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

Part III. Into the Light

Chapter 43. The Best of All Possible Feuds

For a long while, Newton and Leibniz spoke of one another in the most flattering terms. Newton wrote Leibniz a friendly letter in 1693, nearly a decade after Leibniz had claimed calculus for himself, hailing Leibniz as “one of the chief geometers of this century, as I have made known on every occasion that presented itself.” Surely, Newton went on, there was no need for the two men to squabble. “I value my friends more than mathematical discoveries,” the friendless genius declared.

Leibniz was even more effusive. In 1701, at a dinner at the royal palace in Berlin, the queen of Prussia asked Leibniz what Newton had achieved. “Taking Mathematicks from the beginning of the world to the time of Sir Isaac,” Leibniz replied, “what he had done was much the better half.”

But the kind words were a sham. For years, both rivals had carefully praised one another on the record while slandering each other behind the scenes. Each man composed detailed, malicious attacks on the other and published them anonymously. Each whispered insults and accusations into the ears of colleagues and then professed shock and dismay at hearing his own words parroted back.

The two geniuses had admired one another, more or less, until they realized they were rivals. Newton had long thought of the multitalented Leibniz as a dabbler in mathematics, a brilliant beginner whose genuine interests lay in philosophy and law. Leibniz had no doubts about Newton’s mathematical prowess, but he believed that Newton had focused his attention in one specific, limited area. That left Leibniz free to pursue calculus on his own, or so he believed.

By the early 1700s, the clash had erupted into the open. For the next decade and a half, the fighting would grow ever fiercer. Two of the greatest thinkers of the age both clutched the same golden trophy and shouted, “Mine!” Both men were furious, indignant, unrelenting. Each felt sure the other had committed theft and compounded it with slander. Each was convinced his enemy had no motive beyond a blind lust for acclaim.

Because calculus was the ideal tool to study the natural world, the debate spilled over from mathematics to science and then from science to theology. What was the nature of the universe? What was the nature of God, who had designed that universe? Almost no one could understand the technical issues, but everyone enjoyed the sight of intellectual titans grappling like mud wrestlers. Coffeehouse philosophers weighed in; dinner parties bubbled over with gossip and delicious rumor; aristocrats across Europe chortled over the nastiest insults; in England even the royal family grew deeply involved, reviewing tactics and egging on the combatants. What began as a philosophers’ quarrel grew and transmogrified until it became, in the words of the historian Daniel Boorstin, “the spectacle of the century.”

* * *

Royalty came into the story—and threw an even brighter spotlight on Newton and Leibniz—because of Europe’s complicated dynastic politics. When England’s Queen Anne died without an heir, in 1714, the throne passed not to Anne’s nearest relative but, so great was the fear of Catholic power, to her nearest Protestant relative. This was a fifty-four-year-old German nobleman named Georg Ludwig, Duke of Hanover, a brave, bug-eyed ex-soldier of no particular distinction. In England Georg Ludwig would rule as King George I.

Fond of women and cards but little else, the future king had, according to his mother, “round his brains such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them.” No matter, for Georg Ludwig had the next best thing to brains of his own. He had Europe’s most renowned intellectual, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, permanently on tap and at the ready.

For nearly forty years, Leibniz had served Georg Ludwig (and his father before him and that father’s brother before him), as historian, adviser, and librarian in charge of cataloging and enlarging the ducal book collection. Among his other tasks, Leibniz had labored to establish the Hanoverian claim to the English throne. Now, with his patron suddenly plucked from the backwaters of Germany and dropped into one of the world’s plum jobs, Leibniz saw a chance to return to a world capital. He had visions of accompanying his longtime employer, taking his proper place on a brightly lit stage, and trading ideas with England’s greatest thinkers. Georg Ludwig had a different vision.

By the time of King George’s coronation, Isaac Newton had long since made his own dazzling ascent. In 1704, he had published his second great work, Opticks, on the properties of light. In 1705, the onetime farmboy had become Sir Isaac Newton, the first scientist ever knighted. (Queen Anne had performed the ceremony. Anne was no scholar—“When in good humour Queen Anne was meekly stupid, and when in bad humor, was sulkily stupid,” the historian Macaulay had observed—but she had savvy counselors who saw political benefit in honoring England’s greatest thinker.)

By the time of his knighthood, Newton was sixty-two and had largely abandoned scientific research. A few years before, he had left Cambridge in favor of London and accepted a government post as warden of the Mint. At roughly the same time he took on the presidency of the Royal Society, a position he would hold until his death. Old, imposing, intimidating, Newton was universally hailed as the embodiment of genius. English genius, in particular. Many who could not tell a parrot from a parabola gloried in the homage paid to England’s greatest son. When dignitaries like Russia’s Peter the Great visited London, they made a point of seeing Newton along with the capital’s other marvels.

Newton did not become much of a partygoer in his London days, but his new circle of acquaintances did come to include such ornaments as Caroline, Princess of Wales. King George himself kept a close watch on the Newton-Leibniz affair. His motive was not intellectual curiosity—the king’s only cultural interests were listening to opera and cutting out paper dolls—but he took malicious delight in having a claim on two of the greatest men of the age. King George seemed an unlikely candidate to preside over a philosophical debate. In Germany his court had been caught up not only in scandal but quite likely in murder.

The problems rose out of a tangled series of romantic liaisons. All the important men at the Hanover court had mistresses, often several at a time, and a diagram of whose bed partner was whose would involve multiple arrows crossing one another and looping back and forth. (Adding to the confusion, nearly all the female participants in the drama seemed to share the name Sophia or some near variation.) Bed-hopping on the part of the Hanover princes fell well within the bounds of royal privilege. What was not acceptable was that Georg Ludwig’s wife, Sophia Dorothea, had embarked on an affair of her own. Royal spies discovered that the lovers had made plans to run off together. This was unthinkable. A team of hired assassins ambushed the duchess’s paramour, stabbed him with a sword, sliced him open with an axe, and left him to bleed to death. Sophia Dorothea was banished to a family castle and forbidden ever to see her children again. She died thirty-two years later, still under house arrest.

Through the years Leibniz’s attempts to engage Georg Ludwig had met with about the success one would expect, but the women of the Hanoverian court were as intellectual as the men were crude. While the dukes collected mistresses and plotted murder, their duchesses occupied themselves with philosophy. Georg Ludwig’s mother, Sophia, read through Spinoza’s controversial writings as soon as they were published and spent long hours questioning Leibniz about the views of the Dutch heretic.

Sophia was only the first of Leibniz’s royal devotees. Sophia’s daughter Sophia Charlotte (sister to the future King George) had an even closer relationship with Leibniz. And yet a third high-born woman forged a still closer bond. This was Caroline, a twenty-one-year-old princess and friend of Sophia Charlotte. Leibniz became her friend and tutor. Soon after, Caroline married one of Georg Ludwig’s brothers. When she was whisked off to England in 1714, Caroline became princess of Wales and in time, as the wife of King George II, queen of England. Leibniz had allies in the highest of circles.

But he was stuck in Germany, and none of his royal friends seemed inclined to send for him. From that outpost, he tried to enlist Caroline on his side in his ongoing war against Newton. Their battle represented not just a confrontation between two men, Leibniz insisted, but between two nations. German pride was at stake. “I dare say,” Leibniz wrote to Caroline, “that if the king were at least to make me the equal of Mr. Newton in all things and in all respects, then in these circumstances it would give honor to Hanover and to Germany in my name.”

The appeal to national pride proved ineffective. Newton was all but worshipped in England—as we have noted, Caroline had met him on various grand occasions at court—and the newly arrived king had no desire to challenge English self-regard just to soothe the hurt feelings of his pet philosopher. In any case, King George had his own plans for Leibniz. They did not include science. Leibniz’s chief duty, the king reminded him, was to continue his history of the House of Hanover. He had bogged down somewhere around the year 1000.

The wonders of calculus, and the injustice of Newton’s theft of it, concerned the king not at all. What was life and death for Leibniz was sport for King George. “The king has joked more than once about my dispute with Mr. Newton,” Leibniz lamented.

From his exile in Hanover, Leibniz wrote to Caroline attacking Newton’s views on science and theology. Caroline studied the letters intently—they dealt mainly with such questions as whether God had left the world to run on its own or whether He continued to step in to fine-tune it—and she passed them along to a Newton stand-in named Samuel Clarke. On some questions Caroline wrote directly to Newton himself. Clarke composed responses to Leibniz (with Newton’s help). The correspondence was soon published, and the so-called Leibniz-Clarke papers became, in one historian’s judgment, “perhaps the most famous and influential of all philosophical correspondences.”

But to Caroline’s exasperation, Leibniz persisted in setting aside deep issues in theology and circling back instead to his priority battle with Newton. The princess scolded her ex-tutor for his “vanity.” He and Newton were “the great men of our century,” Caroline wrote, “and both of you serve a king who merits you.” Why draw out this endless fight? “What difference does it make whether you or Chevalier Newton discovered the calculus?” Caroline demanded.

A good question. The world had the benefit of this splendid new tool, after all, whoever had found it. But to Newton and Leibniz, the answer to Caroline’s question was simple. It made all the difference in the world.