Newton’s Dotage

Sean Carroll has written a review* of Tom Levenson’s new book “Newton and the Counterfeiter” at Cosmic Variance. Fairly near the beginning of what is a very positive assessment he writes the following:

Most contemporary physicists have heard that Newton eventually left Cambridge and more or less turned his back on scientific research, to take up activities in later life that we associate with varying degrees of disreputability: alchemy, religious studies, taking a bureaucratic position at the Royal Mint, using the Royal Society to attack his scientific rivals. Lots of us shrug and agree that many older scientists do all sorts of crazy things, and don’t wonder too much about the details.

Now at least he got the fact right that Newton at the time was an older scientist; when he became Warden of the Mint he was already 54 years old, an age at which most mathematicians and physicists have their best work behind them and as Sean says go on to do a wide range of other things. However a large part of his statement is fundamentally and significantly wrong and it is wrong in a way that one sees repeated very often by people who are ignorant of the details of Newton’s life and work. This being the case I shall now point out a couple of common ‘myths of science’ concerning Newton that Sean perpetuates here.

Newton’s obsession with religion, and he was well and truly obsessed, was in no way a product of his later or post scientific life but began at the latest in 1662 when he was still an undergraduate and suffered some form of religious crisis. Throughout the 1670s, probably the scientifically most productive years of his life, Newton devoted far more time and effort to his religious studies than he did to his science. Far from being a product of his old age Newton’s occupation with religion, a subject on which he wrote substantially more than he ever wrote on science, was a, and probably ‘the’, central theme of his entire life.

In the case of alchemy, the claim that these studies were carried out after his conventional scientific life had stopped is even more false than with religion. Newton’s alchemical investigations began sometime in the late 1660s and occupied a substantial part of his time and energy for many years finally ceasing when he moved to London in 1696 to become Warden of the Mint. He did not retire from science to become an alchemist; his alchemical investigations were a central part of his efforts as an active scientist. In fact Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs has show in her two excellent books on Newton the alchemist that alchemy played an important role in the shaping of Newton’s scientific thought, as Levenson writes in the ‘Acknowledgments’ of his book:

Last, I want to draw special attention to Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, who did so much to rehabilitate Newton’s alchemy as an integral part of the totality of Newton’s thought, science, faith, and motivation. Levenson, “Newton and the Counterfeiter”, p. 250.

A last point concerning Newton’s time in London is to what extent he gave up, or turned his back on, science. While it is true that Newton produced little or no revolutionary new ideas after his move to London and given the vast quantity that he had produced before he went there it is only the mean spirited who could criticise him for that; he did however produce a significant amount of scientific activity. He first published his ground breaking ‘Optics’ in 1704 and went on to produce two further revised and extended edition before his death. He also produced two further revised and extended edition of the ‘Principia’ after moving to London. In the same period he acquired a small court of leading young mathematicians such as David Gregory, Abraham DeMoivre, Colin Maclaurin and Brook Taylor to whom he imparted the contents of his vast collection of never published mathematical manuscripts on which they built their own not insubstantial careers.

After the unequalled and incomparable scientific phase of his life Newton did not abandon science for religion and alchemy, both of which had been central and key elements of that phase, but went on to become a senior statesman of science publishing in two great classics the fruits of his labours in physics and passing on orally and by private communication, as a sort of mathematical guru, his epoch making discoveries in algebra and analysis.

*I too will post my own take on Mr Levenson’s new tome when I have finally found time to read it. My newly delivered copy is sitting on the table waiting for me to start. I shall be posting a review of the book’s subtitle soon!?

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