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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 things devoted to Newton organized by an erudite and wide-ranging historian of science at Caltech, Mordechai Feingold, and accompanied by a lavish, lively book, it educates us in the manifold, peculiar, and paradoxical ways of genius.1 At the core of the show—and at its physical heart, in the center of the Gottesman gallery—are Newton’s manuscripts and books. And these—especially the manuscripts from the Macclesfield Collection, recently acquired by Cambridge University Library—are breathtaking. They bring the visitor directly into Newton’s rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge (whose members like to mention, casually, that their colleagues have won more Nobel Prizes than France), and at his mother’s manor house, where he lived his annus mirabilis in 1665 and 1666, when he discovered, among other things, the laws of gravitation, began to develop the calculus, and found that white light is composed of the colors of the spectrum. In the manuscripts you meet someone extraordinary, a very young man doing miraculously original and cogent work, his penetrating eyes open and darting everywhere, his skilled hands not only writing but drawing everything from the telescope that won him entrance to the Royal Society to the movements of bodies and of light.

Most of the drafts on display combine writing with drawing. Like Galileo, Newton was a skilled and daring experimenter, deft at handling equipment and willing to take chances. He observed the stars and planets, stared directly at the sun, and even placed a bodkin, or blunt needle, between his eye and his skull bone and pressed it against the eye—and then calmly recorded the “severall white, darke and coloured circles” that appeared to him in his vivid drawing of the experiment. But above all he was a mathematician, and it took complex diagrams and endless computations, as well as lively sketches, to work out his new system of nature.

Newton wrote copiously, and he used writing in a highly particular way. A graphomane, he wrote out many different versions of the same problems and solutions, over and over again, copying out entire texts with only minute changes. His notes and drafts have the drama, and something of the repetitive, rigorous beauty, of the sketchbooks of a great artist.2 They show Newton working his way through the particular set of problems, great and small, that occupied him: the nature of light, the nature of motion, the problem of falling objects, the elliptical shape of the planetary orbits and the reasons for it. Again and again, he refines a law or an analysis—only to come back and restate it, again and again. Even after Newton published his great systematic Principia in 1687, we learn here, he had the book interleaved with blank pages so that he could go over it again and again, reformulating his ideas in the margins and on blank pages, working up a new edition.

The manuscripts reveal the man. He set out his definitions, rules, and theorems, boldly, baldly, provocatively, in a clear and direct style that reminds one of the great French thinker Descartes, whom he disliked. But then he tested them, corrected them, and refined them. And then he pulled them together once more into a new and more systematic form. Newton’s numerous drafts figure and express his method of invention and discovery with immense vividness and force.

In the presence of these extraordinary documents, the work of Newton’s skilled hands and speeding, inspired intellect, it would be easy to do what so many writers did in the eighteenth century: to treat Newton himself as more than human, as someone who stood above the conflicts of his own time, one who simply saw farther and worked on a higher level than his contemporaries, and achieved what he did unaided by ordinary mortals. One of the great virtues of The Newtonian Moment is that it refuses to do this. The manuscripts, books, images, and machines gathered here make clear, over and over again, that Newton was intimately and directly the product of his time and place. Schooling at Grantham and higher education at Cambridge formed Newton in particular ways. Feingold ranks with the world’s leading experts, not only on Newton, but also on the history of British universities, and he teaches us how rich their culture was and how much they had to offer their most brilliant student.

School and university made Newton as much a master of Latin, the international language of science and scholarship, as of English: his drafts in the two languages show nearly equal fluency. His schoolmasters and tutors also acquainted him with the ancient Greek and Latin writers. They offered him a sharp and polished set of instruments for interpreting these texts. And they saw to it that he became interested in, even obsessed with, a complex set of scholarly problems that now look staggeringly dry and insubstantial. Newton devoted much of his life, for example, to sorting out the dates of ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman history—the field we now know as technical chronology, one easy to dismiss as pure Casauboniana. When Newton plunged into this morass of infinitely technical details, and tried to line up what the ancient writers said with the evidence of astronomy, he was not doing something eccentric, but engaging in a kind of interdisciplinary scholarship that fascinated his teachers and many of his contemporaries.

Newton’s celebrated passion for alchemy, not treated in this exhibit, looks rather similar in the light of recent research. Scholars have interpreted his alchemical work in radically different ways: as evidence of his adherence to a traditional, magical picture of the universe; as proof of his eccentricity, or even of his madness; and as the key to his belief in a universal principle of attraction. Repeated battles have erupted between adherents of these different schools.

Most recently, though, two historians of chemistry, William Newman and Lawrence Principe, have taught us to see the chemistry and alchemy of the seventeenth century as parts of a single, coherent enterprise, which they call “chymistry.” They have shown us that seventeenth-century chymists went about their work with a dogged energy, a precision, and even, sometimes, an interest in quantitative measurements that clearly recall the sorts of work done in other scientific fields at the time. Their imaginative and expert decoding of surviving laboratory notebooks and other materials, all of them obscure in the extreme, has made it possible to reconstruct the chymists’ equipment, recreate the procedures they followed, and even identify the curious crystals and other substances which fascinated them.

Seen in this new light, Newton’s passionate interest in alchemy—an interest he shared, as has long been known, with Boyle and Locke—looks far less eccentric than it used to. Debate will no doubt continue on the relations between Newton’s chymistry and his mechanics. But Newton the alchemist, like Newton the chronologer, has unexpectedly turned out to be a recognizable period figure, serious and systematic in his own way, rather than, as Keynes argued in a dazzling essay, the last of the magi.3

Even in his most celebrated work on mathematics, optics, and mechanics, Newton did not create a new mental universe out of whole cloth. He read, he learned, he digested a huge variety of works while his fellow scientists Robert Hooke and William Halley and others prodded him onward; and like a brilliant omnivorous intellectual silkworm he transformed and transfigured our understanding of how the world works. The Newtonian Moment lets us follow that process in particular, carefully chosen cases.

It also takes us down some of the labyrinthine paths by which Newton’s methods and ideas spread. No simple story emerges. From the first, expert readers like Huygens and Leibniz recognized the brilliance of the Principia. But the book proved terrifyingly difficult even for them. Some of those who grasped Newton’s program for a new mechanics most clearly took it in directions Newton himself did not travel. The French academician Pierre Varignon, for example, replaced Newton’s geometrical method of exposition with a rigorously mathematical analysis that reduced problems of motion to problems of calculation—and thus founded a tradition of rigorous analytical mechanics that would flourish in eighteenth-century France. He and others read and rewrote Newton in the light of an ongoing mathematical revolution.

  1. 1

    Full disclosure: it was at my suggestion that the director of the New York Public Library invited Professor Feingold to serve as curator.

  2. 2

    A project based at Imperial College, London, and headed by the historian of science Rob Iliffe has now begun to prepare a Web-based edition of Newton’s manuscripts, to include facsimiles, diplomatic transcripts, and more user-friendly texts. A good bit of the material, especially from the theological manuscripts, has already been made available. See www.newtonproject.ic.ac.uk for full information about this remarkable enterprise, and also about the dramatic fates that befell many of these precious manuscripts after Newton’s death.

  3. 3

    J.M. Keynes, “Newton the Man,” in Newton Tercentenary Celebrations: 15– 19 July 1946 (Royal Society of London/ Cambridge University Press, 1947). See, above all, William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (University of Chicago Press, 2002), and William Newman’s Web site, www.indiana.edu/~college/williamnewmanproject.shtml, which explains some of the methods Newman and Principe have used, describes Newton’s alchemical interests, and refers to a forthcoming BBC special which will examine this question in detail. Older literature on these problems includes Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy: or, “The Hunting of the Greene Lyon” (Cambridge University Press, 1975), Alchemical Death and Resurrection: The Significance of Alchemy in the Age of Newton (Smithsonian Institution Libraries, 1990), and The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1991); Karin Figala, “Newton as Alchemist,” History of Science, Vol. 15 (1977); “Die exakte Alchemie von Isaac Newton: Seine ‘gesetzmässige’ Interpretation der Alchemie—dargestellt am Beispiel einiger ihn beeinflussender Autoren,” in Verhandlungen der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft, Basel, Vol. 94 (1984).

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