NEW YORK CITY-- The pantheon of science holds few rivals of Isaac Newton, who co-invented calculus, analyzed planetary motion mathematically and separated white light into its component colors. A free exhibition opening Friday at the New York Public Library showcases Newton's enormous influence, not only on science, but also on popular culture and our perception of the world.
The Newtonian Moment: Science and the Making of Modern Culture displays hundreds of documents and other items among the imposing marble pillars and arches of the Gottesman exhibition hall, on Fifth Avenue at 42nd St. Some manuscripts, on loan from the University of Cambridge Library, have never been shown before in the U.S. The exhibition presents not just Newton's writings, but also their context and their consequences, aiming to reveal ¿how this esoteric body of knowledge actually transformed our entire culture,¿ says curator Mordechai Feingold, a professor of history at the California Institute of Technology.
The exhibition traces Newton's ideas and influence over time, starting even before his arrival at Cambridge in 1661. In one early notebook entry he explores optics by pressing with a pointed object on the back of his own eyeball to produce colors, an effect we would now regard as neurological rather than physical. Newton hand marked a copy of the first edition of the Principia, his opus on mechanics, with revisions to be made in the second edition. Both are on display, along with Opticks, published exactly 300 years ago. A 1676 letter to German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz slyly disguises the fundamental theorem of calculus in an anagram. Newton later claimed that Leibniz stole his ideas, and drafts of his anonymous denunciations are also on display.
Although documents are the stars of this show, The Newtonian Moment includes original artwork and prints illustrating Newton's iconic status. His rational worldview became a touchstone for both supporters and critics. For example, Newton was the model for William Blake's famous painting The Ancient of Days, showing a god creating a cold, mathematical world. Newton himself was a devout Christian, and visitors will find samples of his unorthodox religious writings as well.
The exhibition runs from October 8, 2004 through February 5, 2005, with associated public lectures slated for November 30 and January 5. A related web site is available at http://www.nypl.org/research/newton. Feingold has also written a companion book titled The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture (Oxford University Press, 2004).