around at their fellow passengers (carefully, so as not to catch anyone’s eye), what are they thinking about this repetitive enterprise that we are all involved in? Why does it take place – beyond, that is, our individual needs to make a living? Backwards and forwards – reciprocal motion, like the pistons in a car engine. The pistons keep the car moving, irrespective of where it’s going, and of course we commuters, busy driving the engine of society, have no more idea than do the pistons where our vehicle is headed.

No doubt that is unfair to some, who have occupations with a very explicit social purpose. But I’d guess that the majority of us work for private companies, and are driven by the profit motive – a force as amoral as the torque of the car engine, which may be propelling the car towards sunlit uplands of some sort – or over a cliff edge. The difference in our case, of course, is that there’s no driver, no consciously directed intention, no steering wheel.

Or is there? Here we could head into either politics or religion, those two traditionally taboo topics of polite conversation. But it’s religion I’m thinking of. A few posts ago I referred to a Bible-reading passenger sitting right next to me on the train. I see such people regularly, and no doubt they are quite clear about the purpose question. But the rest of us?

Winning the argument

It seems as if the atheists are currently winning the argument. Once rather less focused, nowadays they have some strident and articulate standard-bearers. This has perhaps lent some conviction to the waverers among us. There was a time when religion, for most, was more of a social badge. My father, for instance, would unhesitatingly write “C of E” (Church of England) on any form that asked for religion, but would never be seen in a church, other than for weddings or funerals. And this wasn’t hypocrisy: he was quite up-front about his beliefs, or lack of them. More recently, most people would mutter something vague to the effect of “Well, I think there must be something…” if asked the religion question.

But now, surveys and censuses show that there are a many more who will happily call themselves atheists, or at least agnostics. The New Atheists, as they now tend to be called, have got across the message that we don’t need a purpose imposed on us from above – we can formulate our own. We don’t, furthermore, require a God or a scriptural set of rules in order to tell right from wrong. And our sense of wonder has its needs catered for by the impressive discoveries of science.

So I think, on the face of it, I have pretty good credentials as an atheist. I more or less agree with the above statements; I don’t believe in an old man in the sky, or some more diffuse entity of which he is a personification; and creationism seems to me a ragbag of prejudice, ignorance and wishful thinking, as opposed to the coherent and justified body of theory which evolutionary biology gives us. Large, received bodies of doctrine from organised religion I am unable to swallow. So why is it, that if I see, for a example, a TV debate between an atheist and an apologist of religion, I feel myself instinctively sympathising with the religious point of view? (That’s assuming the religious side doesn’t represent creationism, or some swivel-eyed variety of fundamentalism.)

Stop worrying

Could it be the unbearable smugness which seems to hang like a cloud around the atheist programme? Individually, the most vocal atheists seem to be perfectly decent people, and some – for example Dawkins and Hitchens – are (or were) brilliant writers in their different ways. But somehow the public face of the movement seems to patronise us, with its inverted holier-than-thou expression.

That ghastly bus advertising campaign didn’t help: for those who don’t know it, there was an atheist-sponsored poster campaign on London buses a few years back, with the slogan ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. SO STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.’  Of the many reasons why this is objectionable, it’s difficult to pick out the worst. I would go for the fact that many people are worried a lot of the time, and not enjoying their lives, and for whom the existence of god is the last thing on their minds. So to be be dogged by fatuous slogans such as this does not make things any easier for them.

At least the campaign provided us with a bit if fun, when a religious group complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The advertising code of practice lays down that ads must be “Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful’. Well, we can probably get away with the first three here, so that leaves the issue of truthfulness. Which leaves the hapless ASA with the task of ruling on the probability of the existence of God. I have heard of no outcome to this, so perhaps they are still deliberating. Or maybe they judged the probability of the existence of God to be the same as that of Carlsberg being the best lager in the world.

Stuff and experience

No – for me, what is most importantly wrong with the atheist agenda is what it leaves out, what its vision simply doesn’t encompass. There are many aspects to this, so let’s start with the moral one. Of course, we can agree, our morals don’t come direct from the ten commandments. or any other body of doctrine. They come from the fact that we are sentient, conscious beings, who know what it is to suffer, and understand the importance of not inflicting such suffering on other beings – and of promoting their happiness and wellbeing.

That of course, I know, is a massive oversimplification, culturally, historically and emotionally – but it still has at its heart this question of consciousness, of private experience. No scientific theory yet has come anywhere near providing an account of this which can assimilate it into our account of the physical world. There’s ‘stuff’, and there’s ‘experience’. Science deals with the first; morality has more to do with the second. I’d maintain that the question of how, or whether, we can unify our knowledge of the two lies at present outside science, and will remain so unless science becomes a very different kind of enterprise.

These mysteries are, I would maintain, part of what religion is a response to – they are its stock-in-trade, what it is most comfortable with. But for the atheist/materialist agenda it’s necessary to assert that science has either explained them already, or will have them under its belt after some more investigation. I would respectfully disagree – and hope to expand on this in future posts.

Science and Emotion

Commuting days until retirement: 507

heretics-coverFollowing my comments 3 posts ago, my reading on the train over the last week has been The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr. Despite booming bishops and other distractions, I found it intensely readable, and I think it pretty much fulfilled my expectations.

The subtitle about ‘the Enemies of Science’ is perhaps a little misleading: this is not primarily an exercise in bashing such people – you’ll find plenty of other books that do that, and any number of internet forums (and of course I had a go at it myself, in the post I mentioned). It’s an attempt to understand them, and to investigate why they believe what they do. Storr does not treat the enemies of science as being necessarily his personal enemies, and it emerges at the same time that the friends of science are not always particularly – well, friendly.

I was going to say that it’s a strength of the book that he maintains this approach without compromising his own adherence to rationality, but that’s not strictly true. Because another strength is that he doesn’t attempt to adopt a wholly godlike, objective view. Rather, he presents himself, warts and all, as a creature like the rest of us, who has had to fight his own emotional demons in order to arrive at some sort of objectivity. And he does admit to experiencing a kind of bewitchment when talking to people with far-out beliefs. ‘They are magic-makers. And, beneath all that a private undercurrent: I feel a kind of kinship with them. I am drawn to the wrong.’

It’s a subtle approach, and a difficult path to tread, which invites misunderstanding. And one critic who I believe misunderstands is Mark Henderson in the Guardian who, while admiring aspects of Storr’s work, finds the book ‘disappointing and infuriating….  He is like the child who still wants to believe in Father Christmas, but who is just old enough to know better. Life would be more magical, more fun, if the story were true.’  Well here I think Henderson is unwittingly stating the central thesis of Storr’s book: that as humans we are above all myth makers – we have a need to see ourselves as a hero of our own preferred narrative.

This idea appeals to me in particular because it chimes in with ideas that I have come across in an evening course I am currently following in the philosophy of emotion. Writers on emotion quite naturally classify emotion into positive (happiness, love, hope, excitement) and negative (sadness, hatred, anger, fear, etc). The naive assumption is that we welcome the former and avoid the latter if we can. But of course the reality is far more nuanced, and more interesting than that. In the first place is the need of many to pursue dangerous and frightening pursuits, and then of course the undoubted delights of sado-masochism. But much closer to home is the fact that we flock to horror films and emotionally harrowing dramas – we love to be vicariously frightened or distressed. Narrative is our stock in trade, and (as the increasingly popular creative writing courses preach) unless there’s plenty of conflict and resolution, nobody will be interested.


We all have our own unspoken narratives about our own place in the world, and in most cases these probably cast us in a more heroic light than the accounts others might give of us. They help to maintain our emotional equilibrium, and in cases where they are nullified by external circumstances, depression, despair and even suicide may result. And of course with the internet, bloggers like me can start to inflict our own narratives on a bigger potential audience than ever (I wish). And earlier theories of the world are of course entirely myth and narrative laden, from ancient Greek culture to the Bible and the Koran. Our cultural heritage fits around our instinctive nature. (As I tap this passage into my phone on the train, the man immediately next to me is engrossed in a Bible.)  How difficult, then, for us to depart from our myths, and embrace a new, evidence based, and no longer human-centred, story of of creation.

t-rexStorr encounters one of those for whom this difficulty is too great. John Mackay is a genial, avuncular Australian (there’s plenty of footage on You Tube) who has been proselytising worldwide on behalf of the creationist story for some years. In the gospel according to Mackay, everything that seems evil about nature stems from the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Before this there were no thorns on plants, men lived happily with dinosaurs and nobody ever got eaten – all animals were vegetarians. A favourite of mine among his pronouncements is where Storr asks him why, if Tyrannosaurus Rex was a vegetarian, it had such big, sharp teeth. The answer (of course) is – water melons.

On You Tube I have just watched Mackay demonstrating from fossil evidence that there are plants and animals which haven’t evolved at all. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin: if organisms aren’t required by external forces to adapt, they won’t. But of course on Mackay’s time scale (the Earth is of course six thousand years old) there wouldn’t have been enough time for fossils to form, let alone for anything to evolve very much. The confusion here is manifold. For his part, Storr admits to having started out knowing little about evolution theory or the descent of man, and to having taken the scientific account on trust, as indeed most of us do. But his later discussions with a mainstream scientist demonstrate to him how incomparably more elegant and cogent the accepted scientific narrative is.

How objective can we be?

Henderson charges Storr with not giving sufficient recognition to the importance of the scientific method, and how it has developed as a defence of objective knowledge against humanity’s partial and capricious tendencies. But Storr seems to me to be well aware of this, and alert to those investigators whose partiality throws doubt on their conclusions. ‘Confirmation bias’ is a phrase that runs through the book: people tend to notice evidence which supports a belief they are loyal to, and neglect anything that throws doubt on it. A great example comes from a passage in the book where he joins a tour of a former Nazi concentration camp with David Irving, the extreme right wing historian who has devoted his life to a curious crusade to minimise the significance of the Holocaust, and exculpate Hitler. Storr is good on the man’s bizarre and contradictory character, as well as the motley group of admirers touring with him. At one point Irving is seeking to deny the authenticity of a gas chamber they are viewing, and triumphantly points out a handle on the inside of the open door. He doesn’t bother to look at the other side of the door, and but Storr does afterwards, and discovers a very sturdy bolt. You are led to imagine the effect of a modus operandi like this on the countless years of painstaking research that Irving has pursued.

But should we assume that the model of disinterested, peer-reviewed academic research we have developed has broken free of our myth-making tendencies? Those who are the most determined to support it are of course themselves human beings, with their own hero narratives. Storr attends a convention of ‘Skeptics’ (he uses the American spelling, as they themselves do) where beliefs in such things as creationism or belief in psychic phenomena are held up to ridicule. He brings out well the slightly obsessional, anorak-ish atmosphere of the event. It does, after all, seem a little perverse to devote very much time to debunking the beliefs of others, rather than developing one’s own. It’s as if the hero narrative ‘I don’t believe in mumbo-jumbo’ is being exploited for purposes of mutual and self-congratulation. The man who is effectively Skeptic-in-Chief, the American former magician James Randi, is later interviewed by Storr, and comes across as arrogant and overbearing, admitting to sometimes departing from truthfulness in pursuit of his aims.

If scientists, being human, are not free of personal mythology, could this work against the objectivity of the enterprise? I think it can, and has. Some examples come to mind for me. The first is Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician in the early to mid 19th century. In the days before Pasteur and the germ theory of infection, he was concerned by the number of maternal deaths in his hospital from what was called ‘puerperal fever’. This seemed to be worse in births attended by doctors, rather than midwives. In a series of well executed investigations, he linked this to doctors who had come to the maternity ward after performing post-mortems, and further established that hand-washing reduced the incidence of the disease. But the notion that doctors themselves were the cause did not meet with approval: an obvious clash with the hero narrative. Semmelweis’s findings were contemptuously rejected, and he later suffered a breakdown and died in an asylum. A similar example is the English Victorian physician John Snow, who in a famous investigation into cholera in Soho, conclusively showed it to be spread via a water-pump, in contradiction with the accepted ‘miasma’ theory of airborne infection. He further linked it to pollution of the water supply by sewage – but something so distasteful was a conclusion too far for the Victorian narratives of human pride and decency, and the miasma theory continued to hold sway.

Both these examples of course come from medicine, where conclusive and repeatable results are harder to come by, and easier to contest. So let’s go to the other extreme – mathematics. You would think that a mathematical theorem would be incontrovertible, at least on grounds of offending anyone’s personal sensibilities. But around the turn of the 20th century Georg Cantor’s work on set theory led him to results concerning the nature of infinity. The consequent attacks on him by some other mathematicians, often of the most ad hominem kind, calling him a charlatan and worse, showed that someone’s personal myths were threatened. Was it their religious beliefs, or the foundations of mathematics on which their reputations depended? I don’t know – but Cantor’s discoveries are nowadays part of mainstream mathematics.

Modern heresy

My examples are from the past, of course: I wanted to look at investigators who were derided in their time, but whose discoveries have since been vindicated. If there are any such people around today, their vindication lies in the future. And there is no shortage of heterodox doctrines, as Storr shows. Are any of them remotely plausible? One interesting case is that of Rupert Sheldrake, to whom Storr gives some space. He has an unimpeachable background of education in biology and is a former Cambridge fellow. But his theory of morphic fields – mysterious intangible influences on biological processes – put him beyond the pale as far as most mainstream scientists are concerned. Sheldrake, however, is adamant that his theory makes testable predictions, and he claims to have verified some of these using approved, objective methods. Some of them concern phenomena known to popular folk-lore: the ability to sense when you are being stared at, and animals who show correct anticipation of their absent owners returning home. I can remember when we played games with the former when I was at school – and it seemed to work. And I have read Sheldrake’s book on the latter, in which he is quite convincing.

But I have no idea whether these ideas are truly valid. Storr tells of a few cases where regular scientists have been prepared to try and repeat Sheldrake’s results with these phenomena, but most degenerate into arcane wrangling over the details of experimental method, and no clear conclusions emerge. What is clear to me is that most orthodox scientists will not even consider, publicly, such matters, since doing so is seen as career suicide. Is this lack of open-mindedness also therefore a lack of objectivity? Lewis Wolpert is quoted in Storr’s book: ‘An open mind is a very bad thing – everything falls out’, a jibe repeated by Henderson. You could retort that the trouble with a closed mind is that nothing gets in.  There is a difficult balance to find here: of course a successful scientific establishment must be on its guard against destructive incursions by gullibility and nonsense.  On the other hand, as we have seen, this becomes part of the hero narrative of its practitioners, and may be guarded so jealously that it becomes in some cases an obstacle to advances.

Sheldrake tells Storr that his theories in no way destroy or undermine established knowledge, but add to it. I think this is a little disingenuous of him. If we have missed something so fundamental, it would imply that there is something fundamentally wrong about our world-view. Well of course it would be arrogant to deny that there is anything at all wrong with our world-view (and I think there is plenty – something to return to in a later post). But Storr’s critic Henderson is surely right in holding that, in the context of a systematically developed body of knowledge, there is a greater burden of proof on the proponent of the unorthodox belief than there is on the the opponent. Nevertheless, I agree with Storr that the freedom to promote heterodox positions is essential, even if most of them are inevitably barmy. It’s not just that, as Storr asserts near the end of the book, ‘wrongness is a human right’. Occasionally – just very occasionally – it is right.