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.

Yet Varignon’s transformation of Newton included the laws of central forces, while other academicians like Philippe Villemot and Joseph Saurin rejected these and tried to show that what they saw as Newton’s real discoveries could be accommodated to Descartes’s system of cosmic vortices whirling the planets about. The Newtonian moment was not, in any simple way, the triumph of a single Newtonian insight or method—though Feingold argues that Newton remained pivotal even for those who criticized and revised his work.4

Institutions mattered to Newton throughout his life—especially the new scientific institutions of his time, like the Paris Académie des Sciences and the Royal Society of London. These organizations represented something not seen before—at least since ancient Alexandria—in its pure form: specialized research centers. The academies took the study of nature in all its aspects as their charge. They set out courses of study for the young, posed problems, and adjudicated claims to solutions and discoveries. And their societies did much to make Newton’s career possible. Their representatives—like Hooke and Halley—set him the probing questions and offered him the approval that put him on the path from his original, technical discoveries to the creation of a new system of the world. Their recognition marked him off as the greatest scientist in an age of great scientists. And their public sessions and journals—along with the debates that raged in up-to-date universities like those in Holland, in Leiden and Utrecht—provided the public stage on which Germans could debate whether Newton or Leibniz had invented the calculus, and in which Frenchmen could argue that Newton’s discoveries could be reconciled with the vortex cosmology of Descartes, and Italians could calibrate his astronomical work, and Dutchmen could take all these questions under advisement and make clear that Newton really had achieved most of what he claimed. A lost world of public debate, ceremonious, ritualistic, and sometimes shockingly polemical, comes back to life in this exhibition, and it helps to explain some of the larger rhythms of Newton’s life.

The prominence of these institutions in the life of a great individualist provokes thought. Newton’s life spanned a period in which the world of learning was transformed. The young Newton grew up in a world that historians now call, as Newton’s contemporaries did, the Republic of Letters. The citizens of this imaginary realm understood it as an international society of men, and later women, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge rather than of personal gain. They organized collective inquiries, sent each other news of discoveries, and published constantly, always, they insisted, in the hope of establishing the simple truth.

As citizens of this republic, they professed that they did not care about rank or gain, only about the truth—to the point that some of their new periodicals did not give the names of authors. Newton’s teacher Isaac Barrow exemplified the values of the Republic, both in the range of his scientific and scholarly work and in the generosity with which he resigned his own professorship to Newton, partly so that Barrow could devote himself to the theology that mattered most to him, but partly because he saw it his duty to yield to the more gifted man.5

As debates flared up over Newton’s achievements and those of his contemporaries, however, they burned away traditional etiquette and transformed and clarified the intellectual map. Dutchmen asserted that their brilliant fellow citizen Christian Huygens had anticipated Newton’s synthesis. He had even framed parts of it, like the laws of motion and collision, more clearly and consistently than Newton himself. Germans raged at the British failure to give Leibniz his due. Younger men like Fatio de Duillier and John Keill acted as polemical surrogates for their older mentors. These ferocious writers liked nothing better than to wound their opponents, and they paid little heed to the old rules of unselfishness and generous recognition of others’ accomplishments when they did so. As the smoke of burning straw men filled the atmosphere, science became, for the first time, a sphere of bitter rivalry and contention.

In these debates, a basic principle of modern science took shape: what matters is not simply arriving at the truth, but arriving there first. Modern scientists, as the late Robert Merton saw long ago, establish their ownership of a fact or a principle only by publishing it before anyone else.6 And this principle crystallized in the course of the debates over Newton and his rivals. The familiar system by which individual scientists and labs compete to crack the structure of DNA or decode the genome—with all its scientific politicking, its sometimes undignified spying on others, its personalized demands for credit—took shape once and for all in the years around 1700. A straight road leads from Newton and Hooke, hell-bent in the 1660s on being the creators of a new optics, to James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, and Linus Pauling, hell-bent in the 1950s on being the first to read the language of life. The conditions of possibility for modern science—for the vast and profound inquiry into nature, mounted over the last four centuries, that constitutes one of the few proofs that our race can think—came into being in this Newtonian moment.

Newton’s position in this story is rich in both personal and historical interest. In the traditional way, he often concealed his discoveries, sometimes for long periods. Only the praise, the prodding, and the criticism of his rivals induced him to turn to the public. But once he began to do so, he played as tough a game as anyone. Newton treated Hooke and other rivals with contempt, which they had often done nothing to merit. In the course of his controversy with Leibniz over the calculus, he stacked the commission appointed by the Royal Society to adjudicate the case, and behaved in a way that bordered, and sometimes more than bordered, on imposture. These facts, largely suppressed by Newton’s admirers in the period on which the current exhibition concentrates, make clear how powerfully the new system of scientific work and credit could affect even the most talented of those who participated in it. Not everyone, of course, reacted in the same way, then or now—but some scientific greats still do.

The Newton years, finally, witnessed a wider transformation in European culture. In the years around 1700, Latin gave way, even in technical subjects, to the modern languages. Science came to be seen as a coherent, independent field, the cutting edge of modern thought. At the same time, elaborate treatises like the Principia began to be flanked, and sometimes outflanked, by fashionable journals that reported on their contents to a wide public. And new forums for discussion, like salons and coffeehouses, enabled men and women to discuss the discoveries of Newton and the complaints of his rivals in a polite, elegant way. In the seventeenth century, Descartes and some of his followers had prepared the way for women’s participation in public discussion of the sciences. They insisted that male and female brains were identical and equally competent. In the eighteenth century, the philosophes took Newton as their intellectual master and insisted that his brilliant new method could clear the cobwebs from all the spheres of intellectual life.

Men and women collaborated to bring Newton’s system and the methods that underpinned it to a wide, nonspecialist public. They also collaborated to transform Newton himself into a great idol, the Colossus of the sciences—the master, with his prism and silent face, of nature’s realms and more. Countless mantelpieces bore marble or plaster busts of the great scientist; countless gardens harbored heroic sculptures that juxtaposed him to the nature he had mastered; and every bookstore’s shelves bent under books that presented his ideas to ordinary male readers, as well as ladies and children.

The motives that made Newton’s admirers take hyperbole as the mildest level of praise they could offer were—like the motives that sometimes spurred Newton himself into action—all too human. Voltaire, who did more than anyone else to make Newton into Europe’s hero, discovered that his native France did not value writers when the lackeys of a nobleman he had made fun of, Rohan, cudgeled him in the street (“Don’t hit his head,” Rohan supposedly cried; “something good might come out of it”). In England he did not meet Newton, who was already dead when he arrived, but he witnessed the great man’s funeral and realized that his mind alone had made him a hero. Newton and England merged into a single ideal society that Voltaire praised effusively in his best-selling Philosophical Letters.

Through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, admirers and critics competed to find terms sufficiently powerful to do Newton justice. Pope set him just below the Creator of his own polite clockwork universe: “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, Let Newton be, and all was light.” Blake drew him as one of his typical perverse antiheroes, beautiful, muscular, yet imprisoned by the numbers that framed his lifeless technical world. The Newtonian Moment makes clear how many visions of Newton competed for attention in the decades after the hero himself died, and how very far from historical most of them were. It also helps us to understand why Newton the chronologer, Newton the alchemist, and other Newtons as well disappeared from the view of posterity.

In the end, though, the most important service the exhibition provides has little to do with its careful, measured revisionism on many points of historical detail. Newton, we see here, redefined the study of nature by insisting that it must rest not on hypotheses but on evidence. Newton’s followers, whatever their occasional infidelities to his thought, accepted this basic principle and made it the foundation of every discipline from psychology to economics. The universe as they imagined it rather resembled one of the fine orreries, or models of the movement of the planets, made by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century craftsmen: fine clockwork machinery, lucid, perhaps a little sterile, but logical, and calibrated to match the observed data.

We Americans trace our origins, spiritual and intellectual, largely to the heralds of the Newtonian movement: writers and doers like Benjamin Franklin. The creators of the United States couched their arguments for its independence and their visions of its constitution in the Newtonian language of reason, nature’s laws, and factual evidence. Nowadays, powerful leaders around the world defy these forms of intellectual self-discipline. In the summer of 2002, one of President Bush’s advisers explained to the writer Ron Suskind

that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

During the Newtonian moment, only a satirist could have put words like these into the mouth of an important official. Eighteenth-century writers took many different positions on empires. Edward Gibbon, who spent so much of his life contemplating and analyzing Rome’s decline and fall, thought that at its height the Roman Empire had sustained the highest level of civilization in human history. Others harshly criticized the efforts of modern European nations to impose their will on European settlers in the colonies, and on non-Europeans as well. But imperialists and rebels alike recognized the sovereignty of facts. They accepted the world even when, in the American case, they rebelled against an empire. And in doing so they believed, with some reason, that they were Newton’s children. In reminding the public that the men who made America belonged to the reality-based community of their day, the New York Public Library and Professor Feingold offer the best kind of civic education.

This Issue

December 2, 2004