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

Part III. Into the Light

Chapter 38. The Miracle Years

Both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz had egos as colossal as their intellects. In the hunt for calculus, each man saw himself as a lone adventurer in unexplored territory. And then, unbeknownst to one another, each gained the prize he sought. Each saw his triumph not as that of a runner bursting past a pack of rivals but as that of a solo mountain climber. They had won their way to a summit, moreover, that no one else even knew existed. Or so they both believed.

Imagine, then, the exultation that each man felt when he planted his flag in the ice and gazed out at the panorama before him, a landscape that extended as far as the eye could see. Picture, too, the pride and satisfaction that came with lone ownership of this vast and beckoning domain. And then imagine the morning when that proprietary delight gave way to shock and horror. Imagine the first glimpse of a puff of smoke in the distance—fogsurelyfor how could anyone have built a fire in this emptiness?—and then, soon after, the unmistakable sight of someone else’s footprints in the snow.

Newton had been the first to learn how to pin down the mysterious infinitesimals that held the key to explaining motion. He kept his discoveries secret from all but a tiny circle for three decades. Victimized by his own temperament—Newton was always torn between indignation at seeing anyone else get credit for work he had done first and fury at the thought of announcing his findings and thereby exposing himself to critics—he might have hesitated forever. As it was, his delay in staking his claim led to one of the bitterest feuds in the history of science.

Newton made his mathematical breakthroughs (and others just as important) in a fever of creativity that historians would later call the “miracle years.” He spent eighteen months between 1665 and 1667 at his mother’s farm, hiding from the plague that had shut Cambridge down. Newton was twenty-two when he returned home, undistinguished, unknown, and alone.

Intellectually, though, he was not entirely on his own. Calculus was in the air, and such eminent mathematicians as Fermat, Pascal, and Descartes had made considerable advances toward it. Newton had attended mathematical lectures at Cambridge; he had bought and borrowed a few textbooks; he had studied Descartes’ newfangled geometry with diligence.

What sparked his mathematical interest in the first place he never said. We can, however, pin down the time and place. Every August, Cambridge played host to an enormous outdoor market called Stourbridge Fair. In row upon row of tents and booths, merchants and hawkers sold clothes, dishes, toys, furniture, books, jewelry, beer, ale, and, in the horrified words of John Bunyan, “lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts.” Newton steered well clear of the swarms of whores, jugglers, and con men. (He had given a good deal of thought to temptation, sexual temptation above all, and had fashioned a strategy. “The way to chastity is not to struggle directly with incontinent thoughts,” he wrote in an essay on monasteries and the early church, “but to avert ye thoughts by some employment, or by reading, or meditating on other things.”)

Newton made two purchases. They seemed innocuous, but they would revolutionize the intellectual world. “In ’63 [Newton] being at Stourbridge fair bought a book of astrology to see what there was in it,” according to a young admirer who had the story from Newton himself. Perhaps in the same year—scholars have not settled the matter—he bought a trinket, a glass prism. Children liked to play with prisms because it was pretty to see how they caught the light.

The astrology book had no significance in itself, but it helped change history. Newton “read it ’til he came to a figure of the heavens which he could not understand for want of being acquainted with trigonometry,” he recalled many years later. “Bought a book of trigonometry, but was not able to understand the demonstrations. Got Euclid to fit himself for understanding the ground of trigonometry.”

At that point Newton’s backtracking came to an end. To his relief, he found that Euclid was no challenge. “Read only the titles of the propositions,” he would recall, “which he found so easy to understand that he wondered how anybody would amuse themselves to write any demonstrations of them.”

Newton turned from Euclid’s classical geometry to Descartes’ recent recasting of the entire subject. This was not so easy. He made it through two or three pages of Descartes but then lost his way. He started over and this time managed to understand three or four pages. He slogged along in this fashion, inching his way forward until he lost his bearings and then doubling back to the beginning “& continued so doing till he made himself Master of the whole without having the least light or instruction from any body.” Every aspiring mathematician knows the frustration of spending entire days staring at a single page in a textbook, or even a single line, waiting for insight to dawn. It is heartening to see one of the greatest of all mathematicians in almost the same plight.

Newton’s pride in finally mastering Descartes’ Geometry had two aspects, and both were typical of him. He had accomplished a great deal, and he had done it without a word of guidance “from any body.” And he had only begun. To this point he had studied work that others had already done. From here on, he would be advancing into unexplored territory. In early 1665, less than two years from the day he had picked up the astrology booklet, he recorded his first mathematical discovery. He proved what is now called the binomial theorem, to this day one of the essential results in all of mathematics.45 This was the opening salvo of the “miracle years.”

Newton’s summary of what came next remains startling three and a half centuries later. Even those unfamiliar with the vocabulary cannot miss the rat-tat-tat pacing of discoveries that spilled out almost too quickly to list. “The same year in May I found the method of Tangents . . . & in November had the direct method of fluxions & the next year in January had the Theory of Colours & in May following I had entrance into ye inverse method of fluxions. And the same year I began to think of gravity extending to ye orb of the Moon. . . .”

Over the course of eighteen months, that is, Newton first invented a great chunk of calculus, everything to do with what is now called differentiation. Then he briefly put mathematics aside and turned to physics. Taking up his Stourbridge Fair prisms (he had bought a second one) and shutting up his room except for a pinhole that admitted a shaft of sunlight, he discovered the nature of light. Then he turned back to calculus. The subject falls naturally into two halves, although that is by no means evident early on. In early 1665 Newton had invented and then investigated the first half; now he knocked off the other half, this time inventing the techniques now known as integration. Then he proved that the two halves, which looked completely different, were in fact intimately related and could be used in tandem in hugely powerful ways. Then he began thinking about the nature of gravity. “All this,” he wrote, “was in the two plague years of 1665–1666. For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematicks & Philosophy more than at any time since.”

Newton was indeed in his prime at twenty-three, for mathematics and physics are games for the young. Einstein was twenty-six when he came up with the special theory of relativity, Heisenberg twenty-five when he formulated the uncertainty principle, Niels Bohr twenty-eight when he proposed a revolutionary model of the atom. “If you haven’t done outstanding work in mathematics by 30, you never will,” says Ronald Graham, one of today’s best-regarded mathematicians.

The greats flare up early, like athletes, and they burn out just as quickly. Paul Dirac, a physicist who won his Nobel Prize for work he did at twenty-six, made the point with wry bleakness, in verse. (He wrote his poem while still in his twenties.)

Age is, of course, a fever chill

that every physicist must fear.

He’s better dead than living still

when once he’s past his thirtieth year.

In the most abstract fields—music, mathematics, physics, even chess—the young thrive. Child prodigies are not quite common, but they turn up regularly. Perhaps it makes sense that if a Mozart or a Bobby Fischer were to appear anywhere, it would be in a self-contained field that does not require insight into the quirks of human psychology. We are unlikely ever to meet a twelve-year-old Tolstoy.

But that is only part of the story. Penetrating to the heart of abstract fields seems to demand a degree of intellectual firepower, an intensity of focus and stamina, that only the young can muster. For the greats, these truly are miracle years. “I know that when I was in my late teens and early twenties the world was just a Roman candle—rockets all the time,” recalled I. I. Rabi, another Nobel Prize–winning physicist. “You lose that sort of thing as time goes on. . . . Physics is an otherworld thing. It requires a taste for things unseen, even unheard of—a high degree of abstraction. . . . These faculties die off somehow when you grow up.”

Nerve and brashness are as vital as brainpower. A novice sets out to change the world, confident that he can find what has eluded every other seeker. The expert knows all the reasons why the quest is impossible. The result is that the young make the breakthroughs. The pattern is different in the arts. “Look at a composer or a writer—one can divide his work into early, middle, and late, and the late work is always better, more mature,” observed Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the astrophysicist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on black holes (and worked into his eighties). Even so, he declared in his old age, “For scientists, the early work is always better.”

At age thirty-five or forty, when a politician would still count as a fresh face, when doctors in certain specialties might only recently have completed their training, mathematicians and physicists know they have probably passed their peak. In the arts, talent often crests at around forty. Michelangelo completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at thirty-seven; Beethoven finished his Fifth Symphony at thirty-seven; Tolstoy published War and Peace at forty-one; Shakespeare wrote King Lear at forty-two. But the list of artists who continued to produce masterpieces decades later than that—Monet, Cervantes, Titian, Picasso, Verdi—is long.

Science and mathematics have no such roster. In the end, the work simply becomes too difficult. Newton would make great advances in mathematics after his miracle years, but he would never again match the creative fervor of that first outburst. Looking back at his career in his old age, he remarked that “no old Men (excepting Dr. Wallis)”—this was Newton’s eminent contemporary John Wallis—“love Mathematicks.”

From his earliest youth, Newton had seen himself as different from others, set apart and meant for special things. He read great significance into his birth on Christmas Day, his lack of a father, and his seemingly miraculous survival in infancy. The depth and sincerity of his religious faith are beyond question, and so was his belief that God had set him apart and whispered His secrets into his ear. Others had studied the prophecies in the Bible just as he had, Newton noted, but they had met only “difficulty & ill success.” He was unsurprised. Understanding was reserved for “a remnant, a few scattered persons which God hath chosen.” Guess who.

He took the Latin form of his name, Isaacus Nevtonus, and found in it an anagram, Ieova sanctus unus, or the one holy Jehovah. He drew attention to the passage in Isaiah where God promises the righteous that “I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places.”

By the end of the miracle years, Newton found himself awash in hidden riches. He knew more mathematics than anyone else in the world (and therefore more than anyone who had ever lived). No one even suspected. “The fact that he was unknown does not alter the other fact that the young man not yet twenty-four, without benefit of formal instruction, had become the leading mathematician of Europe,” wrote Richard Westfall, Newton’s preeminent biographer. “And the only one who really mattered, Newton himself, understood his position clearly enough. He had studied the acknowledged masters. He knew the limits they could not surpass. He had outstripped them all, and by far.”

Newton had always felt himself isolated from others. Now at twenty-three, wrote Westfall, he finally had objective proof that he was not like other men. “In 1665, as he realized the full extent of his achievement in mathematics, Newton must have felt the burden of genius settle upon him, the terrible burden which he would have to carry in the isolation it imposed for more than sixty years.”