To the Editors:
In his review of James Gleick’s Isaac Newton [NYR, July 3], Freeman Dyson unfortunately shows how little versed he is in scholarship on Newton. A distinguished scientist, who has contributed masterfully to modern physics, Dyson does not seem to realize that historical research requires deep understanding of very different technical issues of long-gone science, together with substantial knowledge of social and cultural circumstances of the period. In these respects, Dyson’s review is flawed in ways that preclude a reasonable judgment of Gleick’ s book. Some problems are comparatively small matters of fact, but even these show lack of historical knowledge; others are more serious, since they give wrong impressions of the nature and influence of Newton’s work. To enumerate at random:
—Humphrey Newton, Isaac’s amanuensis, was not a cousin; he was no relation at all.
—Edmond Halley did not carry the manuscript of the Principia to London; it was delivered to the Royal Society by a Cambridge friend.
—James II was deposed not because he “stood for the divine right of kings,” but because of his Catholicism.
—The Principia was not published in three volumes—it was a single volume comprised of three parts.
—It is simply wrong that “as soon as the Principia was published and widely circulated, the Cartesian vortices were dead.”
In view of these and other problems, one must question Dyson’s claim that Gleick’s slim volume is the best introduction (for a layman) to Newton. Dyson contrasts unfavorably Richard Westfall’s standard biography of Newton, Never at Rest, with Gleick’s derivative effort. To dismiss Westfall’s careful attempt to comprehend the nature and significance of Newton’s alchemical pursuits, for example, and to assert that Gleick’s eight rambling pages on the topic offer a “more sharply focused” explanation of Newton’s preoccupation with alchemy is a gross exaggeration. Westfall’s magnum opus has its flaws, but it is based on half a lifetime’s immersion in Newton’s manuscripts and writings. This is far more than can be said for Gleick, who parades manuscript references that turn out to be derivative. Indeed, Dyson’s assertion that the “best and most original part of Gleick’s book is the description of the young Newton…based on a detailed study of the manuscript notebooks that Newton kept as a student” cannot be accepted, because these five chapters are both unoriginal and sketchy.
Many other remarks mislead the unwary reader. In discussing Newton’s Unitarianism Dyson portrays Charles II as “a man of liberal temperament,” who dispensed Newton of the Trinity Fellowship’s requirement to take holy orders, thereby effectively “adopting a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.'” The insinuation that the King was cognizant (and forgiving) of Newton’s heresy is, of course, preposterous. More sensational is Dyson’s claim that Newton, the “monarch of the Age of Reason,” was also “one of the architects of our civil liberties.” This claim is based on a manuscript, allegedly by Newton, and pertaining to the case against James II which, Dyson is informed by a Princeton colleague, “contains ideas, concerning the moral and legal theory of civil disobedience, which reappear in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.” The manuscript in question is not by Newton, and the Second Treatise was written several years before it was published in August 1689 (not 1690), a mere four months after Newton and Locke first met. Obviously, Locke was in possession for at least a decade of whatever Newton learned during his brief parliamentary tenure.
Accuracy is just as important in popular works and in reviews of them—perhaps even more so, since readers will not be otherwise correctly informed as in full-scale scholarly accounts.
Division of Humanities and Social Sciences
California Institute of Technology
October 9, 2003