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.