Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Isaac Newton

In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times
By Gale E. Christianson

One of my literary heroes, William Blake, implores God to “keep us from single vision and Newton’s sleep.” In my personal list of times to which I would wish to have been witness, Isaac Newton’s Cambridge would rank with my dreams of being present on Alexander’s campaigns. I would love to have seen Newton’s lodgings – his scientific apparatus, experiments in progress, the notebooks filled with musings on religion and alchemy, and the rest of the shabby scene.

Christianson’s biography of Newton deserves every superlative. I savored it from beginning to end, and can think of few more engrossing biographies with which to pass a few winter’s nights. I don’t pretend to know much about either mathematics or physics (I am what an educator several years ago described as innumerate – the mathematical equivalent of an illiterate), still, the evocation of Newton and his milieu is fascinating. In grade school, I won a magnet for knowing the fairy tale about Newton and the apple tree. Later, I was aware that Blake and the Romantics deplored him for taking the mystery out of the rainbow. This was more or less the extent of my knowledge of the man who redefined science at the beginning of the modern age.

Newton was a complex and difficult person who decidedly did not mellow with age. His reticence to publish his most significant discoveries, made when he was a young man, led to others (particularly the philosopher Leibniz) gaining recognition with similar, but later, discoveries. When Leibniz publicized his own discovery of the calculus (which Newton left out of the early editions of the Principia), Newton cried plagiarism, leading to a long, rancorous fight to establish primacy. This was an experience which Newton had more than once, and some of the most outstanding intellects of the day, such as Edmond Halley (of comet fame) and the Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed, learned the bitter lesson which came from crossing Newton.

Newton felt that the great secrets he had become privy to came directly from the Godhead, and that he himself had a singular relationship with the Creator. Small wonder that he could not abide anyone else who, to his mind, infringed upon that relationship. (It is a little known fact that Newton’s religious and alchemical writings, tedious as they are, far exceeded his scientific works.) He was, truth be told, a man who could carry a grudge to the grave.

Personality quirks aside, Newton was quite simply one of the few true geniuses of human history. He refined the scientific method of verification through carefully controlled experiment, he brought about a rejection of Cartesian assertions regarding how objects influence each other through his thoughts on the nature of gravity (although the secret of gravitational attraction still eludes us), he outlined the nature of light and conducted groundbreaking work on optics (through the nauseating conjunction of a knitting needle and his own eyeball). He also, predating Leibniz by several years, did in fact discover the calculus, to the eternal chagrin of generations of high school students. Christianson’s biography, if you can find a copy, is highly recommended.

For insights on Newton’s lifelong preoccupation with alchemy, see the Nova presentation “Newton’s Dark Secrets,” available through Netflix. See also: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/newton/principia.html