Isaac Newton’s Gravity

How a major new exhibition gets the scientist wrong.

Sir Isaac Newton

A curious thing happened to Isaac Newton on the way to a grand new exhibition at the New York Public Library, “The Newtonian Moment: Science and the Making of Modern Culture.” He seems to have gone through a time machine—backwards.

On display is what must be the most impressive collection of Newtoniana ever assembled in the United States: early notebooks and manuscript fragments, antique scientific instruments and rare books, portraits and at least one death mask. Even looking through quarter-inch Plexiglas, you can feel the power of the books and papers. Especially awesome are the rare editions of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the book that revealed Newton’s System of the World, and the notebook pages covered edge to edge with the words and figures that flowed from Newton’s quill in his astonishingly tiny and elegant hand.

Manuscript of Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica

But it’s a 19th-century Newton who’s been dusted off here: Sir Isaac, powdered and bewigged, the genius of rationality and order, who created—and who came to personify—modern science. “The acme of human possibility,” in the words of the exhibit’s curator, Mordechai Feingold, a history professor at the California Institute of Technology. Up to a point, this is fine. Newton really did write down the rules of the universe we live in, a universe of science and industry and reason, in which humans have managed to achieve a fair degree of control over unruly Nature.

Still, it is only a partial, bowdlerized picture of the man. We know much more now, thanks to long-buried papers that began coming to light during the 20th century. We know about Newton’s pathological aloneness, his brush with madness, his obsession with alchemy and theological heresies—none of which is so much as hinted at in this exhibition, let alone explored.

Newton’s marble tomb and monument in Westminster Abbey

When Newton died in 1727, at the age of 84, he was already an iconic figure, celebrated in verse and portraiture. His ornate tomb at Westminster Abbey was inscribed, “Mortals rejoice that there has existed so great an ornament of the human race.” But most of the millions of words he had written in his lifetime remained hidden. His passionate religious convictions were a dangerous secret: With all his heart he disbelieved in the Holy Trinity, and this was heresy. He enjoyed the fame and riches that came to him, but for most of his life he had preferred seclusion to participation in England’s burgeoning scientific community.

Newton never married, apparently never had a lover, and never even had a real friend, as we use the word in our sociable times. He never had a scientific collaborator; indeed, he fought bitterly and ruthlessly with other great philosophers. Having been a fellow and professor at Trinity College, Cambridge, for most of his adult life, he left behind not a single person who claimed to have been his student. When he made his greatest discoveries, his instinct was not to publish them but to keep them to himself.

Newton’s legacy is more than the sum of his discoveries. His flaws, his errors, and his scheming, too, changed the direction of science in profound ways. A case in point: Visitors streaming through the library’s Gottesman Exhibition Hall may stop to examine two peculiar pages, faded and stained, regarding a dispute over who invented the calculus. But they aren’t likely to realize that these pages are the damning evidence—the smoking gun—of one of the most delicious frauds in the annals of science.

Painting of Isaac Newton carrying out his prismatic experiment

Newton had, in fact, invented most of the mathematical machinery we now call the calculus. He accomplished this in the 1660s, as a very young man alone in a farmhouse during the plague years, and revealed it to no one. Meanwhile, in Germany, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz also invented the calculus—which is to say, much of the same mathematics, though with a different emphasis and a different form of notation. Leibniz’s form is the one we use today. Leibniz was entirely happy to publicize his discovery, and by 1712, when they were both old men, he and Newton were embroiled in an ugly international dispute, each accusing the other of outright theft.

The Royal Society of London, with Sir Isaac presiding, appointed a committee of scholars to adjudicate the matter. Their report found no doubt whatsoever. It vindicated Newton and condemned Leibniz. In addition to the report itself, the Royal Society published an anonymous review of the report, and this, too, righteously denounced Leibniz. “It lies upon him, in point of Candor,” it declared, “to make us understand that he pretended to this Antiquity of his Invention with some other Design than to rival and supplant Mr. Newton.”

Candorindeed! We now understand, from the surviving handwritten drafts, that the author of the report and the author of the review were the same man—Newton—writing about himself in the third person.

Before this sorry business, Leibniz himself had said, “Taking mathematics from the beginning of the world to the time when Newton lived, what he had done was much the better half.” Nothing learned by modern science diminishes Newton’s glory—not relativity or quantum mechanics or chaos theory. His fingerprints mark every part of science. He does not need debunkers.

So, the library offers a portrait on the model of David Brewster’s 1831 hagiography: “Neither the partiality of rival nations, nor the vanity of a presumptuous age, has ventured to dispute the ascendancy of his genius,” Brewster wrote. These words are still true today.

But we misunderstand Newton if we imagine him as a paragon of rationality and public science in the modern style. Brewster also wrote, “There is no reason to suppose that Sir Isaac Newton was a believer in the doctrines of alchemy,” and these words don’t hold up so well. Not only was he a believer; he was, in secret, the most complete and knowledgeable alchemist of his time.

Manuscript on display at the exhibit

If there was one turning point in modern Newton scholarship, it came in 1936, when a metal trunk of Newton’s manuscripts arrived at Sotheby’s in London. These notebooks and loose pages, amounting to 3 million unread words, were to be sold at auction in hundreds of individual lots. John Maynard Keynes, horrified by this sacrilege, was able to buy some lots immediately and gather others later; the rest were scattered around the world.

What Keynes found in these manuscripts amazed him: ethereal spirits, a secret fire pervading matter, a fixation on quicksilver—mercury—as “the masculine and feminine semens … fixed and volatile, the Serpents around the Caduceus, the Dragons of Flammel.” We know now that Newton, the alchemist, hid behind a pseudonym, Jeova sanctus unus, as he slowly and unwittingly poisoned himself with the mercury he continually touched, smelled, and tasted.

None of this work led anywhere, as far as modern science is concerned, and none of it is reflected in the exhibit. Still, it’s a part of the real Isaac Newton, a complex and tormented soul from a pre-Newtonian world. The birth of science was messier than you would think from The Newtonian Moment, and more interesting, too.

This is why Keynes, speaking not long before his own death, tried to persuade us not to think of Newton as “the Sage and Monarch of the Age of Reason” on display at the library; rather, as an “intense and flaming spirit.”

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason,” Keynes said. “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.” Newton opened a door to our world, sure. But he belonged to the world we have left behind.