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A New Newton


It was a strange juxtaposition. A big metal box filled with the manuscripts of Isaac Newton, hidden by Newton during his lifetime and unread for two hundred years afterward, and a fat young man with red hair and khaki shorts, strutting on the stage at meetings of the British Union of Fascists. The big metal box was packed up by Newton in 1696, when he left Cambridge and moved to London. He was leaving forever the life of intense and solitary study that he had pursued in Cambridge for thirty-five years, and entering the role of public figure and patron saint of the Age of Enlightenment that he pursued in London for thirty years more. The fat young man was Lord Lymington, Earl of Portsmouth. He was a direct descendant of Catherine Barton, the niece of Newton’s who kept house for him in London and inherited his papers when he died. Catherine Barton’s daughter Kitty married an Earl of Portsmouth and became an ancestor of the fat young man. And so the fat young man came into possession of the big metal box. When he came into possession of the box, the papers inside were still intact.

When I was a boy in high school during World War II, I met the fat young man and disliked him intensely. I was helping England to survive by bringing in the harvest, at a time when the grown-ups who normally worked on the farms had been called up to serve in the army. The high school kids worked hard in the fields and enjoyed taking a holiday from Latin and mathematics. But the fat young man owned the land where we were working, and he came and lectured us about blood and soil and the mystical virtues of the open-air life. He had visited Germany, where his friend Adolf Hitler had organized the schoolkids to work on the land in a movement that he called Kraft durch Freude, in English “Strength through Joy.” In Germany the kids had an accordionneuse, a woman with an accordion who played music to them all day long and kept them working in the right rhythm. The fat young man said he would find an accordionneuse for us too. Then we would have strength through joy and we would be able to work much better. Fortunately the accordionneuse never showed up, and we continued to work in our own rhythm. We knew that the fat young man was second in command to Sir Oswald Moseley in the British Union of Fascists, and if his friend Adolf had successfully invaded England he would probably have been our Gauleiter. Being well-brought-up English children, we listened to the fat young man politely and never showed him our contempt.

When I was bringing in the harvest and listening to the fat young man, I did not know that he had been the owner of the Newton papers. I learned this two years later from the economist John Maynard Keynes. I was then a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, while Keynes was a fellow of King’s College. Keynes was chief economic adviser to the British government and largely responsible for keeping the British economy afloat at a time when more than half of our gross national product, and all of our foreign exchange, was being spent on the war. He was wearing himself out, flying back and forth between London and Washington and dealing with one financial crisis after another. He never had time to pursue his hobby, the careful scholarly reading of the Newton papers. I was lucky to be present at one of his rare appearances in Cambridge, when he gave a lecture at Trinity College with the title, “Newton, the Man.”1 The audience was small, and we huddled around the exhausted figure of Keynes as he lay in a reclining chair in a cold, dark room and talked quietly about the big metal box and its contents. Four years later he died of heart failure, precipitated by overwork and the hardships of crossing the Atlantic repeatedly in slow propeller-driven airplanes under wartime conditions.

Keynes described to us how the fat young man, in need of cash to finance the British Union of Fascists in 1936, had brought the big metal box to Sotheby’s in London and sold the contents at auction in 329 separate lots. Keynes had warning of the sale only a few days before it happened. He attended the auction and bought as many of the papers as he could with money out of his own pocket. “Disturbed by this impiety,” he told us, “I managed gradually to reassemble about half of them, including nearly the whole of the biographical portion, in order to bring them to Cambridge which I hope they will never leave. The greater part of the rest were snatched out of my reach by a syndicate which hoped to sell them at a high price, probably in America.” The papers that he rescued are now preserved in the King’s College library. The rest of them were sold piecemeal to various collectors and dispersed all over the world. Even as a salesman of irreplaceable antiquities, the fat young man was incompetent. As a reward for his act of gross impiety, he reaped a total of only ÂŁ9,000.

In his lecture, Keynes described the contents of the box that he examined as best he could during the turmoil of the sale and afterward. Among the papers that he rescued was a firsthand description of Newton, written by Newton’s cousin Humphrey, who worked for him as a secretary for five years. Those five years included the two that Newton spent writing his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in English Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the masterpiece that set the course of the physical sciences for the next two hundred years. The Principia appeared in three volumes. The first two established the laws of physics and the methods of calculating the consequences of the laws. The third volume begins with Newton’s proud statement: “It remains that, from the same principles, I now demonstrate the frame of the system of the world.” The third volume analyzes the diverse phenomena of the real world, the motions of sun and moon, planets, satellites, and comets, the precession of the earth’s axis of rotation, and the rise and fall of tides, and shows how they all occur precisely as his principles predict. The manuscript of the Principia, which Newton’s friend Edmond Halley took with him to London in 1686 to be published, is in Humphrey Newton’s hand.

Humphrey’s description of Newton’s life in Cambridge was written many years later. Newton spent much of his time in the elaboratory, a wooden building in his garden in which he did alchemical experiments. Here is Humphrey writing about Newton as an alchemist:

Especially at spring and fall of the leaf, at which times he used to imploy about six weeks in his Elaboratory, the fire scarcely going out either night or day, he sitting up one night, as I did another, till he had finished his chymical experiments, in the performances of which he was the most accurate, strict, exact. What his aim might be, I was not able to penetrate into, but his pains, his diligence at those set times, made me think, he aimed at something beyond the reach of human art and industry.

In his talk at Trinity College, Keynes quoted Humphrey and then added his own interpretation:

Newton was clearly an unbridled addict…. He was almost entirely concerned, not in serious experiment, but in trying to read the riddle of tradition, to find meaning in cryptic verses, to imitate the alleged but largely imaginary experiments of the initiates of past centuries. Newton has left behind him a vast mass of records of these studies. I believe that the greater part are translations and copies made by him of existing books and manuscripts. But there are also extensive records of experiments…. In these mixed and extraordinary studies, with one foot in the Middle Ages, and one foot treading a path for modern science, Newton spent the first phase of his life, the period of life in Trinity when he did all his real work…. And when the turn in his life came and he put his books of magic back into the box, it was easy for him to drop the seventeenth century behind him and to evolve into the eighteenth-century figure which is the traditional Newton…. And he looked very seldom, I expect, into the chest where, when he left Cambridge, he had packed all the evidences of what had occupied and so absorbed his intense and flaming spirit in his rooms and his garden and the elaboratory between the Great Gate and Chapel.

During the sixty years since Keynes spoke in Cambridge, the papers that were hidden in the big metal box have given rise to a literature that is even more voluminous. The collected mathematical papers of Newton have been published in eight large volumes, the collected correspondence in seven. The standard biography of Newton by Richard Westfall, with the title Never at Rest,2 fills more than nine hundred pages. Large numbers of more specialized books and papers have been devoted to Newton’s mathematics, optics, physics, alchemy, and theology, to his scientific quarrels, his religious beliefs, and his later official career as Master of the Mint.

Now comes a new biography by James Gleick. For the casual reader with a serious interest in Newton’s life and work, I recommend Gleick’s biography as an excellent place to start. It has three important virtues. It is accurate, it is readable, and it is short. It is roughly one quarter of the length of Westfall’s book, and still gives a well-rounded and fairly complete picture of Newton and his ideas. To take the subject of alchemy as an example, Newton’s alchemical activities occupy forty-six pages of Westfall (half each of chapters 8 and 9), eight pages of Gleick (chapter 9 with the title “All Things Are Corruptible”). Gleick’s account is more sharply focused on the essential question, how it was possible for a mind as sharp and logical as Newton’s to search for nature’s secrets in ancient alchemical manipulations as well as in physical laws. Gleick’s answer to this question:

It was God who breathed life into matter and inspired its many textures and processes…. Rather than turn away from what he could not explain, he plunged in more deeply…. There were forces in nature that he would not be able to understand mechanically, in terms of colliding billiard balls or swirling vortices. They were vital, vegetable, sexual forces—invisible forces of spirit and attraction. Later, it had been Newton, more than any other philosopher, who effectively purged science of the need to resort to such mystical qualities. For now, he needed them.

  1. 1

    John M. Keynes, “Newton, the Man,” pp. 27–34 in Newton Tercentenary Celebrations (Royal Society of London, Cambridge University Press, 1947). Since J.M. Keynes died in 1946, his lecture was read at the tercentenary celebrations by his brother Geoffrey Keynes.

  2. 2

    Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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