The Ways of Genius

The Newtonian Moment: Science and the Making of Modern Culture

an exhibition at the New York Public Library, October 8, 2004–February 5, 2005

The walls of the Gottesman Exhibition Hall at the New York Public Library will display until next February a variety of colorful, fascinating creatures. Voltaire’s great friend, the distinguished philosopher Mme. du Châtelet, appears more than once. She sits smiling, in a portrait, next to an armillary sphere that symbolizes her expert work—far more expert than Voltaire’s—on Newtonian science. Elsewhere she strides up a rocky hill toward the Temple of Truth, as a clutch of Muses looks on admiringly. She even turns up suspended in midair on the title page of Voltaire’s Elements of Newton’s Philosophy, borne by some enthusiastic cherubs, and wields a mirror to reflect the light that emanates from the sky above and behind Newton downward onto her hardworking lover.

And she has plenty of company. The Newtonian women on display at the library include the anonymous female enthusiast portrayed by one satirist as falling into an ecstatic swoon at a geometrical proof; the imperious Mlle. Ferrand, dressed in informal morning clothes and a splendid bonnet, and scowling at the viewer who has evidently interrupted her reading of Newton; and the charming Belle de Zuylen, who preferred her harpsichord and Newton’s mathematics to the distractions of marriage. At Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, one can meet some of the strongest, smartest women in history.

Once again, the New York Public Library has done its job with intelligence and flair. The library belongs to a tiny elite group, which includes the national libraries of England and France and our own Library of Congress. Like them, it is a treasure house, one that preserves for the future precious materials, the work of masterminds in a thousand fields. Like them, it provides a please-touch museum for scholars. Like them, it is a universal information machine, and it serves the innumerable members of a diverse public in ways that constantly change with the times and their demands. And like them, it educates the public, with exhibitions that present historical problems and materials and interprets them to a vast, diverse, and critical audience, with ingenuity and without condescension.

I love libraries—their dust, their smell of noble rot, their seedy grandeur. Early in my career, I learned that Princeton’s library staff had already labeled me a “heavy user”—a phrase that sounded a little worrying in the 1970s. Work has taken me down into the vaults of the Vatican, where the smelly ghosts of thousands of slaughtered animals haunted the lovely codices made from their skins, and up into the remotest stacks of the old Bibliothèque Nationale, where a layer of ash from the fires of the Paris Commune still covered untouched books. Every one of these libraries has its devotees. But none of them rivals the New York Public Library’s magnificent generosity, as expressed in its commitment to educate through public programs and to make its materials available to anyone with a legitimate reason for seeing them.

The Newtonian Moment carries on this enterprise at the highest level. A panoramic exhibit of…

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