Unpleasant Genius: James Gleick’s Isaac Newton

Newton is such a foundational figure for physicists that it’s difficult to imagine him as an actual human being. The paucity of biographical documents and his own reclusiveness and penchant for secrecy exacerbate this problem. Then there’s the centuries-long poetic redefinition of who he was and what he meant to human knowledge that further obscures things; the story of the apple (which isn’t true) illustrates how the real man is now all but obliterated by the myth.

Gleick, as usual, does an excellent job of cutting through to what we actually know about the situation. It’s not a coincidence that this is small book; the story of Isaac’s childhood is over in the first twenty pages since we know so little about it. He was incredibly curious and precocious, trying to ferret out knowledge for himself and given to measuring anything he could get his hands on. He was born to be a farmer, but through lucky interventions by adults was sent to Cambridge to study, something that must have been a rare privilege for his place and time.

The story of the apple (which isn’t true) illustrates how the real man is now all but obliterated by the myth.

It’s worth pausing here to mention comparisons with another foundational figure, George Washington. Both men were born into farming but became vastly more than that, revolutionizing their (professional) fields and later, the entire world. Fruit trees figure prominently and falsely in the myths of both men. Renouncing the world and rejecting public honors are strong themes in the lives of both — Newton’s refusal to publish his work for years, Washington’s resignation and refusal to become a king — although both later came to positions of great power, as president of the Royal Society and the United States, respectively. A strange but compelling connection.

Newton’s middle years seem to mostly be a story of extreme social isolation — he was a reclusive and secretive figure even in his cloistered Trinity College — peppered with irregular correspondence with other scientists (a term that hadn’t been invented yet) and mathematicians that he seems to have largely regretted. He was completely intolerant of disagreements with his scientific conclusions and hated being challenged or drawn into disputes; his hatred for many other prominent scientists of his day (particularly Hooke and Leibnitz) seems pathological even compared to the pettiness of modern academia.

But despite those frustrations, he also never fully withdrew and cut off ties with the wider research community. He seems to have actively teased other researchers by saying that he had solved important mathematical problems that were bedeviling them, but not revealing the solution. He must have known that this would only invite more scrutiny, not less, but he kept doing it. Something in him hungered for honors and recognition at the same time as something else wanted nothing to do with other people, whom he generally seems to have felt were inferior. Not a single person appears to have won his open intellectual respect, which is unjustified given how many other brilliant minds were at work during his lifetime, whom he knew.

He was completely intolerant of disagreements with his scientific conclusions and hated being challenged or drawn into disputes.

He clearly played dirty when it suited his purposes. He pried loose astronomical observational data from John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, and later published it without approval very much against Flamsteed’s wishes. Given Newton’s refusal to publish his own work, this seems particularly unfair. He wrote anonymous review articles trashing Leibnitz and glorifying himself (although that was going on in reverse as well) and refused to accept that Leibnitz had done any original work on the calculus, contrary to what modern historians of science now believe. He also seemed extremely talented at making enemies; more or less everyone who dealt with him wound up in conflict with him. Although he defined our modern concept of rational scientific inquiry, his pattern of intellectual effort was profoundly emotional, anti-social and self-glorifying. He might possibly be the worst research collaborator in history.

Gleick lays out the story of the writing and publication of the Principia in some satisfying detail. Halley was the key figure in making it actually happen. After the first book (of three) was published, a characteristic Newton-esque battle erupted when Hooke suggested he deserved some credit for the inverse-square law, which he had contemplated, without any evidence or mathematical rigor, a few years earlier. Newton flew off the handle, and deleted any mention of Hooke from the later books. (He nursed this fury for years, and mostly refused to have anything to do with the Royal Society so long as Hooke remained president.)

He might possibly be the worst research collaborator in history.

Halley meanwhile had gotten himself in a bit of a strange position by getting the Royal Society to agree to sponsor the publication of the Principia, but without paying for it. The Society had only published one book before this, the History of Fishes (you can’t make this stuff up) which had been a commercial disaster. Halley would have to front the money for the Principia and get paid in unsold copies of History of Fishes. (For those who complain about excessively-specialized scientific research journals today, this is what the other extreme looks like!)

Lurking behind the weird publication history is a point about language that deserves some closer attention. We take for granted today that words like gravity and momentum are straightforward, and we use them instinctively in many more contexts than pure physics (“I’m going to keep working on this draft because I’ve got some good momentum”). But those words didn’t have clear or fixed meanings in Newton’s day, and the physical concepts he was struggling to articulate remained out of reach of understanding so long as he couldn’t name them.

There’s a powerful whiff of Whorfianism in this — until and unless you can build a vocabulary for physical concepts like gravity and momentum, you can’t fully conceive of them. In part what Newton contributed through Principia is the vocabulary for classical physics/mechanics, which was just as important as the mathematical structure underneath those concepts.

Newton’s contribution to this specific scientific vocabulary also set a profound precedent, namely that a vital part of the process of scientific inquiry is to name or label physical phenomena that we don’t fully understand, and capture the thing in a word. That has been at the absolute heart of scientific progress ever since: a modern physics example is the word “quantum”, which was appropriated and used to define a physical phenomenon still poorly understood when the naming occurred, but which could not be productively investigated and analyzed without a clear and unique name.

There’s a powerful whiff of Whorfianism in this — until and unless you can build a vocabulary for physical concepts like gravity and momentum, you can’t fully conceive of them.

Other examples run the gamut from “evolution” to “virus” to “radiation” — all scientific discoveries that had to be encapsulated in language before human minds could truly grasp, analyze and understand them. We think of Newton as bringing us the mathematics behind foundational physics, but we should thank him equally for establishing the core tenet that language must be at the heart of scientific inquiry, regardless of the specific subfield of science.

In his 50s, Newton gave up Cambridge and his monastic academic life for good (he “left no friends behind” as Gleick notes) to take up the post of the head of the national Mint. He oversaw a standardization and improvement of coins, aggressively pursuing counterfeiters, all the way to executions in some cases (it was a capital offense). This transition is strange and confusing to the modern understanding of Newton, dealing as it does with such practical and applied problems as standard coinage. He also made a huge amount of money (in the sense of acquisition, as well as manufacturing) for the first time in his life. This Newton is almost unrecognizable as the progenitor of the laws of motion, but he poured himself into the work and made a serious contribution to the national economy. This is the period when he received his knighthood, a world away from his cloistered ivory tower.

We think of Newton as bringing us the mathematics behind foundational physics, but we should thank him equally for establishing the core tenet that language must be at the heart of scientific inquiry, regardless of the specific subfield of science.

Gleick concludes with Newton’s final days, when he was still concealing much of his writing on alchemy and other highly non-scientific topics. He died very wealthy (and old: eighty-four) but left no will. His papers were scattered into various private collections, with Keynes recovering some of them in the 1930s. As he put it, Newton was the “last of the magicians”, not truly of the Age of Reason despite his profound role in launching it. This is a sobering thought for a physicist, to see such scientific genius accompanied by irrationality and pre-modern thinking that we would laugh at today. We will have more scientific revolutions in the future, no doubt, but probably none will be sparked by a person of such deeply unscientific bent, regardless of what later ages tried to shape him to be.

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Colin McCormick

Colin McCormick

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Technologist, physicist, energy policy expert. Carbon Direct, Georgetown University, Valence Strategic, Conservation X Labs.