Isaac Newton - James Gleick (2004)

Chapter 13. Is He Like Other Men?

AS THE CENTURY BEGAN Bacon had said, “The mechanic, mathematician, physician, alchemist, and magician all immerse themselves in Nature, with a view to works, but all so far with feeble effort and slight success.”1 He sought to prepare the stage for a new type, so far unnamed, who would interpret and penetrate nature and teach us how to command it. The prototype for scientist was not quite ready.

Halley heralded the Principia in 1687 with the announcement that its author had “at length been prevailed upon to appear in Publick.”2 Indeed, Newton, in his forty-fifth year, became a public man. Willy-nilly he began to develop into the eighteenth-century icon of later legend. Halley also wrote an introductory ode (“on This Splendid Ornament of Our Time and Our Nation, the Mathematico-Physical Treatise”). He sent a copy to the King—“If ever Book was so worthy of a Prince, this, wherein so many and so great discoveries concerning the constitution of the Visible World are made out, and put past dispute, must needs be grateful to your Majesty”3—and for easier reading included a summary of the explanation of tides; James II had been Lord High Admiral before succeeding his brother on the throne.

“The sole Principle,” Halley explained, “is no other than that of Gravity, whereby in the Earth all Bodies have a tendency toward its Center.” The sun, moon, and planets all have such gravitation. The force decreases as the square of the distance increases. So a ton weight, if raised to a height of 4,000 miles, would weigh only a quarter-ton. The acceleration of falling bodies decreases in the same way. At great distances, both weight and fall become very small, but not zero. The sun’s gravity is prodigious, even at the immense distance of Saturn. Thus the author with great sagacity discovers the hitherto unknown laws of the motion of comets and of the ebbing and flowing of the sea.

Truth being uniform, and always the same, it is admirable to observe how easily we are enabled to make out very abstruse and difficult matters, when once true and genuine Principles are obtained.4

Halley need not have bothered. James had other concerns. In his short, doomed reign, he was doing all he could to turn England toward Roman Catholicism, working his will on the army, the courts, the borough corporations and county governments, the Privy Council, and—not least—the universities. In Cambridge he made an antagonist of Newton.

The King asserted his authority over this bastion of Protestantism by issuing royal mandates, placing Catholics as fellows and college officers. Tensions rose—the abhorrence of popery was written into Cambridge’s statutes as well as its culture. The inevitable collision came in February 1687, when James ordered the university to install a Benedictine monk as a Master of Arts, with an exemption from the required examinations and oaths to the Anglican Church. University officials stalled and simmered. The professor of mathematics entered the fray—the resolute Puritan, theological obsessive, enemy of idolatry and licentiousness. He studied the texts: Queen Elizabeth’s charter for the university, the Act of Incorporation, the statutes, the letters patent. He urged Cambridge to uphold the law and defy the King: “Those that Councell’d his Majesty to disoblige the University cannot be his true friends.… Be courragious therefore & steady to the Laws.… If one P[apist] be a Master you may have a hundred.… An honest Courage in these matters will secure all, having Law on our sides.”5 Before the confrontation ended, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor had been convicted of disobedience and stripped of his office, but the Benedictine did not get his degree.

Newton chose a path both risky and shrewd. Cambridge’s crisis was the nation’s crisis in microcosm. In England’s troubled soul Protestantism represented law and freedom; popery meant despotism and slavery. James’s determination to Catholicize the realm led to the downfall of the House of Stuart. Within two years a Dutch fleet had invaded a divided England, James had fled to France, and a new Parliament had convened at Westminster—among its members, Isaac Newton, elected by the university senate to represent Cambridge. As the Parliament proclaimed William and Mary the new monarchs in 1689, it also proclaimed the monarchy limited and bound by the law of the land. It abolished the standing army in peacetime and established a Declaration of Rights. It extended religious toleration—except, explicitly, to Roman Catholics and to those special heretics who denied the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. For all this Newton was present but silent. He reported back to Cambridge an argument with numbered propositions:

1. Fidelity & Allegiance sworn to the King, is only such a Fidelity & Obedience as is due to him by the law of the Land. For were that Faith and Allegiance more then what the law requires, we should swear ourselves slaves & the King absolute: whereas by the Law we are Free men.…6

At the nation’s hub of political power, he rented a room near the House of Commons. He put on his academic gown, combed his white hair down around his shoulders, and had his likeness painted by the most fashionable portraitist in London.7 Word of the Principia was spreading in the coffee-houses and abroad. He attended Royal Society meetings and social evenings. He met, and found a kind of amity with, Christiaan Huygens, now in London, and Samuel Pepys, the Royal Society’s president, as well as a young Swiss mathematician and mystic, Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, and John Locke, the philosopher in most perfect harmony with the political revolution under way. Huygens still had reservations about the Principia’s resort to mysterious attraction, but none about its mathematical rigor, and he promoted it generously. Huygens’s friend Fatio converted with loud enthusiasm to Newtonianism from Cartesianism. Fatio began serving as an information conduit between Newton and Huygens and took on the task of compiling errata for a revised edition of the Principia. Newton felt real affection for this brash and hero-worshiping young man, who lodged with him increasingly in London and visited him in Cambridge.

Locke had just completed a great work of his own, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and saw the Principia as an exemplar of methodical knowledge. He did not pretend to follow the mathematics. They discussed theology—Locke amazed at the depth of Newton’s biblical knowledge—and these paragons of rationality found themselves kindred spirits in the dangerous area of anti-Trinitarianism. Newton began to send Locke treatises on “corruptions of Scripture,” addressing them stealthily to a nameless “Friend.” These letters ran many thousands of words. You seemed curious, Newton wrote, about the truth of the text of 1 John 5:7: “the testimony of the three in heaven.” This was the keystone, the reference to the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost. Newton had traced the passage through all ages: interpretation of the Latins, words inserted by St. Jerome, abuses of the Roman church, attributions by the Africans to the Vandals, variations in the margins. He said he placed his trust in Locke’s prudence and calmness of temper. “There cannot be a better service done to the truth then to purge it of things spurious,”8 he said—but he nonetheless forbade Locke to publish this dangerous nonconformist scholarship.

In disputable places I love to take up with what I can best understand. Tis the temper of the hot and superstitious part of mankind in matters of religion ever to be fond of mysteries, & for that reason to like best what they understand least.

Meanwhile Pepys, who found his own mysteries in London’s clubs and gaming tables, came to Newton for advice on a matter of recreational philosophy: “the Doctrine of determining between the true proportions of the Hazards incident to this or that given Chance or Lot.” He was throwing dice for money and needed a mathematician’s guidance. He asked:

A—has 6 dice in a Box, with which he is to fling a 6.

B—has in another Box 12 Dice, with which he is to fling 2 Sixes.

C—has in another Box 18 Dice, with which he is to fling 3 Sixes.

   Q. whether B & C have not as easy a Taske as A, at even luck?9

Newton explained why A has the best odds and gave Pepys the exact expectations, on a wager of £1,000, in pounds, shillings, and pence.

All these men maneuvered via friendly royal connections to seek a decorous and lucrative appointment for Newton in the capital. He pretended to demur—“the confinement to the London air & a formal way of life is what I am not fond of”10—but these plans tempted him.

London had flourished in the quarter-century since the plague and the fire. Thousands of homes rose with walls of brick, Christopher Wren designed a new St. Paul’s Cathedral, streets were widened and straightened. The city rivaled Paris and Amsterdam as a center of trading networks and a world capital of finance. England’s trade and manufacturing were more centralized at one urban focus than ever before or since. News-papers appeared from coffee-houses and printers in Fleet Street; some sold hundreds of copies. Merchants issued gazettes, and astrologers made almanacs. The flow of information seemed instantaneous compared to decades past. Daniel Defoe, recalling the plague year, wrote, “We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things,… so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.”11 It was understood that knowledge meant power, even knowledge of numbers and stars. The esoteric arts of mathematics and astronomy acquired patrons greater than the Royal Society: the Navy and the Ordnance Office. Would-be virtuosi could follow periodicals that sprang into being in the eighties and nineties: Weekly Memorials for the Ingenious and Miscellaneous Letters Giving an Account of the Works of the Learned.12

Of the Principia itself, fewer than a thousand copies had been printed. These were almost impossible to find on the Continent, but anonymous reviews appeared in three young journals in the spring and summer of 1688, and the book’s reputation spread.13 When the Marquis de l’Hôpital wondered why no one knew what shape let an object pass through a fluid with the least resistance, the Scottish mathematician John Arbuthnot told him that this, too, was answered in Newton’s masterwork: “He cried out with admiration Good god what a fund of knowledge there is in that book?… Does he eat & drink & sleep? Is he like other men?”14

Its publication notwithstanding, he had never stopped working on the Principia. He was preparing a second edition. He scoured Greek texts for clues to his belief that the ancients had known about gravity and even the inverse-square law. He contemplated new experiments and sought new data for his complex theory of the moon’s motions. Besides correcting printer’s errors, he was drafting and redrafting whole new sections, refining his rules for philosophy. He struggled with the inescapable hole in his understanding of gravity’s true nature. He twisted and turned: “Tis inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should (without the mediation of something else which is not material) operate upon & affect other matter without mutual contact,” he wrote one correspondent. “Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial is a question I have left to the consideration of my readers.”15

He also pretended to leave to his readers—yet wrestled incessantly with—the Deity lurking in his margins. God informed Newton’s creed of absolute space and absolute time. “Can God be nowhere when the moment of time is everywhere?” he wrote in one of many new drafts that did not see light.16 An active, interventionist God must organize the universe and the solar system: otherwise substance would be evenly diffused through infinite space or gathered together in one great mass. Surely God’s hand could be seen in the division between dark matter, like the planets, and shining matter, like the sun. All this “I do not think explicable by mere natural causes but am forced to ascribe it to the counsel & contrivance of a voluntary Agent.”17 He returned to his alchemical experiments, too.

Whether or not Newton was like other men, by the summer of 1693 he was eating and sleeping poorly. He had lived fifty years. He was unsettled, back and forth between the fens of Cambridgeshire and the London glare. At Cambridge his sinecure remained intact, but he scarcely taught or lectured now. In London he was angling for posts that required the king’s patronage—a position at the Royal Mint, among others—but did not fully understand his own desires. He was uneasy in his relations with his new friends, tenuous though these relations were, after a life with little practice in friendship. Fatio had tormented him by falling ill and foreshadowing his own death—“I got a grievous cold, which is fallen upon my lungs. My head is something out of order.… If I am to depart this life I could wish my eldest brother … to succeed me in Your friendship”—and then by abruptly ending their relationship and returning to Switzerland.18 (Fatio survived sixty years more.)

Sexual feelings, too, troubled Newton’s nights. He had long since embraced celibacy. For this he had devised a rational program:

The way to chastity is not to struggle directly with incontinent thoughts but to avert the thoughts by some imployment, or by reading, or meditating on other things.…

Still, unwanted thoughts came. Ceaseless ratiocination disordered his senses.

 … the body is also put out of its due temper & for want of sleep the fansy is invigorated about what ever it sets it self upon & by degrees inclines toward a delirium in so much that those Monks who fasted most arrived to a state of seeing apparitions of weomen & their shapes.…19

Reclusive though he remained, rumors of Newton’s mental state began to reach places where just a few years earlier his name had meant nothing: Fire had supposedly destroyed his papers. He was in a state of frenzy or melancholy or distemper. His friends had locked him away.20 He had lost all capacity for philosophical thought.

Only Pepys and Locke knew the truth. They received accusatory, delusional, and then pitiable letters. First Newton wrote Pepys:

 … for I am extremely troubled at the embroilment I am in, and have neither ate nor slept well this twelve month, nor have my former consistency of mind. I never designed to get anything by your interest, nor by King James favour, but am now sensible that I must withdraw from your acquaintance, and see neither you nor the rest of my friends any more.…

Then Locke:


Being of opinion that you endeavoured to embroil me with woemen & by other means I was so much affected with it as that when one told me you were sickly and would not live I answered twere better you were dead.… I beg your pardon also for saying or thinking that there was a designe to sell me an office, or to embroile me. I am

your most humble & most

unfortunate Servant

Is. Newton21

Sex and ambition—all embroiled. Madness and genius as well; in the reputation spreading now, these imponderable qualities reinforced each other. Pepys bruited suggestive hints. “I was loth at first dash to tell you,” he wrote one friend. He was concerned, “lest it should arise from that which of all mankind I should least dread from him and most lament for,—I mean a discomposure in head, or mind, or both.”22

Yet by fall Newton delved again into mathematical studies. He was systematizing ancient geometrical analysis: especially the quadrature and construction of unruly curves. He continued to think of this work as rediscovery and restoration. After all, no one had fully plumbed the ancients’ secrets. Lost manuscripts still turned up in dusty collections. There was such grandeur and purity in these old truths, which could burst into life, preserved across the millennium in Arabic as if in amber. “The Analysis of the Ancients,” he wrote, “is more simple more ingenious & more fit for a Geometer than the Algebra of the Moderns.”23 Once again Newton’s own studies, even when they were most innovative, were for himself alone. With few exceptions his treatises remained in the purgatory of his private papers.

At the University of Oxford enthusiastic students (but there were few) could already hear astronomical lectures on the system of Newton.24 Not at Cambridge, however. “We at Cambridge, poor Wretches, were ignominiously studying the fictitious Hypotheses of the Cartesian,” one fellow recalled later.25

On the continent of Europe the Newtonian ideas were inspiring philosophers to frantic reformulations of their own theories. “Vortices destroyed by Newton,” Huygens jotted. “Vortices of spherical motion in their place.”26 He debated mechanisms of gravity with the German mathematician and diplomat Gottfried Leibniz, who was rushing to publish his own version of planetary dynamics. “I noticed you are in favor of a vacuum and of atoms,” Leibniz wrote. “I do not see the necessity which compels you to return to such extraordinary entities.”27 Newton’s unmechanical gravity appalled him. “The fundamental principle of reasoning is, nothing is without cause,” he wrote. “Some conceive gravity to signify the attraction of bodies toward the bulk of the Earth, or their enticement towards it by a certain sympathy.… He is admitting that no cause underlies the truth that a stone falls towards the Earth.”28 It look Leibniz another year to brave an approach to Newton himself. He penned a salutation in grand style across a sheet of paper: “illustri viro ISAACO NEUTONO.”29

“How great I think the debt owed you,…” Leibniz began. He mentioned that he, too, had been trying to extend geometry with a new kind of mathematical analysis, “the application of convenient symbols which exhibit differences and sums.… And the attempt did not go badly. But to put the last touches I am still looking for something big from you.” He confessed that he had been looking everywhere for publications by Newton. He had come across the name in a catalogue of English books, but that was a different Newton.

Besides mathematics Newton had returned to the most tortuous unfinished problem in the Principiaa full theory of the moon’s motion. This was no mere academic exercise; given a precise recipe for predicting the moon’s place in the sky, sailors with handheld astrolabes should finally be able to calculate their longitude at sea. A lunar theory should follow from Newton’s theory of gravity: the ellipse of the lunar orbit crosses the earth’s own orbital plane at a slant angle; the sun’s attraction twists the lunar orbit, apogee and perigee revolving over a period of roughly nine years. But the force of solar gravity itself varies as the earth and moon, in their irregular dance, approach and recede from the sun. With a revised edition of the Principia in mind, he needed more data, and this meant calling upon the Astronomer Royal. Late in the summer of 1694 he boarded a small boat to journey down the River Thames and visit, for the first time, Flamsteed in Greenwich. He pried loose fifty lunar observations and a promise of one hundred more. Flamsteed was reluctant, and he demanded secrecy, because he considered these records his personal property. Soon Newton wanted more—syzygies and quadratures and octants, to be delivered by Flamsteed via penny post to a carrier who traveled between London and Cambridge every week. Flamsteed insisted on signed receipts. Newton cajoled Flamsteed and then pressured him. Revealing the data would make Flamsteed famous, Newton promised—“make you readily acknowledged the most exact observer that has hitherto appeared in the world.” But the data alone would be worthless without a theory to give them meaning—“if you publish them without such a theory … they will only be thrown into the heap of the observations of former astronomers.”30 Indeed these men needed each other—Newton desperate for data that no one else in England could provide; Flamsteed desperate for any sign of gratitude or respect (“Mr Ns approbation is more to me then the cry of all the Ignorant in the world,” he wrote that winter)—and before long, they hated each other.

Two struggles continued in parallel: Newton grappled with Flamsteed and with a fiendish dynamical perturbation problem. When the astronomer complained of headaches, Newton advised him to bind his head with a garter.31Finally he learned that Flamsteed had let people know about the work in progress and rebuked him bitterly:

I was concerned to be publickly brought upon the stage about what perhaps will never be fitted for the publick & thereby the world put into an expectation of what perhaps they are never like to have. I do not love to be printed upon every occasion much less to be dunned & teezed by forreigners about Mathematical things or thought by our own people to be trifling away my time.…32

Flamsteed spilled his agony into the margins: “Was Mr Newton a trifler when he read Mathematicks for a sallery at Cambridge,” he railed, and then added, “Persons thinke too well of themselves to acknowledge they are beholden to those who have furnisht them with the feathers they pride themselves in.”33 Flamsteed took some small pleasure in reporting rumors of Newton’s death: “It served me to assure your freinds that you were in health they haveing heard that you were dead againe.” In return, for the rest of Flamsteed’s life, he was a victim of Newton’s implacable ruthlessness.

But Newton’s fear of raising expectations was genuine. He grappled with distortions in the data caused by atmospheric refraction. The gravitational interaction of three disparate bodies did not lend itself to ready solution.

He did ultimately produce a practical formula for calculating the moon’s motion: a hybrid sequence of equations and measurements that appeared first in 1702, as five Latin pages inside David Gregory’s grand Astronomiæ Elementa. Gregory called it Newton’s theory, but in the end Newton had omitted any mention of gravitation and buried his general picture under a mass of details. (He began: “The Royal Observatory at Greenwich is to the West of the Meridian of Paris 2° 19’. Of Uraniburgh 12° 51’ 30”. And of Gedanum 18° 48’.”) Halley quickly reprinted Newton’s text as a booklet in English, saying, “I thought it would be a good service to our Nation.… For as Dr. Gregory’s Astronomy is a large and scarce Book, it is neither everyone’s Money that can purchase it.” Halley hailed the theory’s exactness and hoped to encourage people to use it, but “the Famous Mr. Isaac Newton’s Theory of the Moon” was little noted and quickly forgotten.34

Newton abandoned his Cambridge cloister for good in 1696. His smoldering ambition for royal preferment was fulfilled. Trinity had been his home for thirty-five years, but he departed quickly and left no friends behind.35 As he emphatically told Flamsteed, he was now occupied by the King’s business. He had taken charge of the nation’s coin.