Isaac Newton: The Last Lone Genius?

The Friday before last, with much advanced publicity, the BBC broadcast a new documentary film biography of Isaac Newton with the title The Last Magician. This phrase is part of a famous quote by John Maynard Keynes, “not the first scientist but the last magician”, describing his feeling upon reading the Newtonian alchemical manuscripts that he acquired at the auction of the Portsmouth family Newton papers in 1936.  This of course together with the advanced advertising for the programme signalled that we were due for a fresh dose of “did you know that Newton was a secret alchemist?” A phenomenon that Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt has blogged on informatively in the past.

Based on quotes from Newton’s own writings and correspondence as well of those of his contemporaries the programme was in its basics factually correct. As usual for BBC historical documentaries it was well-produced and excellently filmed and thus pleasant to watch. The basic structure was the direct quotes being spoken by actors in costume and commented upon by five more or less experts. These were the historians of science Rob Iliffe head of the Newton Papers editing project and a genuine Newton expert, Patricia Fara author of an excellent book on the changing image of Newton down the centuries and Lisa Jardine expert on Renaissance history of science, as well as popular science writer James Gleick author of a competent popular Newton biography and astrophysicist turned novelist Stuart Clark.

Given all of these preconditions it should have been an excellent hours entertainment for a historian of science like myself, unfortunately it turned out to be a major disappointment for two reasons. The programme deliberately created two principle impressions that were and are fundamentally wrong.

The first of these turned up in the pre-programme publicity but also featured prominently fairly early in the documentary in what seems at first glance to be a fairly harmless statement:

By the age of 21, he had rejected 2,000 years of scientific orthodoxy

This brief phrase contains two claims one implicit and one explicit. The implicit claim is how wonderful Newton was to take such a bold step when he was only 21 years old. Anyone who has spent anytime at all looking at the history of mathematics knows that mathematicians tend to be very precocious. Pascal wrote the paper that gained him entry to the top flight of seventeenth century mathematics at the age of sixteen. In the nineteenth century the teenage William Rowan Hamilton was trotted out in public like a circus pony to display his brilliance. The stories are legion and there is absolutely nothing unusual in Newton intellectual development it’s par for the course for a highly talented mathematician.

As Becky put it very succinctly in a tweet what they are actually saying here is that there had been no science since Aristotle, which is of course complete rubbish. The scientific orthodoxy of the day, which was by the way on the verge of disappearing, of which more shortly, came into being in the thirteenth century when Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas created a synthesis of Catholic theology and Aristotle’s philosophy with the addition of Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy. This synthesis is known as Scholastic or Aristotelian physics or natural philosophy. However as Edward Grant, one of the leading experts on medieval science, points out Aristotelian philosophy is not Aristotle’s philosophy. It is also important to note that Aristotelian philosophy was never carved in stone but in fact changed and developed continuously over the next four hundred years. Examples of major changes are the work of the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists in the fourteenth century. The Aristotelian physics of the fifteenth century is a very different beast to that of the thirteenth century. The geocentric astronomy produced in the middle of the fifteenth century by Peuerbach and Regiomontanus differed substantially from that of the first Ptolemaic translations of the twelfth century.

Added to all this change and development the first seeds of what would become modern science began to poke their slender stems out of the substrate of scientific innovation around the beginning of the fifteenth century. By 1661 when Newton went up to university Keplerian heliocentric astronomy had become the new orthodoxy and Aristotelian physics was being pushed out by the new physics developed by mathematicians such as Tartaglia and Benedetti in the sixteenth century and Stevin, Galileo, Borelli, Descartes, Pascal, Huygens and others in the seventeenth. One should bear in mind that the Leopoldina, the Accademia del Cimento, the Royal Society and the Acadédemie des Sciences all institutions dedicated to the propagation and development of the new science were founded in 1652, 1657, 1660 and 1666 respectively. The young Newton did not like some Carrollian hero draw his Vorpal Blade to slay the Jabberwock of ancient Greek science but like any bright young academic would do jumped on the band wagon of modern science that was speeding full speed ahead into the future.

We now turn to what I see as the most serious failing of the documentary expressed in the question posed in the title of this post. For the best part of an hour the documentary banged on about Newton’s solitude, his isolation his lone path to the secrets of nature. We were presented with the ultimate lone genius of the history of science. It went so far that the only other contemporary researchers mentioned by name were Descartes in passing and Hooke purely in a negative light. The way that the programme was structured created a totally false impression of Newton’s scientific endeavours.

We actually know very little about Newton’s time as a student though it is safe to say that he was more the type to curl up in front of the fire with a good book on a Friday evening than to go to the latest rave at which ever student hostelry was in that term. As a fellow we know that he communicated and worked together with other scholars such as Isaac Barrow so to talk of total solitude as the documentary did is wrong. After he emerged from obscurity at the beginning of the 1670s with his reflecting telescope and his famous paper on the phenomenon of colours he was in no way isolated. Even if Cambridge was somewhat off the beaten track in those days Newton corresponded with other scholars in Britain and also abroad as can easily be seen in his voluminous correspondence as edited by Turnbull. He was also often visited by other mathematical scholars such as Halley or John Collins. When he left Cambridge to go to London he became positively gregarious. Maintaining a town house with his niece Catherine Barton, a renowned social beauty, as his housekeeper where he received and entertained visitors. At the Royal Mint, which he attended daily, he was surrounded by a large staff. After 1703 he presided over the weekly meetings of the Royal Society and on other evenings surrounded by his acolytes he held court in one or other of the then fashionable London coffee bars.

More important for me was the totally false impression created by the documentary of Newton’s mathematical and scientific work. Anyone being introduced to Newton for the first time would come away with the impression that he revolutionised mathematics, physics and astronomy in a superhuman solo endeavour completely isolated from the rest of the late seventeenth century intellectual world.

We got presented with Newton in 1666 creating a completely new branch of mathematics, he only actually started it then and it took a number of years to develop. At no point was any other mathematician mentioned. The fact that Newton either, directly or indirectly, knew of and built on the previous work in this field of Kepler, Cavalieri, Fermat, Pascal, Descartes, van Schooten, Barrow and others was quietly swept under the carpet. Even worse no mention what so ever of Leibniz who independently developed the same mathematics almost at the same time from the same sources. This of course led eventually to the most notorious priority dispute in the history of science involving many of the leading mathematicians of Europe.

The same thing occurred with the presentation of his work in optics, no mention of Kepler, Schiener, Descartes, Grimaldi, Gregory, Hooke, Huygens or anybody for that matter. Isaac apparently did it all alone in isolation.

This form of presentation continued with his greatest work the Principia. We got each of the famous laws of motion presented individually but no hint of the fact that the first was taken from Beeckman by way of Descartes, the second from Huygens and the third from his readings in alchemy. We were told that he derived the law of gravity from his three laws but no mention was made of the fact that the concept of the law of gravity was common, much discussed intellectual property in academic circles at the time. No mention of the contributions made to the substance of the Principia by the work of Kepler, Galileo, Cassini, Halley and above all Flamsteed. We had the strange spectacle of Hooke famous accusation of Newton having stolen his law of gravity and plagiarised him delivered in a passionate speech to the Royal Society in 1660 but no mention what so ever that Hooke’s accusation had more than a little substance. Hooke and Newton had corresponded on the subject in the early 1680s and Hooke had already formulated a concept of universal gravity before Newton. This correspondence was with certainty one of the spurs that led Newton to write the Principia although Hook’s claims as to the extent of his contribution are wildly exaggerated.

Isaac Newton did not live and work in an intellectual vacuum as was very strongly implied either deliberately or accidently through bad scripting by this documentary. He was part of a strong multi-faceted scientific community who supplied both the scaffolding and a significant part of substance of Newton’s life work in mathematics, physics and astronomy. He was in no way a lone genius but a highly significant cog in a large intellectual endeavour.

There was a time some decades back when some historians of science went so far as to decry the Principia as purely a work of synthesis with only a very small original contribution from Newton. This view was shown to be exaggerated and invalid and has been dropped but the opposite point of view implied by this documentary of the Principia as being alone the work of Newton’s genius is even more false.

Before I close there are a couple of small points from the film that I think should be mentioned. As is all too often the case we had the tired old statement that after Newton became President of the Royal Society he produced no more original scientific work. This was as always made without explicit comment but with a strong implicit negative aura. Dear people, when Isaac Newton became President of the Royal Society in 1703 he was already sixty years old. He had written and published two of the most important major scientific works in the history of mankind, his Principia and his Optics, as well as vast quantities of, largely unpublished, absolutely world-class mathematics, which he did however circulate in manuscript amongst his acolytes. What more did you expect him to do (FFS)?

I noted four major scientific/historical errors during the film, a fairly low quota; there may have been others. We of course get introduced to Newton’s reflecting telescope, the invention that first made him known to the world at large, but then we get informed that this instrument played a major role in marine navigation in the eighteenth century. Now whilst it is true that the reflecting telescope, mostly Gregorian’s and not Newtonian’s, had become the instrument of choice for astronomers by the middle of the eighteenth century they were for several good reasons not used for navigation on ships. Firstly reflecting telescopes whilst in principle smaller than refracting ones don’t telescope and so are more massive and cumbersome than the classical marine telescope. Secondly until the nineteenth century reflecting telescopes had metal mirrors made of so-called speculum metal an alloy that unfortunately was very susceptible to corrosion necessitating regular re-polishing. The salt-water atmosphere of sea voyages would have been very adverse for such mirrors requiring almost daily re-polishing and thus completely impractical.

The next error I spotted was a real howler. A voice over informed the viewer that, “for centuries light was considered the purest form of energy in the universe.” Really? Although etymologically derived from an ancient Greek word the physics concept of energy was first appeared in the nineteenth century, as did the recognition that light is a form of energy. Nuff said.

Moving along the historical time scale in the opposite direction voice over informed us the Newton’s Principia made possible the accurate prediction of comets and eclipses. Now the former is indeed true although the credit should properly go to Halley who first showed that some comets were periodical and obeyed Newton’s law of gravity. The latter is however again a real history of science howler. The Babylonians could accurately predict lunar eclipses in about the fifth century BCE and the ability to accurately predict solar eclipses was also developed in antiquity. No need to wait for Newton.

My final error is the one that as a historian of science causes me the most concern. Whilst discussing Newton’s alchemy voice over stated correctly Newton’s alchemical belief that light and matter are both products of some as yet undiscovered primal alchemical substance. The claim was immediately made that Newton had anticipated Einstein’s famous E = MC2! This claim being, to my surprise, repeated by Rob Iliffe an excellent historian of science. Now I’m not a big fan of the Kuhn/Feyerabend principle of the incommensurability of scientific theories. This says that one can’t compare scientific theories because the definitions of the concepts that they contain differ and are thus not comparable. Newton’s concept of force is not Maxwell’s concept of force for example. However I think that here we have a genuine case of incommensurability. The metaphysical concepts behind Newton’s alchemical theory and the metaphysical concepts behind Einstein’ theory of relativity are in no way comparable. It is not even comparing apples with oranges; it’s comparing apples with bicycles!

On the whole I think what was superficially a very good and certainly an excellently produced documentary failed miserably as a piece of history of science for the reasons that I have outlined above. Maybe I’m being too harsh but on the whole I don’t think so. For me the very strong emphasis of the biography of Newton as some sort of lone genius whether intended or an accidental product of ill considered scripting made this documentary next to worthless as a contribution to popular history of science.



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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

12 responses to “Isaac Newton: The Last Lone Genius?

  1. An excellently measured rant. I assume the horse-dung-for-indigestion story was true, then. I had so hoped it was!

  2. Michael Weiss

    Did they include the “shoulders of giants” quote? (Btw, I think it’s delightfully appropriate that Newton stood on other’s shoulders, so to speak, just to come up with that quip.)

    And they gave him credit for mc2 but not quantum mechanics? What’s the world coming to…

  3. Michael Weiss

    Didn’t Kuhn actually claim something much stronger, and correspondingly less believable — namely that adherents to different paradigms would be unable to communicate, because of the vocabulary confusion?

    Of course, I guess Newton was unable to communicate with Einstein — though for a more prosaic reason.

  4. I’m glad you mentioned the thing about reflecting telescopes and navigation, which struck me as very odd (and said straight by Lisa Jardine, so it wasn’t an issue of interpretation). While there was initially a thought that reflecting telescopes might help with navigating (e.g. as a replacement to the very long unwieldy refracting telescopes necessary to view Jupiter’s satellites) they were never used in this way for the reasons you say. They *were* used to observe Jupiter’s satellites and establish longitude on land – thus aiding surveys and, by extension, navigation – but what was actually said was plain wrong.

    Refracting telescopes remained extremely important on land too, being the ones attached to transit instruments and mural quadrants for meridian astronomy.

    • Refracting telescopes were also preferred as zenith instruments, which I’m certain you knew already. I didn’t want to write a complete history of the refracting and reflecting telescopes in the 18th century just make the point about navigation. The 18th century telescope history I’ll save for another post or maybe you could write it as a guest post??

  5. Ian Paul Wragg

    “The 18th century telescope history I’ll save for another post or maybe you could write it as a guest post??”

    Speaking of guest posts. I hope that we have not heard the last of Baerista. He seems to have completely disappeared from the net.

  6. I like your post.
    Just to add, a historian of alchemy who watched the program found it a disapointment because it gave you the impression that his study of alchemy was unusual and weird, rather than a perfectly normal activity given what was known about how the world worked at the time.
    So who puts these programs together? Maybe they could pay more attention to the historians?

  7. Interesting! I haven’t seen the program yet (I’m in the US).

    What do you/historians think of Westfall’s biography of Newton, “Never at rest”?

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