Friday, 27 June 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts


… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Sir Isaac Newton PRS MP (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1727)


Physicist, mathematician, philosopher, alchemist, theologist and one of the most influential scientists of all time, and yet, despite all that, Newton remains most famous for being hit on the head by an apple. Even though that never happened. Which doesn’t seem quite fair somehow: after all, most of us have managed to get through life having successfully avoided being assaulted by plummeting specimens of Malus domestica altogether but nobody ever asked us to become President of the Royal Society, did they?

Nowadays, it is generally accepted that Newton and The Apple maintained an entirely collisionless relationship and yet the debate still manages to rage: as to who has actually got possession of the tree from which the apple fell that didn’t hit him on the head, with the King's School, Grantham, claiming they purchased and transported it to the headmaster’s garden “some years later,” whilst Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton’s home, insist they’ve still got it. However, the fact that Woolsthorpe only had the one tree and that it’s still there now, over 350 years old and still bearing fruit, should settle the argument. It is a rare Flower of Kent (all existing examples are descended from that one infamous tree), a green variety of cooking apple, pear-shaped, mealy, and of poor quality, which may explain why, despite all his alchemic endeavours, his phenomenal written output and his ubiquitous involvement with everything and anything, he still never managed to leave to posterity a halfdecent recipe for baked apples with cinnamon and custard. Pity. He might have been a bit less of a grumpy old grouch if he had.


Newton was born on 25 December 1642 at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, posthumous son of a (supposedly illiterate but prosperous) farmer also called Isaac Newton, and died on 20 March 1727, though even here lies controversy, thanks to Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII, together with their proclivity for calendar making. In 46 BC, Caesar introduced the leap year method, to take account of the fact that the earth’s orbit takes 365.25 days (thus needing an extra day every four years, though pedants might point out that it’s actually a few minutes shorter than that, at 365.2425 days), whereas Gregory (24 February 1582) was simply intent on nailing the calculation of Easter to as close to the spring equinox as possible and so hit upon his own version. Britain held fire until 1752 before becoming fully Gregorian, when Wednesday 2 September was followed by Thursday 14 September, though it is unclear what befell those who had birthdays between the third and the thirteenth – did they miss out altogether, no cards, no presents, with the consolation of not actually being one year older that day? Or what? You see, Pope Gregory just hadn’t thought it through properly, had he? Strange, given that all this concerns solar orbits and tricky calculations, that Newton himself didn’t have something to say on the matter, so perhaps he just didn’t see it coming, though he did predict in 1704 that the world would end in 2060 and, seeing he was right in pretty much everything else, it hardly seems worth our while bothering with Climate Change in that case, with only the forty six years left to go now. But calm down, don’t panic just yet, because what he actually said was, “not before 2060,” so there may still be time for England to win another World Cup.


Right then, the trimmings are up, mistletoe and holly dangle from the rafters, the tree a blaze of light, parcels at its foot, the last door on the advent calendar is open (revealing a lovely nativity scene, no doubt), the air awaft with the rich fragrances of mulled wine, roasting chestnuts and crisping turkey (goose, if you prefer), the calendar shows December 25 1642 and Isaac Newton Junior has just come into the world as a newborn infant. Meaning it can only be … yes, January 4 1643, according to those wretched Gregorians, at least. Bet they don’t celebrate Christmas on January 4, three days after New Year, do they. Still, to give them their due, when it came to his death, instead of having him peg out on March 20 (the date on his Westminster tombstone), they granted him a few days gratis and let him hang on until March 31. Very bizarre and enough to make one wonder why we bothered learning all those dates in history lessons in the first place, when all it needs is one Pope with a halfbaked idea to scupper it completely.


So, that’s Newton born at last, though not leaving us much room to look at what else he got up to. Born prematurely, he was a small child, his mother remarking that he “could have fit inside a quart mug.” Do we detect a hint of northern accent there? These are Lincolnshire farming stock, remember, so it’s tempting to think that young Isaac may have flattened vowels and dropped aitches, as in, “Ay oop, ‘Alley lad, seen owt o’ that comet o’ thine yit? Ne’er mind, gi’ it another seventy five year and summat’s bound to turn up, I reckon.” Newton was educated at The King's School, Grantham (the tree purloiners, if you recall), which taught him Latin but absolutely no mathematics, thus furnishing history with possibly its first and probably its last instance of where an unironical use could be made of the phrase, “it didn’t do me any harm.” There he fell victim to the School Bully (definite sign of greatness, surely?), whom he revenged himself upon through the building of sundials and windmills. Bet that wiped the smile off the blackguard’s face, and no mistake.

Then, in 1661, it was off to Trinity College, Cambridge, paying his way via valeting and waiting on table for the wealthier students, who then became distinguished for nothing better than having had their dinner served to them by the world’s greatest scientist. Having gained his BA (an unremarkable student) in August 1665, along came the Plague, so he hightailed it back to Woolscombe just in time to avoid being hit on the head by an earthbound apple, to inadvertently design the cover for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album (not to appear until March 1973, some 246 years, almost to the day, after his demise) and to begin his theories on calculus, later to inflict so much misery on sixth form students the world over.


Independently and simultaneously, Leibniz had also been developing his own ideas on calculus, which he began publishing in 1684 (supposedly long before Newton did) and which would lead to a major dispute between them, Leibniz thus becoming one of many that Newton would fall out with. Newton argued that he’d thought of it all first, he just hadn’t written it down yet, though both men would eventually be credited with its discovery. In 1699, it all boiled up again when the members of the Royal Society accused Leibniz of plagiarism, reaching crescendo in 1711 when their report proclaimed Newton to be the true discoverer, though it is sheer coincidence that the author of the concluding remarks just happened to be Newton himself.


In 1668, he wowed the Royal Society with his reflecting telescope, receiving encouragement enough to publish On Colour, later expanded into Opticks (so, not much spelling either at King's, it seems; too busy usurping trees), which Robert Hooke (the Microscope Man) just had to have a go at, didn’t he, so Newton fell out irrevocably with him too. In 1678, he suffered a nervous breakdown but, by 5 July 1687, he was back with the Principia (with a “kip”, not a “sip”) – published with the encouragement and financial backing of Edmond Halley (the Comet Man) – one of the greatest ever works of scientific research but drier than a ship’s biscuit and a good deal more difficult than attempting to knit fog. Another breakdown followed in 1693, possibly due to his falling out with Swiss mathematician Duillier, to whom Newton was patron and providing with fat wadges of cash. Duillier, it seems, claimed to have pointed out errors in the Principia but, rather than get Newton to revise it, he would “probably do it himself.” Posterity remembers Duillier as, “a sceptick in religion, a person of no virtue, but a mere debauchee,” who was at the same time fleecing his pupil, the Duke of Bedford, for “vast sums of money.” Newton recovered but seems to have lost all interest in scientific problems, concerning himself instead with investigating prophecy, scripture and alchemy.


Newton was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1689 and served for exactly a year, speaking only the once, and that was to ask for a draughty window to be shut. But, in 1696, he finally got the job he had craved, being made Warden of the Mint, then Master in 1699, no small thanks to the fact that his niece, Catherine Barton, happened to be mistress to Lord Halifax, who was able to pull a few strings and twiddle some important nobs, but a little bit of nepotism never did anyone any harm. 


He was keen as a kipper and right away they held the Great Recoinage, in which he estimated that twenty percent of coins were counterfeit. Though counterfeiting was high treason, it was notoriously difficult to get the charges to stick, so our man decided to disguise himself and hang around in bars, collecting the evidence himself, the result of which was the prosecution of twenty eight coiners at his hand. One of these was a certain William Chaloner, whose schemes included entrapping Catholics in phony conspiracies and then grassing them up, the rewards of which were lucrative enough for him to pose as a gentleman. But then he overextended himself by telling Parliament where Newton was going wrong and accusing him of incompetency and that he could probably make a better fist of it than Newton was managing. A fatal mistake, seeing that (1) Newton was a man known to harbour bitter grudges and (2) Chaloner himself was striking false coins at the time. Newton had Chaloner sent to Newgate in September 1697 but Chaloner, who had escaped the rope previously, called in favours from friends in high places (which must’ve miffed Newton no end) and got off. Not a man to forgive and forget, Newton then spent two obsessive years establishing a watertight case against him and eventually got his man: on 23 March 1699, Chaloner ended on the gallows, whilst Newton himself, with not a little irony, would eventually end up on the back of a one pound note.


In 1703, Newton was elected president of the Royal Society, his tenure being noted for its autocracy and tyranny (so, bossy as well as grumpy). When Queen Anne made him “Sir Isaac” in April 1705, he became the second scientist to be knighted (Sir Francis Bacon was first), though in Newton’s case, it had more to do with political expediency, what with an election due next month, than for his Mint work or his boffinry. He also got his hands badly burned (to the tune of £20,000) in the collapse of the South Sea Bubble, whose most significant trade was in slaves, whilst his hair, after his death, was found to contain mercury (that’s alchemy for you), making him mad as a hatter and something that has been used to excuse some of his later “eccentricities.”

Isaac Newton: brainy bloke, just don’t get on the wrong side of him …

[Apologies for the loss of last week's Lighter Side, which was entirely due to circumstances. We hope that this will go some way towards making up for that.]





No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave a comment or question about the library. These are moderated.