Friday, August 3, 2018

Newton, Monster and Saint

Newton's portrait by Godfrey Kneller (1702)
Biographers have idolized and sanitized Isaac Newton’s character to such an extent that the saint and the monster that resided inside him is extremely difficult to discover or understand. Arthur Koestler offers a brief glimpse of the hidden aspect of Newton’s character in his book The Act of Creation (Chapter: “Appendix II”):
On the one hand [Newton] was deeply religious and believed—with Kepler and Bishop Usher—that the world had been created in 404 B.C.; that the convenient design of the solar system—for instance, all planetary orbits lying in a single plane—was proof of the existence of God, who not only created the universe but also kept it in order by correcting from time to time the irregularities which crept into the heavenly motions —and by preventing the universe from collapsing altogether under the pressure of gravity. On the other hand, he fulminated at any criticism of his work, whether justified or not, displayed symptoms of persecution mania, and in his priority fight with Leibniz over the invention of the calculus he used the perfidious means of carefully drafting in his own hand the findings, in his own favour, of the 'impartial* committee set up by the Royal Society. To quote M. Hoskin (from "The Mind of Newton"; The Listener by M. Hoskin):  
No one supposes that the committee set up by the Royal Society of which Newton had then been president for several years, was impartial. But we can only realize the extent of Newton's share in its conclusions when we examine a much-corrected draft summary of what were to be the findings of the committee. The draft is written in Newton's own hand, and it is fascinating to watch Newton debating with himself whether the committee ought to say 'We are satisfied that he [Newton] had invented the method of fluxions before' 1669, or whether it would sound better if they said 'We find that he invented the method of fluxions before' 1669; or deciding that to say 'We are satisfied that Mr. Newton was the first author of this method’ was too terse, and that several more lines of explanation ought to be inserted before the conclusion 'for which reason we reckon Mr. Newton the first inventor’.
Koestler notes that Newton represents a “pettiness on a heroic scale,” which is hard to reconcile with his “heroic vision of the universe worked out in minute detail.”

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