Isaac Newton - James Gleick (2004)

Chapter 15. The Marble Index of a Mind

NEWS CAME SWIFTLY from far and exotic lands. Philosophical Transactions reported the discovery of “Phillippine-Islands” and “Hottentots.”1 Thus inspired, in 1726 a Fleet Street printer produced a volume of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, by one Captain Lemuel Gulliver, describing wonderful peoples: Yahoos and Brobdingnagians. At length Gulliver’s travels brought him to Glubbdubdrib, the island of sorcerers, where he heard the ancients and the moderns compare their histories.2 Aristotle appeared, with lank hair and meager visage, confessed his mistakes, noted that Descartes’s vortices were also soon “to be exploded,” and offered up some epistemological relativism:

He predicted the same fate to ATTRACTION, whereof the present learned are such zealous asserters. He said, “that new systems of nature were but new fashions, which would vary in every age; and even those, who pretend to demonstrate them from mathematical principles, would flourish but a short period of time, and be out of vogue when that was determined.”

The shade of Aristotle might think so. Never had human cosmologies come and gone so rapidly, the new sweeping aside the old in scarcely a lifetime. Jonathan Swift had no reason to know that Newton’s would be the one to endure.

It scarcely mattered, Voltaire said cynically. Hardly anyone knew how to read, and of these few, hardly any read philosophy. “The number of those who think is exceedingly small, and they are not interested in upsetting the world.”3 Nevertheless, captivated by Newtonianism, he began to spread the word in his own writing—popular science and myth-making. He told the story of the apple, which he had heard from Newton’s niece. “The labyrinth and abyss of infinity is another new journey undertaken by Newton and he has given us the thread with which we can find our way through.” And he defended Newton from the many French accusers, “learned or not,” who complained of his replacing familiar impulsion with mysterious attraction. He conjured a reply in Newton’s voice:

You no more understand the word impulsion than you do the word attraction, and if you cannot grasp why one body tends towards the centre of another, you cannot imagine any the more by what virtue one body can push another.… I have discovered a new property of matter, one of the secrets of the Creator. I have calculated and demonstrated its effects; should people quibble with me over the name I give it?4

Other memorialists of Newton in England and Europe put on record personal details, of a certain kind. The great man had clear eyesight and all his teeth but one. He had kept a head of pure white hair. He remained gentle and modest, treasuring quiet and disliking squabbles. He never laughed—except once, when asked what use in life was reading Euclid, “upon which Sir Isaac was very merry.” He had died, from a stone in his bladder, after hours of agony, sweat rolling from his forehead, but he had never cried out or complained.5

In England, where new popular gazettes carried curiosities to the countryside, the death of Newton inspired a decade-long outpouring of verse, patriotic and lyrical. He was after all the philosopher of light. Elegists seemed to give him credit for all the colors he had found in his prism, flaming red, tawny orange, deepened indigo. Richard Lovatt posted a poem to the Ladies Diary in 1733:

 … mighty Newton the Foundation laid,

Of his Mysterious Art …

Great Britain’s sons will long his works pursue.

By curious Theorems he the Moon cou’d trace

And her true Motion give in every Place.6

A hero, an English hero, and a new kind of hero, brandishing no sword but “curious theorems.” The connection between knowledge and power had been made. Not all forms of knowledge were equal: the Gentleman’s Magazinecomplained about schools “where the two chief branches of Knowledge inculcated are French and Dancing,” but reported with pleasure that a medal honoring Newton had been struck at the Tower.7 More poetry followed; an enthusiast could bring off a paean in just two lines:

Newton’s no more—By Silence Grief’s exprest:

Lo here he lies; His World proclaim the rest.8

Alexander Pope’s couplet found more readers:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night;

God said, Let Newton be! And All was Light.9

Public lectures and traveling demonstrations went where the written word lacked force. Newton had made claims that could be tested. By computation he pronounced the earth oblate, broader at the equator, in contrast to the egg-shaped Cartesian earth. In 1733 the French Academy of Sciences proposed to settle the matter and dispatched expeditions northward to Lapland and southward to Peru with quadrants, telescopes, and twenty-foot wooden rods. When the voyagers returned—a decade later—they brought measurements supporting Newton’s view. Mastery of the stars and planets empowered the nation’s ships as much as the wind did. Halley showed by example what it meant to believe in Newtonianism. He made dramatic public predictions, computing the path of a certain comet and prophesying its return every seventy-six years; the forecast in itself inspired and disturbed the English long before it proved true. In 1715 Halley anticipated a total solar eclipse by publishing a broadsheet map showing where and when the moon’s shadow would cross England. The Royal Society gathered at the appointed moment in a courtyard and on a rooftop, under a clear sky, where they saw the sudden untimely nightfall, the sun’s corona flaring, and owls, confused, taking to the air. They saw that by predicting celestial prodigies an astronomer tamed them and drained them of their terror.10

As it evolved into a new orthodoxy, Newtonianism became a target. It was continually being disproved, in tracts with titles like Remarks upon the Newtonian philosophy: wherein the fallacies of the pretended mathematical demonstrations, by which those authors support that philosophy are clearly laid open: and the philosophy itself fully proved to be false and absurd both by mathematical and physical demonstration.11 It inspired satires, some deliberate and some ingenuously respectful. One Newtonian convert, the vicar of Gillingham Major, wrote a treatise called Theologiæ Christianæ Principia Mathematica, calculating that the probability of counterevidence to the Gospels diminished with time and would reach zero in the year 3144. A Viennese physician, Franz Mesmer, “discovered” animal magnetism or animal gravity, a healing principle based (so he claimed) on Newtonian principles. He named it after himself: Mesmerism.

But Newtonianism was not yet a word, in English.12 In Italy, an instructive little tract appeared with the title Il Newtonianismo per le Dame, quickly rendered into French and then English as Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explain’d for the Use of the Ladies, in six dialogues, vivid and heroic. It employed the inverse-square law to calculate the power of attraction between separated lovers. And the philosopher wielded a sword after all: “Thus Sir Isaac Newton, the avowed Enemy to imaginary Systems, and to whom you are indebted for the true idea of Philosophy, has at one Blow lopped off the two principal Heads of the reviving Cartesian Hydra.”13

That heroic style went out of vogue soon enough. Now poets do not glorify Newton, but they can love him, or his legend. “Maybe he made up the apple, / Maybe not,” ventures Elizabeth Socolow:

I see the way he thirsted all his life

to find the force that seemed not to be there,

but acted, and precisely.14

For centuries between, the poets doubted him and even demonized him—his calculating spirit, his icy rationality, his plundering of the mysteries they owned. Then Newton was created as much by his enemies as his friends.

Keats and Wordsworth joined the Romantic artist Benjamin Haydon at dinner on a bleak December night in 1817 in his painting-room.15 He showed them his broad, unfinished canvas of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem; in the crowd of Christ’s followers he had painted the face of Newton. Keats ragged him for that and proposed a sardonic toast: “Newton’s health, and confusion to mathematics.” Newton had unweaved the rainbow with his prism. He had reduced nature to philosophy; had made knowledge a “dull catalogue of common things”; had tried to “conquer all mysteries by rule and line.”16 Shelley complained that, to Newton,

Those mighty spheres that gem infinity

Were only specks of tinsel fixed in heaven

To light the midnights of his native town!17

He could not acknowledge that it was Newton for whom the stars had grown to mighty spheres. Wordsworth, too, had an image in mind, cold yet majestic. He saw at Trinity College a statue in the moon’s light:

Newton with his prism and silent face,

The marble index of a mind for ever

Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.18

Loathing Newton most profoundly was the myth-maker William Blake, poet, engraver, and visionary. Blake was born to hate Newton. He loathed him and revered him. When he drew Newton he pictured a demigod, naked and muscular, with golden locks and keen hands. But he also saw an enemy of imagination: the lawmaker and repressor—“unknown, abstracted, brooding, secret, the dark Power hid.”19 Like Leibniz and the Cartesians he feared Newton’s vacuum; unlike them, he believed in it: “this abominable Void, this soul-shudd’ring Vacuum.” He blamed Newton for perfection and rigidity. He blamed him for his very success as a truthseeker. “God forbid that Truth should be Confined to Mathematical Demonstration.”20 He blamed him for departing from the particular by abstraction and generalization. He blamed him for the reason that trumps imagination, and he blamed him for finding knowledge by way of doubt:

(illustration credit 15.1)

Reason says Miracle; Newton says Doubt

Aye thats the way to make all nature out

Doubt Doubt & dont believe without experiment.21

He blamed him for the part he had played—the Romantics began to see this—in the graying of Eden, the industrialization and mechanization; factories dimming the air with smoke. Dark Satanic mills. “The Water-wheels of Newton,” Blake cried:

Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic

Moving by compulsion each other, not as those in Eden, which

Wheel within Wheel, in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”22

Newton had given, and he had taken away. He gave a sense of order, security, and lawfulness. The American Declaration of Independence found Newtonianism, via Locke, and threw it back at the British by citing the laws of nature in its opening sentence. He gave infinite space yet took away the plenitude, for with infinity came the void. He took away mystery, and for some that meant godliness. An ad hoc universe had also been a providential universe.

He was made in myth, this Newton of the poets. No one tried reading the vast storehouse of paper that survived him. The manuscripts, fragmentary drafts, scraps of calculation and speculation, all lay through the generations in the private storerooms of English aristocratic families. The anti-Trinitarian heresies were rumored but still secret. A full century passed before anyone attempted a real biography: the pious David Brewster, who in 1831 honored the nobility of Newton’s genius, emphasized his simplicity, humility, and benevolence, and, though he had seen some of the disturbing manuscripts, declared firmly, “There is no reason to suppose that Sir Isaac Newton was a believer in the doctrines of alchemy.”23

Brewster also stayed clear of the apple, though he had heard the story and paid a visit to the surviving tree at Woolsthorpe. It remained for the poets to ensure the apple’s place in the Newton legend. They knew the apple’s ancient pull: sin and knowledge; knowledge and inspiration. “Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,” Byron wrote—

   for we must deem the mode

In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose

Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,

A thing to counterbalance human woes;

For ever since immortal man hath glowed

With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon

Steam-engines will conduct him to the Moon.24

Success bred confidence. Law triumphed. Newton’s followers and successors created a more perfect Newtonianism than his own, striving for extremes of rational determinism. In post-Revolutionary France, Pierre Simon de Laplace reexpressed Newton’s mechanics in a form suitable for modern field theories—rates of change as gradients and potentials—and then reached for another kind of philosopher’s stone. He imagined a supreme intelligence, a perfect computer, armed with data representing the positions and forces of all things at one instant. It need only apply Newton’s laws: “Such an intelligence would embrace in the same formula the motions of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; nothing would be uncertain, and the future, like the past, would be present to its eyes.”

Philosophers no longer claim him as one of their own. Philosophy absorbed him, beginning with Immanuel Kant, who turned the German tide against Leibniz and his chains of reasoning, theistic proofs, circles of words. Kant saw science as specially successful, knowledge that begins with experience. He brought space and time into epistemology; space as magnitude, empty or not; time as another kind of infinitude; both existing outside ourselves, eternal and subsistent. To explore how we know anything, we begin with our knowledge of these absolutes. Yet afterward, Newton became a quaint figure for philosophers. When Edwin Arthur Burtt wrote his 1924 Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, he first assigned those foundations to Newton and then said, without irony: “In scientific discovery and formulation Newton was a marvelous genius; as a philosopher he was uncritical, sketchy, inconsistent, even second-rate.” He added in passing, “It has, no doubt, been worth the metaphysical barbarism of a few centuries to possess modern science.”25

The Principia marked a fork in the road: thenceforth science and philosophy went separate ways. Newton had removed from the realm of metaphysics many questions about the nature of things—about what exists—and assigned them to a new realm, physics. “This preparation being made,” he declared, “we argue more safely.”26 And less safely, too: by mathematizing science, he made it possible for its facts and claims to be proved wrong.27 This vulnerability was its strength. By the early nineteenth century Georges Cuvier was asking enviously, “Should not natural history also one day have its Newton?” By the early twentieth, social scientists, economists, and biologists, too, were longing for a Newton of their own—or for the unattainable mirage of Newtonian perfection.28

Then science seemed to reject that same perfection: the absolutes and the determinism. The relativity of Einstein appeared as a revolutionary assault on absolute space and time. Motion distorts the flow of time and the geometry of space, he found. Gravity is not just a force, ineffable, but also a curvature of space-time itself. Mass, too, had to be redefined; it became interchangeable with energy.29 George Bernard Shaw declared to radio listeners that Newtonianism had been a religion, and now it had “crumpled up and was succeeded by the Einstein universe.”30 T. S. Kuhn, in asserting his famous theory of scientific revolutions, said that Einstein had returned science to problems and beliefs “more like those of Newton’s predecessors than of his successors.”31 These, too, were myths.

We understand space and time, force and mass, in the Newtonian mode, long before we study them or read about them. Einstein did shake space-time loose from pins to which Newton had bound it, but he lived in Newton’s space-time nonetheless: absolute in its geometrical rigor and its independence of the world we see and feel. He happily brandished the tools Newton had forged. Einstein’s is no everyday or psychological relativity.32 “Let no one suppose,” he said in 1919, “that the mighty work of Newton can really be superseded by this or any other theory. His great and lucid ideas will retain their unique significance for all time as the foundation of our whole modern conceptual structure in the sphere of natural philosophy.”33 The observer whom Einstein and his followers returned to science scarcely resembled the observer whom Newton had removed. That medieval observer had been careless and vague; time was an accumulation of yesterdays and tomorrows, slow and fast, nothing to be measured or relied upon. Time and space had first to be rescued—made absolute, true, and mathematical: The common people conceive those quantities under no other notions but from the relation they bear to sensible objects. Sensible meant crude—wooden measuring sticks and clocks that told only the hour. And thence arise certain prejudices for the removing of which it will be convenient to distinguish them into absolute and relative, true and apparent, mathematical and common. The day, as measured by successive southings of the sun, varied in length; philosophy needed an unqualified measure. It was not only convenient but necessary, in creating physics, to abstract this pure sense of time and space. Even so, Newton left openings for the relativists who followed three centuries behind. It may be, that there is no such thing as an equable motion, whereby time may be accurately measured, he wrote. It may be that there is no body really at rest, to which the places and motions of others may be referred.34

His insistence on a particle view of light did not lead to the modern quantum theory, even if, in some sense, it proved correct. It was Einstein who discovered the equivalence of mass and energy; still, Newton suspected their organic unity: “Are not gross Bodies and Light convertible into one another, and may not Bodies receive much of their Activity from the Particles of Light which enter their Composition?”35 He never spoke of fields of force, but field theories were born in his view of gravitational and magnetic forces distributed about a center: “an endeavor of the whole directed toward a center,… a certain efficacy diffused from the center through each of the surrounding places.”36 Newton also anticipated the existence of subatomic forces by rejecting alternative explanations for the cohesion of matter: “some have invented hooked Atoms, which is begging the Question.” Let others resort to occult qualities. “I had rather infer from their Cohesion, that their Particles attract one another by some Force, which in immediate Contact is exceeding strong.”37 He speculated that such a force—another force, independent of gravity, magnetism, and electricity—might prevail only at the smallest distances.

The infinities, the void, the laws must endure—not a fashion, not reversible. We internalize the essence of what he learned. A few general principles give rise to all the myriad properties and actions of things. The universe’s building blocks and laws are everywhere the same.38

No one feels the burden of Newton’s legacy, looming forward from the past, more than the modern scientist. A worry nags at his descendants: that Newton may have been too successful; that the power of his methods gave them too much authority. His solution to celestial dynamics was so thorough and so precise—scientists cannot help but seek the same exactness everywhere. “A slightly naughty thought can come to one’s mind here,” said Hermann Bondi. “The tools that he gave us stand at the root of so much that goes on now.… We may not be doing a lot more than following in his footsteps. We may still be so much under the impression of the particular turn he took … we cannot get it out of our system.”39 We cannot. What Newton learned entered the marrow of what we know without knowing how we know it.

His papers began to appear in the early twentieth century, when cash-poor nobility sold them at auction and they scattered to collectors in Europe and across the Atlantic. In 1936 Viscount Lymington, a descendant of Catherine Barton, sent Sotheby’s a metal trunk containing manuscripts of three million words, to be broken up and offered at auction in 329 lots. Interest was slight,40 but the economist and Cantabrigian John Maynard Keynes, disturbed, as he said, by the impiety, managed to buy some at the auction and then gradually reassembled more than a third of the collection. What he found there amazed him: the alchemist; the heretical theologian; not the cold rationalist Blake had so despised but a genius more peculiar and extraordinary. An “intense and flaming spirit.” With the papers Keynes also bought Newton’s death mask—eyeless, scowling. At least twenty portraits of Newton had been painted, not all from life; they differ extravagantly, one from another.

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason,” Keynes told a few students and fellows in a shadowed room at Trinity College. “He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”41 The Newton of tradition, the “Sage and Monarch of the Age of Reason,” had to arise later.

(illustration credit 15.2)

He had concealed so much, till the very end. As his health declined, he kept writing. His niece’s new husband, John Conduitt, saw him in his last days working in near darkness on an obsessional history of the world—he wrote at least a dozen drafts—The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended.42 He measured the reigns of kings and the generations of Noah, used astronomical calculations to date the sailing of the Argonauts, and declared the ancient kingdoms to be hundreds of years younger than generally supposed. He incorporated his analysis of the Temple of Solomon and said enough about idolatry and the deification of kings to raise suspicion of his heretical beliefs, but he suppressed those one last time.

In his chambers, after a painful fit of gout, he sat with Conduitt before a wood fire and talked about comets. The sun needed constant replenishment, he said. Comets must provide it, feeding the sun like logs thrown on the fire. The comet of 1680 had come close, and it would return. He said that on one approach, perhaps after five or six more orbits, it would fall into the sun and fuel a blaze to consume the very earth, and all its inhabitants would perish in the flames.43 Yet, Newton said, this was mere conjecture.

He wrote: “To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. Tis much better to do a little with certainty & leave the rest for others that come after you.”44 This sheet of paper, too, he abandoned.

On his deathbed he refused the sacrament of the church. Nor could a pair of doctors ease his pain. He died early Sunday morning, March 19, 1727. On Thursday the Royal Society recorded in its Journal Book, “The Chair being Vacant by the death of Sir Isaac Newton there was no Meeting this Day.”

His recent forebears had used scriveners to draft wills directing the disposition of their meager possessions, principally sheep. When they did not leave such documents, even their names vanished. An early chronicler, researching Newton’s story soon after his death, delved into the Woolsthorpe parish registers of births and burials and found almost nothing: the information “lost, destroyd, or obliterated; for want of care and due preservation.” The national records, he railed, were “the most neglected!… committed to a parish clark, illiterate, that can scarcely write, sottish, or indolent: a task on which the fortunes and emoluments of the whole kingdom in a great measure depends.” In an old town chest, a tattered vellum leaf bore this datum under the heading baptiz’d anno 1642: “Isaac sonne of Isaac and Hanna Newton Jan 1.”45

In eighty-four years he had amassed a fortune: household furniture, much of it upholstered in crimson; crimson curtains, a crimson mohair bed, and crimson cushions; a clock; a parcel of mathematical instruments and chemical glasses; several bottles of wine and cider; thirty-nine silver medals and copies in plaster of Paris; a vast library with nearly two thousand books and his many secret manuscripts; gold bars and coins—the whole estate valued at £31,821,46 a considerable legacy.

Yet he left no will.