The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part I. Chaos

Chapter 12. Dogs and Rascals

The changes took decades to play out, but the contours of the new landscape took shape early on. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, had seen the new world coming even before the founding of the Royal Society. Informal though it was, the Society grew out of a series of even more haphazard gatherings of various experimentalists. In 1655, Hobbes had cast his lot with the new scientists. He invited all men to pursue truth as scientists did, by spelling out their reasoning in ordinary language and by carrying out experiments in public. The method was open to everyone. “If you would like,” Hobbes assured his readers, “you too can use it.”

This was a democratic idea in a world deeply mistrustful of democracies. But something had shifted, and Hobbes had spotted it. Dry-as-dust scholarship in musty archives was out, independent investigation in. Pedigree was beside the point; so were Latin quotations; so were the opinions of ancient authors. Science was a game that anyone could play, which meant that everything was up for grabs. Anyone could propose a new idea, and no idea was exempt from challenge. This is the sense in which the scientific revolution was indeed revolutionary.

Nonetheless, even many who fought on the revolutionary side harbored doubts about the program. Isaac Newton, for one, recoiled at the thought of catering to ordinary, educated readers. He never revealed his writings on alchemy, and though he did publish his greatest work, on gravity, he took enormous trouble to move it as far as humanly possible from anyone’s notion of a “natural way of speaking.” Newton published his masterpiece, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), in the form of an enormously long mathematical argument. Theorem, proof, and corollary follow one another in stately procession as in the world’s most difficult geometry textbook, the austere work unleavened by a word of guidance or explanation. The tone throughout is one of “glacial remoteness,” one modern physicist observes, and “makes no concessions to the reader.”

Many great mathematicians are nearly as hard to follow as Newton. Disdainful of those stumbling after them, they take as their motto Samuel Johnson’s remark that “I have found you an argument, I am not obliged to find you an understanding.”14 Sometimes the motive for presenting work in its finished, polished state is aesthetic, akin to an artist’s careful rubbing out of the grid lines that helped him get his proportions right. But not in Newton’s case. He had “designedly made his Principia abstruse,” he wrote, so that he would not be “baited by little Smatterers in Mathematics.” What others could not grasp, they could not criticize. Those capable of following his reasoning would see its merits.

But Newton belonged with the rebels despite his hostility to them. By temperament the least open of men, it was his ironic fate to advance science so dramatically that new recruits, inspired by his example, came flooding in. The new generation of scientists spoke in ordinary language and published their findings for all to read. They thought they were paying homage to Newton, who would have hated them.

The new approach brought a torrent of progress, but progress had a price. Science became a race run in public, and the first across the line hoisted the trophies. The Royal Society started the first-ever scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions (now in its fourth century). In 1672 the Transactions published a hugely important article, Newton’s report that “pure” white light contains within itself all the colors of the spectrum. The paper, almost as much as the discovery itself, marked a breakthrough. This was, the historian I. Bernard Cohen observed, “the first time that a major scientific discovery was announced in print in a periodical.”

From now on, journals and books would trumpet the news of discoveries and hail the innovators’ genius. The victors won fame and honor. Everyone else was left to sulk and snipe. Many of the early scientists, as it happened, were bad-tempered, ferociously competitive men, which only raised the stakes. And in these early days, no rules of combat had yet arisen. In time, for instance, scientists would establish a system of peer review as the gold standard in their field. Before a reputable journal published a paper, a team of expert, independent, anonymous referees would have to deem it new and significant.

Even today, with such structures long established, science is a contact sport. Early on, the scrambling was far fiercer. Scientific jobs were rare, and self-promotion was an essential skill. Even great scientists had to fit their scientific work into the nooks and crannies of their day, around their “real” jobs as clergymen or doctors or diplomats, or they had to woo princes or other deep-pocketed patrons. Artists and writers had long known the dubious pleasures of patronage. Now scientists learned the same lessons. Patrons tended to be fickle and quickly bored, charmed by wit but put off by rigor.

Making matters worse, science seemed a field designed to stir up feuds. Writers and artists no doubt felt as much hostility toward one another as scientists did, but they had an easier time going different ways. Ben Jonson didn’t have to write a play about a Scottish king and his scheming wife. Science was a race to a single goal. Ready, set, go! Build a clock that works even on a ship careening in ten-foot waves. Find a way to explain why Saturn looks so strange through a telescope. Take a few scattered observations and compute the shape of a comet’s path.

For each question, one winner, many losers. Rivals shouted insults at one another or fumed in silence. Feuds burned on for decades. Isaac Newton and John Flamsteed, the first royal astronomer, hated one another. Newton warred with Hooke, too, and Hooke despised Newton in return, as well as Christiaan Huygens, the great Dutch astronomer, and a dozen more. Hooke denounced his enemies as “dogs,” “raskalls,” and “spies” who had stolen ideas that rightfully belonged to him. Newton and Gottfried Leibniz abused one another with terms that made Hooke’s insults sound loving.

“If I have seen farther than others,” Newton once remarked, “it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” That famous declaration, usually cited as one of Newton’s rare ventures into generosity, was not quite the tribute it appears. Newton’s aim was evidently to praise various of his forebears but also to mock his enemy Hooke, a slight, twisted figure far closer to a hunchback than a giant.

“Nullius in Verba” may have been the Royal Society’s official motto, but the Society’s members were only intermittently high-minded. They would all have understood Gore Vidal’s remark that “it is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”