“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.” John Maynard Keynes’ words to his students perfectly describe the Isaac Newton portrayed by James Gleick in his unswerving biography. Simply named Isaac Newton, Gleick’s short book shows Newton as an eccentric scientist-philosopher, who shrank from public debate of his theories, avoided human contact, saved the coinage of Great Britain, challenged the teachings of the Anglican Church, and brought about the modern age of scientific inquiry.
The greatness and importance of Isaac Newton is intuitive to modern Americans due to his prominent place in high school physics texts, which teach his three laws of motion as the basis of modern physics. What is left out of high school education is the impact that his theories and methods had on methods of scientific discovery. Gleick attributes a move toward precise measurement of time, space and chemicals to Newton, saying that, “like no other experimenter of his time, alchemist or chemist, he weighed his chemicals precisely, in a balance scale. Obsessed as always with the finest degrees of measurement, he recorded weights to the nearest quarter of a grain. He measured time, too; here a precise unit was an eighth of an hour.” However, his apparent penchant for measurement did not always make it into the accounts of Newton’s experiments.
Newton’s description of his Experimentum Crucis, which he claimed showed that light consisted of “Rays differently refrangible”, and that color was an inherent attribute of light, was received with some consternation and his methods disputed. The account of Experimentum Crucis was published by the Royal Society, and debated in its newsletter. While there were varying opinions regarding the nature of light, particularly whether is was a wave like sound or a particle of some kind, the true uproar was that other members of the Royal Society could not reproduce his results at the long distances he described. This controversy calls into question the importance that Newton placed on precise reporting of his results, although Gleick notes that the experiment reported did not occur all at once, but rather was a summary of months of observation. The episode also calls into question Newton’s dedication to reasoned intellectual debate.
After fifteen months of debate, Newton announced that he wished to cease all correspondence saying that, “I intend to be no further solicitous about matters of Philosophy. And therefore I hope you will not take it ill if you find me ever refusing doing any thing more in that kind.” In Gleick’s reading of the affair, Newton had “sacrificed his tranquility” after sharing his discovery and wished to withdraw to the peace of Cambridge. Newton’s withdrawal from open debate at this point represented his penchant for avoiding close contact with society, including his students at Cambridge, and his distaste for being challenged that is in some way reminiscent of Galileo’s dealings with his critics.
Isaac Newton’s religious beliefs occupy a significant place in Gleick’s work, although their relevance to his thesis is not obvious at first. Newton’s theology differed from that of the Anglican Church and Trinity College where he held a fellowship in one important aspect that separates him from orthodox Christianity to this day; he rejected the theological construct of the Holy Trinity. Gleick introduces Newton’s theological differences with the Church of England to illustrate three things: his relationship with the hierarchy of his college, his approach to research, and his connection to philosophy as much as science.
Newton’s rejection of the Trinity became an issue when he reached the seventh year of fellowship at Trinity College, when he would normally be required to enter Holy Orders. This requirement existed because England’s collegiate system primarily existed to expand and promote the practice of Christianity. Newton denied the divinity of both Christ and the Holy Spirit due to his intense study of various versions and copies of scripture, of which he made copious notes. If his heretical beliefs had become public knowledge, Newton could have lost his position at Trinity College and been imprisoned. Somehow, Newton was able to keep his theology secret and also receive a dispensation from the king from entering Holy Orders, though Gleick’s notes indicate that no one knows how the King was persuaded to intervene on Newton’s behalf.
The real significance of Newton’s Arianist beliefs in Gleick’s text is to demonstrate the vigor and precision he pursued research of all types with, as well as to show that Newton combined philosophy, religion, and science as interchangeable aspects of knowledge. In the case of theology and the Trinity, Gleick describes Newton as assiduously comparing English Bibles to those written in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French and examined the teachings of early Christian thinkers. According to Gleick, Newton’s motivation with his Biblical studies was the same as that for his precise inquiries into mathematics and alchemy: he was doing God’s work to recover knowledge that had been lost, hidden, or altered by the blasphemous. Gleick contends that Newton was either the last philosopher who practiced science, or the last scientist who practiced philosophy until the arrival of Albert Einstein on the scientific scene.
In addition to showing that Newton applied substantial vigor to all of his researches, it also provides an explanation for Newton’s work beyond that of curiosity or to provide support for himself beyond the farming of his forefathers. The belief that he was called by God to bring Truth to the world can provide easy explanation for his single-mindedness in pursuing a line of research, as well as his antipathy for debate and his dislike for those who challenged his methods and theories. Those who challenged what he saw as God’s work were either ignorant or deliberately trying to keep mankind in the dark.
Gleick’s final example of Newton’s passion for precision earned him a knighthood. In 1696, with the English economy suffering with a debased coinage that was susceptible to counterfeiting and trimming, Newton accepted the position of Warden of the Mint, and was charged with a complete re-coinage of Great Britain’s currency. During his tenure at the mint, not only did Newton make an extraordinary amount of money, but also he ensured that the nation’s coins were the most uniform in weight and purity with the technology at hand. Strangely, while interesting and somewhat useful in continuing to illustrate Newton’s insistence on measurement and his service to England, it does not mention his methods at all, other than to say, “he ran the Mint with diligence and even ferocity. He was, after all, the master of melters and assayers who multiplied gold and silver on a scale that alchemists only dreamed of.” Given that Gleick dealt with Newton’s penchant for measurements of all types when discussing his alchemical, physical, and mathematical endeavors, it is difficult to fathom why he spent much space on Newton’s efforts at the Mint other than to explain his knighthood and wealth in later life.
In all, Gleick does an admirable job of examining Newton’s successes and failures, his quirks and excesses. He shines at showing, in the later portions of the text Newton’s influence on later thinkers. Gleick credits Newton’s proof that all of nature obeys rules, which he attributed to God, for the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence. He also awards Newton credit for turning science away from flights of fancy and toward things that can be empirically proven and tested, in effect separating science from philosophy until Einstein’s theory of relativity posited without proof that less time passed for those moving at light speed than for those moving more slowly. Ultimately, Gleick lays all of the results of Newton’s work on his insistence on measurement of phenomena, which proved to be the birth of the modern scientific method.