Isaac Newton ,
For the author of Chaos: Making a New Science (Viking Press, 1987) and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Pantheon Books, 1992), it was perhaps natural to turn to the study of the remarkable achievements of Isaac Newton. It was Newton who, arguably, put an end to the last remnants of an Aristotelian universe, which had ruled European minds for well over two millennia. Such attention to Newton comes at a time when the greatest scientific achievements of Western culture are receiving much attention, as any trip to a decent book-store will prove. Note the success, for example, of Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (Walker, 1995), which was subsequently made into a television documentary. Physicists and historians conversant with the triumphs of the icons of the scientific revolution should not sniff at such current, popular interest in science.
James Gleick brings to his biography of Newton a skillful prose and enthusiasm for which the author is already known. For many science writers, skill and enthusiasm may be enough in imparting to readers the brilliance, the significance—even the poetic inspiration—of great intellects at work. However, it seems to me that authors who have such skill at their disposal are obligated to deal with historical reality in ways that will not always flatter their subjects—unless their aim is to expand the limits of hagiography. Much in this biography is highly entertaining and beautifully written, but it has weaknesses that do the reader a disservice.
This short biography reads, in many respects, like an extension of the efforts of John Conduitt, who married Newton’s niece and ultimately became successor to the physicist’s position as master of the Royal Mint. After Newton’s death in 1727, Conduitt immediately sought to enhance the reputation of the great sage, and Gleick appears to be following that lead. For example, according to Gleick, Newton is the one who “effectively discovered gravity,” which might have come as a surprise to those who had debated the concept over the previous 2000 years. Gleick might as well have said that Newton invented gravity.
Gleick’s biography especially glosses over the last phase of Newton’s life, when his conflict was greatest with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over issues that were as profoundly metaphysical as they were mathematical and philosophical. I saw no mention in Gleick’s book of Newton’s disciple, Samuel Clarke, a brilliant metaphysician and translator of the Opticks whose famous correspondence with Leibniz was clearly influenced by Newton. Moreover, when the furor over the invention of the calculus finally did surface, Newton deliberately used his presidency at the Royal Society of London to engineer the famous Commercium Epistolicum, which was launched in 1712 as an assault on Leibniz and those “Leibnizians” who had provoked Newton.
Indeed, both Newton and Leibniz used their acolytes as pawns in a great game; therefore, to propose, as Gleick has, that Newton did not mean “to lead a cult or a school” is disingenuous, because that is precisely what Newton did. The growing antipathy between Newton and the Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed that Gleick barely acknowledges in his book is another example of Newton’s ruthlessness and influence, which led to the Royal Society’s seizing control of Flamsteed’s star catalog. Newton was, as the historian Frank Manuel once described him, an autocrat in early 18th-century science. Gleick, apparently, is not much interested in Newton’s flaws.
Gleick does reveal the inventive Robert Hooke as Newton’s great nemesis during the conflict over the composition of light and over claims to the foundation of universal gravitation. Newton had every right to complain about his treatment by Hooke, especially when Hooke served as secretary to the Royal Society. It was not until Hooke’s death that Newton was chosen as president of the Royal Society and soon knighted.
As much as Newton sought to avoid controversy, he found that it haunted him. His revisions to his influential Opticks contained new “queries” that were effectively hints for future experimental research to be carried on by his disciples. His exploration of the construction of minute bodies created the foundation for further successes of 18th-century chemistry and electricity. However, his vivid description of his optical experiments, notably those with a prism in his rooms at Trinity College in Cambridge, did nothing to convince his enemies of the heterogeneity of white light or, ultimately, of particulate attractions. Even the most transparent descriptions did not make his experiments easy to reproduce, and the failure by many scientists to do so rendered his reputation highly problematic. It was Newton’s first generation of disciples who would prove crucial to enhancing the Newtonian experimental program and ensure his victory over his philosophical enemies.
Gleick is quite right to describe Newtonianism as a growing orthodoxy in the 18th century. However, the author uses a belated example of Anton Mesmer’s claims, in the 1780s, to being a Newtonian. In fact, if “Newtonianism” was not a word in the English lexicon until well after Newton’s death, “Newtonian” certainly was. Many of Newton’s contemporaries knew of Newtonianism as much as they did of Cartesianism and Aristotelianism. Hence, scholars like John Harris, author of the famous Lexicon Technicum, or, an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences: Explaining Not Only the Terms of Art But the Arts Themselves, which was published in 1704, recognized Newtonians as much as the Leibnizians did. That there was a Newtonian experimental program is not a minor point; Gleick, unfortunately, does little to address it.
One could, as some wish, attribute Newton’s success solely to his genius. In one sense, his insights were clearly the work of an obsessive mind equally fascinated with alchemy, metaphysics, theology, and universality. But in another sense, such obsessions stretch the meaning of success for the author of the great Principia, which few read and even fewer understood. Newton’s works—even in the simplest case involving his views on light—were often incomprehensible and controversial. Gleick could have better revealed a Newton who repelled as many people as he had attracted.
Larry Stewart is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada. He is the author of The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660–1750 (Cambridge U. Press, 1992) and numerous papers on the impact of Newtonian science.