Pictures of Isaac.

I have recently finished reading the book Recreating Newton1 by my Whewell’s Ghost co-blogger Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt and I have decided to write a brief review of her efforts2. The book based on Ms Higgitt’s doctoral thesis deals with the changing perceptions of Isaac Newton in the historical literature in the first half of the 19th century. What at first look sounds like a subject of fairly limited interest turns out to be a fascinating journey from the largely mythical hagiographical image of England greatest science icon created in the 18th century towards a deeply researched, fact based picture of the real Isaac Newton, warts and all by the middle of the 19th.

First of all I will simply say that this is a truly excellent book with which I can find no fault, at least none that is attributable to its author. I do however have two points of disagreement with the publishers both of them probably moot points but I shall state them anyway. The first, as unfortunately all too often with academic books, is the price, weighing in at £60 (Amazon, UK), €84,99 (Amazon, Germany) and $99 (Amazon America) for an octavo volume of not quite 200 pages plus notes, bibliography and index it is just too expensive. This is a highly readable and interesting book and it should in this age of computerised publishing be possible to make it available at a price that a normal reader would consider paying. By setting the price so high the publishers claim that academic books don’t sell will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. At this price even my university library, which has a remarkable collection of literature on Newton including first editions of the works discussed by Ms Higgitt, probably wont buy a copy in this age of budget cuts and expenditure restraints. At the time of writing there are only five copies available in the German inter-library loan system three years after publication.

My second point concerns those notes, bibliography and index or what is known as the academic apparatus. On page 118 the author writes, “De Morgan’s ‘References for the History of Mathematical Sciences’ gives further insights into what he considered good history. He admired books that referred to primary materials, had clear accurate references and that provided a good index.” De Morgan would have loved this book. All quote and paraphrases are scrupulously sourced and the sources are given in accurate detail in the endnotes, all sources used also being listed in the extensive bibliography. I would add the index is also extensive and as far as I can tell accurate. I could do a whole post on books that have caused me extreme anguish because the page number given in the index for a particular theme was wrong! However I do have a quibble and that is endnotes. I’m one of those readers who reads the notes whilst I am reading the text often also referring to the bibliography at the same time to check the full details of a source given in the notes with just author and year; this means that I’m permanently flipping back and fourth within the book whilst I read. Footnotes3 instead of endnotes make life much more comfortable for me and in this age of text formatting computers are no more difficult to produce than endnotes so why the hell have the majority of academic publishers abandoned the footnote for the endnote?

Back to the book, Ms Higgitt reviews the, mostly English, biographies of Newton that appeared between 1820 and 1870 and shows how new methods of research and the use of new sources led to an almost complete revision of the historical image of Isaac Newton, very much laying the foundation stones for the currently accepted perception of the man. This analysis is not just conducted on the texts themselves but shows very clearly how these researches were motivated and directed by the external concerns of the authors. The disputes over the nature of light, wave or particular, the then actual discussion on the decline of science, in particular in Britain, the associated discussion on the scientific institutions in Britain, Royal Society, Royal Astronomical Society etc., theological concerns this being the age of religious emancipation in Britain, the very lively debate of the age on the nature of genius and half a dozen other contemporary topics. The author also uses the development of the Newton biographies to demonstrate how the biographers in their attempts to prove that their Newton was the one and only true Newton developed and utilised the modern methods of historiographical research. Interestingly at the same time showing that British historians of science were already utilising the methodologies supposedly invented by the so-called father of historiography Ranke before his work had become known in Britain.

This is a deeply researched and complex book that juggles half a dozen themes, skilfully weaving them together into a fascinating and stimulating narrative. Although always correctly academic and never superficial the author manages to present her arguments in a style that is very readable and highly enjoyable, for those unlike myself who are not too concerned with the endnotes, this book, although serious history, can be read as popular history of science and many authors of such books could do worse than to take Ms Higgitt as a role model.

In her conclusion the author writes, “This book was not conceived as a contribution to the modern field of Newton studies. While it does unpick the original appearance of various stories and sources that have become standard in any consideration of his life, it is not concerned with understanding Newton or his thoughts. The primary concern was to use the writings of Newton as a means of revealing nineteenth-century attitudes regarding the role of science and its practitioners within contemporary society. Developing from this research, however, was an appreciation of the innovations within both scientific biography and historical practice that these writings represent.” She has perfectly captured the essence of her book in these few lines and her book more than adequately fulfils her ‘primary concern’. I would unreservedly recommend this book to anybody with a serious interest in the biography of Isaac Newton, the development of (British) science in the nineteenth century or the historiography of science all of them can only profit from reading this excellent tome.

1)    Recreating Newton: Newtonian Biography and the Making of Nineteenth-Century History of Science, Rebekah Higgitt, Pickering & Chatto, London, 2007.

2)    I am strangely qualified to review this book, as two of my serious excursions into the history of science are/were extensive researches into the life and work of Isaac Newton and research into the history of British algebra of logic in the nineteenth- century. I have actually read and studied a large number of Newton biographies including several of those dealt with by Rebekah. At first glance it may seem the nineteenth-century Newton studies and the algebra of logic have little in common but appearance deceive. Like Rebekah I am more of an external than internal historian of science that is I research the social, cultural, economic etc environments in which science is created rather than the content that the scientists generate. In fact the research project in which I worked for several years was titled ‘social history of formal logic’. The time and milieu in which the algebra of logic was created is exactly the same as that researched by Rebekah in fact reading her book awoke a lot of half forgotten memories. There are even closer connections in the person of De Morgan who is one of the principle agents in Rebekah’s book and who was one of my main research objects. I too researched the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, of which De Morgan was a prominent member, and whose English translation of Biot’s Newton biography starts Rebekah’s journey. I even researched in my study of De Morgan his dispute with Sir David Brewster on details of the Newton biography that forms the central part of Recreating Newton. There are other parallels as well but I will stop here before this footnote becomes longer than the main text.

3)    An interesting discussion of the footnote can be found in The Footnote a Curious History, Anthony Grafton, Faber & Faber, London, 1997. A book that I would heartily recommend to all lovers of intellectual trivia.

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Newton

10 responses to “Pictures of Isaac.

  1. Pingback: Pictures of Isaac. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Whether it is a fact or an assumption, publishers believe that most readers hate and loathe footnotes. I suspect they’re right. A quick perusal of the best seller list will reveal that most of the books that adults actually read are just children’s books with mature themes. Hence the insistence that the substance of every nonfiction book be swathed in yards and yards of human interest and other purportedly motivating stuff and the equally stringent requirement that the tender reader be spared any hint of the difficulty of the subject or the existence of warring opinions. By these rules, endnotes are OK because their existence makes the readers think they are dealing with a serious tome without saddling them with the inconvenience of examining the evidence.

    I don’t mean to be puritanical about all this. When college educated people ignore challenging books in favor of pap, they miss out on some deeply entertaining works and I think that’s a shame even on a purely hedonistic accounting.

    • Even if you’re right and assuming that the publishers are right I’m actually talking about academic books here i.e. books writen by scholars for scholars who one assumes are actually interested in the notes!?

      For me a nonfiction book is a link in an infinite chain mail of knowledge and an author has achieved his/her purpose if he/she leads me on my way to another link. That is if the author stimulates me to read and study further for which I need the notes and bibliography!

      • I don’t disagree with you about scholarly books: I’ve cursed the need to flip back and forth to the endnotes for years and reckon that the notes are still at the back of technical works as much out of the inertia of tradition as for any other reason. Thing is, though, academic books find non-professorial readers or so the publishers certainly hope they do. For that matter, I’d like to see serious work reach a larger audience too since, as I pointed out above, high level books are often extremely readable and artful. You often hear that there is not much of a tradition of haute vulgarisation in English, but it seems to me that lots of works appear that we don’t count in this category, not because they are inapproachable by educated lay people but simply because educated lay people aren’t in the habit of approaching them. No doubt pedantry, which has long been associated with footnotes, is something people find repellent; but pedantry, a vain obsession with trifles, is precisely something that good scholars avoid.

  3. Rebekah Higgitt

    Too kind, Thony! Thank you. I completely agree about endnotes – I really don’t see the point. Footnotes are essential if they contain something pertinent to a particular place in the text, or it’s even just useful to know with a quick glance that the note is simply a page reference and need not further interrupt your reading. The index was all my own work, so any errors there all my own too.

    Have you published your work on 19th-century British algebra? I’d love to hear more.

  4. Pingback: A lover of paradoxes | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  5. Pingback: The day that Francis died: Taking Isaac down a peg or two. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  6. José

    May I suggest that today books can be self-published, which may solve both problems of price and footnotes, as all is in the hands of the author. It should be seriously considered for scholar books.
    I would like to read that book that appears to be very interresting but indeed what a steep price !

  7. Pingback: Grumpy old astronomers behaving badly or don’t just blame Isaac! | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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