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

Part III. Into the Light

Chapter 53. Conclusion

In the year 1600, for the crime of asserting that the Earth was one of an infinite number of planets, a man named Giordano Bruno was burned alive. Bruno, an Italian philosopher and mystic, had run afoul of the Inquisition. Charged with heresy, he was yanked from his prison cell, paraded through the streets of Rome, tied to a stake, and set afire. To ensure his silence in his last minutes, a metal spike had been driven through his tongue.

Almost exactly a century later, in 1705, the queen of England bestowed a knighthood on Isaac Newton. Among the achievements that won Newton universal admiration was this: he had convinced the world of the doctrine that had cost Giordano Bruno his life.

Sometime between those two events, at some point in the course of the 1600s, the modern world was born. Even with hindsight, pinning down the birth date is next to impossible. Still, if we who live in the new world somehow found ourselves transported to Newton’s London, we would have a chance of navigating our way. In Bruno’s Rome we would founder and drown. And since those earliest days, the pace of change has only accelerated. The world has raced ahead, permanently in fast-forward, with science and technology taking an ever more conspicuous spot in the foreground.

In the decades following his death, Newton’s reputation continued to soar. Though gravity remained as mysterious as ever, new generations of scientists built on Newton’s theories to produce an ever more detailed, ever more accurate picture of the universe. Each step forward provided still more proof that Newton had read God’s mind.

Perhaps the most dramatic confirmation came in 1846, when a French mathematician named Urbain Le Verrier looked hard at Newton’s laws, sat down to calculate, and discovered a new planet. This was Neptune, discovered by deduction. Le Verrier and other astronomers of the day knew that the orbit of the planet Uranus was not exactly what theory predicted. The reason, they proposed, was that some unseen planet was tugging it off course. Using Newton’s laws, Le Verrier managed to calculate the vital statistics—the mass, position, and path—of this supposed planet. He sent his results to the German astronomer Joseph Galle. Le Verrier’s letter reached Galle on September 23, 1846. On the same evening, Galle directed his telescope to the spot in the sky that Le Verrier had identified. There, just barely visible, he found Neptune.

Long before Le Verrier, the successes racked up by Newton’s followers had inspired the hope of similar breakthroughs in every field. Just as Newton had discovered the laws of inanimate nature, so would some new thinker find the laws of human nature. A handful of rules would explain all the apparent happenstance of history, psychology, and politics. Better still, once its laws came to be understood, society could be reshaped in a rational way.

America’s founding fathers argued explicitly that the success of the scientific approach foretold their own success. Free minds would make the world anew. Rather than defer to tradition and authority, the new thinkers would start from first principles and build on that sturdy foundation. Kings and other accidental tyrants would be overthrown, sensible and self-regulating institutions set in their place. In the portrait of himself that he liked best, Benjamin Franklin sat deep in thought in front of a bust of Newton, who watched his protégé approvingly. Thomas Jefferson installed a portrait of Newton in a place of honor at Monticello.

As they spelled out the design of America’s political institutions, the founders clung to the model of a smooth-running, self-regulating universe. In the eyes of the men who made America, the checks and balances that ensured political stability were directly analogous to the natural pushes and pulls that kept the solar system in balance. “The Constitution of the United States had been made under the dominion of the Newtonian theory,” Woodrow Wilson would later write. If you read the Federalist papers, Wilson continued, the evidence jumped out “on every page.” The Constitution was akin to a scientific theory, and the amendments played the role of experiments that helped define and test that theory.

Newton’s posthumous influence was overwhelming, but in one respect his triumph proved too complete. Newton would have wept with rage to know that his scientific descendants spent their lifetimes proving conclusively that the clockwork universe ran even more smoothly than he had ever believed. It ran so marvelously well, in fact, that a new consensus quickly arose—just as Newton’s enemies had claimed, Newton had built a universe that had no place within it for God.

The crowning glory of eighteenth-century astronomy was the proof, by the French mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace, that although the planets did wobble a bit as they circled the sun, those wobbles stayed within a narrow, predictable range. Since the wobbles did not grow larger and larger as time passed, as Newton had believed, they did not require that God step in to smooth things out. Laplace presented his masterpiece, a tome called Celestial Mechanics, to Napoleon.

How was it, Napoleon asked, that in all those hundreds of pages, Laplace had made not a single mention of God?

“I had no need of that hypothesis,” Laplace told the emperor.

Newton outlived his longtime enemy Leibniz. “Mr. Leibniz is dead, and the dispute is finished,” a colleague wrote Newton in 1716. It was not finished; even without an enemy, Newton fought on for another six years. For a long while, posterity would treat Leibniz with scarcely more regard. Newton’s achievements were celebrated by the likes of Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth, who composed worshipful verses in his honor. Leibniz had the misfortune to stir the wrath of Voltaire, the greatest wit of his age, who caricatured him in a book still read today.

At least in scientific circles, though, Leibniz’s reputation has grown through the centuries. In every history of logic or computers, especially, his ahead-of-their-age insights now meet with stunned admiration. Even in physics, where his ideas have long since been abandoned, his ambitious dreams still thrive. Today’s physicists toss around such phrases as a “theory of everything.” Leibniz would have felt right at home.

Near the end, Leibniz had received a letter from Caroline, Princess of Wales, his onetime pupil. She sent word that the king might possibly, at last, bring him to England. “Nothing could give me a greater desire to go there than the kindnesses of Your Royal Highness,” Leibniz wrote back, “but as I do not hope to go soon, I do not know if I can hope to go later; for there is not a lot of later to hope for in me.”

Leibniz died in Germany, neglected, nearly alone, and beset by a host of painful ailments. He was buried in an unmarked grave (a marker was eventually added). “You would have thought it was a felon they were burying,” wrote one of the few funeral guests, “instead of a man who had been an ornament to his country.”

Newton’s body lies in Westminster Abbey beneath a marble statue. Perhaps it is fitting that Newton was treated as nearly godlike and Leibniz as merely mortal. “The more I got to know Leibniz,” one recent biographer wrote, “the more he seemed to me all-too-human, and I quarreled with him.” No one ever directed the same complaint against Newton. Leibniz was too human, and Newton seemed scarcely human at all.

In the 1980s, as we have seen, the astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a scientist of towering reputation, went through the Principia line by line in an attempt to probe the mind of his predecessor. “During the past year,” Chandrasekhar told me in a 1987 interview, “I’ve taken proposition after proposition, written out my own proof, and then compared it with Newton’s. In every case, his proofs are incredibly concise; there is not a superfluous word. The style is imperial, just written down as if the insights came from Olympus.”

“If you take great scientists,” Chandrasekhar went on, “even though they made discoveries that one could not have made oneself, one can imagine making them—people say, ‘I could have done that, but I was just stupid.’ Normal scientists can think of greater men, and it is not difficult to imagine doing what they did. But I don’t think it’s possible for any scientist to imagine what it would have been like to be Newton.”

Temperamentally, the gulf was nearly as big as it was intellectually. The usual consolations of life, friendship and sex included, appealed to Newton hardly at all. Art, literature, and music had scarcely more allure. He dismissed the classical sculptures in the Earl of Pembroke’s renowned collection as “stone dolls.” He waved poetry aside as “a kind of ingenious nonsense.” He rejected opera after a single encounter. “The first Act I heard with pleasure, the 2d stretch’d my patience, at the 3d I ran away.”

“If we evolved a race of Isaac Newtons, that would not be progress,” Aldous Huxley once remarked, with a mix of wonder and horror. “For the price Newton had to pay for being a supreme intellect was that he was incapable of friendship, love, fatherhood, and many other desirable things. As a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb.”

Huxley’s notion of a Faustian trade-off smacks a bit of sour grapes, as if to reassure the rest of us that this genius business is not all we imagine it to be. But Huxley was right to emphasize the gulf between Newton and everyone else. Newton’s best biographer, Richard Westfall, told me many years ago that, in the course of examining Newton’s life, he had lived with the man for twenty years. Westfall’s magnum opus, Never at Rest, is a model of insight and empathy, but Westfall lamented that he never felt he knew Newton. On the contrary, Newton came to seem ever more mysterious, not only in intellect but in motives and hopes, fears and ambitions. “The more I learned,” Westfall recalled, “the more I realized how far he was from me, in every regard.” Newton was, Westfall declared, “wholly other.”

Newton’s contemporaries sensed the same gap. When the Principia was new, the Marquis de L’Hôpital, a skilled mathematician, read it with incredulity. L’Hôpital had been pondering a technical question about how streamlined objects move through fluids, and an English mathematician showed him that Newton had worked out a solution in the Principia. “He cried out with admiration Good god what a fund of knowledge there is in that book? he then asked the Doctor every particular about Sir Isaac even to the colour of his hair said does he eat & drink & sleep. Is he like other men?”

In all the important ways, he was not like other men. Perhaps we would do better to acknowledge the gulf than to try to bridge it. At Cambridge, Newton could occasionally be seen standing in the courtyard, staring at the ground, drawing diagrams in the gravel with a stick. Eventually he would retreat indoors. His fellow professors did not know what the lines represented, but they stepped carefully around them, in order to avoid hindering the work of the lonely genius struggling to decipher God’s codebook.