We’re British not European – Really?

Yesterday evening my #histsci soul sister Becky Higgitt tweeted the following:

Scientists for Britain on #bbcnews – we had Newton therefore we don’t want to be in Europe

As #histsci bloggers both Becky and I have been here before, Becky here on her H-Word blog at the Guardian and myself here on the Renaissance Mathematicus but as it’s something that can’t be said too often, I thought I would point out once again that science is collaborative and international and all attempts to claim it for some sort of lone genius, as is often the case with Newton, or to make nationalist claims on its behalf are a massive distortion of the history of science.

Becky’s tweet specifically mentions Britain’s science icon ‘numero uno’ Isaac Newton, so let’s take a look at his scientific achievements and the foundations on which they were built. As Newton, paraphrasing Bernard of Chartres, famously wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke: If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. So who were these giants on whose shoulders Newton was perched? What follows is a bit shopping list I’m afraid and is by no means exhaustive, listing only the better known names of the predecessors in each area of study where Newton made a contribution.

Newton’s mathematics built on the work in algebra of Cardano and Bombelli, both Italians, and Stifel, a German, from the sixteenth century. Their work was built on the efforts of quite a large number of Islamic mathematicians who in turn owed a debt to the Indians and Babylonians. Moving on into the seventeenth century we have Viète, Fermat, Pascal and Descartes, all of them Frenchmen, as well as Oughtred, Wallis and Barrow representing the English and James Gregory the Scots. Italy is represented by Cavalieri. The Dutch are represented by Huygens and Van Schooten, whose expanded Latin edition of Descartes Géométrie was Newton’s chief source on the continental mathematics.

We see a similar pattern in Newton’s optics where the earliest influence is the 10/11th century Islamic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, although largely filtered through the work of others. In the seventeenth century we have Kepler and Schiener, both Germans, Descartes, the Frenchman, and Huygens, the Dutchman, pop up again along with Grimaldi, an Italian, Gassendi, another Frenchman, and James Gregory a Scot and last but by no means least Robert Hooke.

In astronomy we kick off in the fifteenth century with Peuerbach and Regiomontanus, an Austrian and a German, followed in the sixteenth century by Copernicus, another German. All three of course owed a large debt to numerous earlier Islamic astronomers. Building on Copernicus we have Tycho, a Dane, Kepler, a German, and of course Galileo, a Tuscan. France is once again represented by Descartes along with Ismael Boulliau. Also very significant are Cassini, an Italian turned Frenchman, and once again the ubiquitous Huygens. At last we can throw in a gaggle of Englishmen with Horrocks, Wren, Flamsteed, Halley and Hooke.

In physics we have the usual suspects with Kepler and Galileo to which we can add the two Dutchmen Stevin and Beeckman. Descartes and Pascal are back for the French and Borelli joins Galileo in representing Italy. Huygens once again plays a central role and one should not forget Hooke’s contributions on gravity.

As I said at the beginning these lists are by no means exhaustive but I think that they demonstrate very clearly that Newton’s achievements were very much a pan-European affair and thus cannot in anyway be used as an argument for an English or British science existing without massive European cooperation.

If we look at Newton’s scientific inheritance then things look rather bad for the British in the eighteenth century with the developments being made by a whole battalion of French, Swiss, German, Dutch and Italian researchers with not a Brit in sight anywhere. Things improved somewhat in the nineteenth century but even here the progress is truly international. If we take just one small example the dethroning of Newton’s corpuscular theory of light by the wave theory. Originated by Huygens and Hooke in the seventeenth century it was championed by Ampère, Fresnel, Poisson and Arago all of whom were French and by Young and Airy for the British in the nineteenth century.

I hope that yet again, with this brief example, I have made clear that science is a collaborative and cooperative enterprise that doesn’t acknowledge or respect national boundaries but wanders through the cultures where and when it pleases, changing nationalities and languages at will. Science is a universal human activity to which many different and varied cultures have made contributions and will continue to do so in the future. Science should have absolutely nothing to do with nationalism and chauvinism and politicians who try and harness it to their nationalist causes by corrupting its history are despicable.



Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

11 responses to “We’re British not European – Really?

  1. That’s a good observation

  2. What you say is all perfectly right as far as it goes. But Newton didn’t need the EU to have this interplay with European scientists, which surely is the underlying point?

    • wouarnud

      Well, Newton needed a pan-European functioning mail system, for instance. The International Postal Union is the 2nd-oldest IGO still working, and of course the EU has a lot of regulations on that which -do- make the system more efficient. I also imagine that scientific debate is easier in a stable political environment, and that’s the primary goal of the EU.

      But more seriously, science today is a fairly different beast from Newton’s time. Big Science has taken over, and most if not all scientific research projects of any significance take place at continental level. EU and the H2020 (and Framework in the past) provide such co-ordination, which is well needed. It can be argued how well of course, but not that supra-national sharing of competence is necessary.

  3. Jeb

    Reminds me of an old act of tabloid necromancy deployed in the 1992 general election to demonstrate that we should have no sympathy with the devil.

    The News of the World got it’s resident clairvoyant Mystic Meg to contact a range of the notable dead.

    She found that Boudica Queen of the Iceni and Winston Churchill were backing the Conservatives while Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were according to Mystic Meg big Labour fans.

  4. It’s my understanding that after the priority dispute about who invented the calculus, English mathematicians resisted the use of the Leibniz notation, which became standard elsewhere and is much easier to teach and use than the Newtonian way of writing things down. Parochialism has a cost.

  5. While correct in principle it is to slightly confuse collaboration with continuation. Newton may well have relied on the work of others but collaborate? Co-operate? Not sure Liebnitz would agree.
    As for advocating collaborative and Co-operative pan-european endeavour fuelled by open-source publishing, the loudest and most coherent voice was surely that of Bacon?

  6. This is a whitewash of the all out battle on the issue of scientific epistemology at the time. Newton was in a vicious political battle against Leibniz with the Hanoverian succession to the British crown. Newton’s surrogate was Arnauld. Leibniz correctly satirized the Newtonian concept of the deity as an impotent clock winder. Nothing proves that this was the case with Newton himself than his superstitiously infantile prediction that the hidden meaning of the Bible is that the world will end in 2060.

  7. Pingback: “British physics” – A Lesson from History | In the Dark

  8. Terry

    The quote that seems to have caused this mixed thread of science-history/politics was–

    “we had Newton therefore we don’t want to be in Europe”

    and this seems a total non-sequitur. How on earth do the scientific antecedents of Newton, or even his national identity, have anything at all to do with the practicalities and realities of how Britain and its government interacts (now) with the (other) EU states while we are ‘in’ the EU, or with how these interactions would go, and how the condition of Britain would change, after implementation of a possible referendum decision to leave?? Are our heads in the clouds, or are our feet on the ground? (And are there any limits to what is on- or off-topic here?)

  9. Jeb

    The use of such figures enhance perceptions of continuity.

    The linking factor a theatrical one, as a practical means of naturalising the highly implausible, drama has enjoyed a deep historical relationship with the political.

  10. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #35 | Whewell's Ghost

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