Science Talk

Inside Isaac: A Discussion of Newton, Part 1

A panel of physicists, science historians and playwright Lucas Hnath discuss Newton following a performance of Hnath's play about Newton, called Isaac's Eye, at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York City on February 20th. The play runs through March 10, 2013

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky:       This Scientific American broadcast has been brought to you by, your source for audio books and more. features more than 100,000 titles including science books like Bad Pharma; How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by Ben Goldacre and new sci-fi like Extinction by Mark Alpert.  Right now, is offering a free audio book and a one-month trial membership to the Scientific American audience.  For details, go to - S-C-I-A-M. 

Welcome to the Scientific American podcast, Science Talk, posted on February 24th 2013.  I'm Steve Mirsky.

Matthew Stanley:          I was in a cab going from this airport in the middle of Indiana to a physics conference and the cabbie said, “Where are you going?”  I said, “A physics' conference.”  And he says, “I know one thing about physics.  The king of physics is Isaac Newton.”

Steve Mirsky:       And that's Matthew Stanley.  He's an astronomer and a professor of the History of Science at NYU and he was part of a panel talking about Isaac Newton after a performance of a new play called Isaac’s Eye here in New York City on February 20th.  The play, written by Lucas Hnath, runs through March 10th at the Ensemble Studio Theater with support from the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation.  You can follow the panel discussion without seeing the play but it's helpful to know these elements of the show. 

Newton really did stick a needle in his tear duct possibly to try to learn more about light by seeing how altering the shape of his eye would change his perception.  Newton and Robert Hooke were real life rivals who have a fictitious encounter in the play.  Hooke kept an incredibly detailed diary of his activities and Newton may have had a youthful romantic interest in one Catherine Story who was another character in the show.  The pane also features the playwright Lucas Hnath, Matthew Jones a science historian at Columbia University and Gabriel Cwilich, a physicist at Yeshiva University and moderator of the panel. 

Gabriel Cwilich:    First of all, let me introduce the wonderful people who are going to enlighten us, we hope, or are going to have a good time chatting.  Let's start from Lucas - Lucas Hnath, the author of the play.  Here, to my right, Matthew Jones from Columbia University - from history department.  Historian who knows a lot about this period - thought and written a lot about this period.  And then, to his right, Matthew Stanley from NYU Gallatin.  And Matt, I don't know how to describe you.

Matthew Stanley:          Historian of Science.

Gabriel Cwilich:    He's an historian, philosopher of science, all over the map and a thinker on issues of science and religion who are very relevant to this play as well.  So, perhaps that’s something we can explore.  And so let's start and then eventually, we hope we'll have a chance to open it to the audience.  So, Lucas, I will ask you the first question that is a question that in one shape or the other, I have been asking you for the last couple of years since we started this.  Why Newton?  So, when I asked the question, I said, “Why, Lucas, why?  Why, Newton?”

Lucas Hnath:       I know.  And he always asks exasperatedly, which is interesting.  I was - I first got the idea to write the play when I was listening to a podcast of the Leonard Lopate show on my walk home.  He was interviewing George Johnson who wrote a book called The 10 Most Beautiful Experiments and in passing, he mentioned this experiment where Newton placed a needle in his eye and on my walk home, I just started imagining what that would look like on stage. 

I thought that that would make for an interesting stage action to put a needle in the eye.  And then I think, “Oh, yeah, and you're incapacitated while you've got a needle in your eye and that seems to be a bad position to be in.”  But then, that doesn't really make for a play.  So, I tried to figure out, “Well, what would compel this person to put a needle in his eye?”  And so I started looking for potent conflicts in Newton's career and one of the one's that stood out to me was between Newton and Robert Hooke.

It seemed that the two had several points of contention in their beliefs but also, they seemed like very disparate personalities.  Where Hooke is kind of snooping around a lot and studying a lot of different subjects, Newton is more monastic in his approach to science and also the outside world.  So, that's sort of the - a rough version of the origin story. 

Gabriel Cwilich:    Well, Matthew, perhaps you can tell us - you see, we all know Newton and the image we learned in Kindergarten is always of an apple falling on Newton and we always say that we try to make him a little nicer than he really is and so that was a lesson.  So, tell us something about the real Newton and how much of the real Newton do you see here?

Matthew Jones:   Well, you get a definite flavor of the real Newton.  I mean, when he was battling - he was battling indeed, the dispute over who invented the calculus’s.  And big and nasty disputant vicar because Newton organized the paper such that we could follow his victory and organized a publishing campaign against his bitter enemy laudinates who have no power, actually, at the time.  So, we get a sense of that.  But also, I think one thing we really get a sense of is the extent to which he was deeply concerned with the problems of the human being in coming to know things and that that was very much a problem that was a problem of our bodies as well as our minds.

And so I think Lucas was right to focus in on this moment in which the evidence suggests he actually really did constantly stick this - what he called a bodkin - in his eye because he wanted to know not just something about theories of light but also something fundamentally about how fragile we are as sensing and thinking beings.  And so it's just a fundamental thing for him but it's a fundamental thing indeed for the entire period he's operating in.  And his answers are at once, quite askew to those of his contemporaries and also transformative in the development of science.  So, we capture a lot of that.  And one of the things I liked a lot about the play is that the way in which the sort of emotional content of his character is also captured in the rather innovative approach that he takes to a new kind of - what they called - natural philosophy.

Matthew Stanley:          One of the things I always liked about the needle experiment was that it's not an experiment all by itself but it sort of demonstrates and important part of his character that Newton sort of sat down one day and said, “Now, I'm going to figure out colors.”  And he said, “Where are all the different places where you might study color?”  So, “Well, we see it in glass and we see it in water.  And we need to look at how we can mix different chemicals together.  And you know, sometimes, when you stare at the sun, you see some colors, right?  So, I'll stare at the sun for a while.”

And he does this - we were just talking about - he does this long enough that he incapacitates himself and has to lay out for a few days.  And he discovers that at some point, that when you press on your eye - everybody can do this experiment without hurting themselves - if you press on your eye a little bit, you do see these funny little rings.  He says, “I should check that out, too.”  So, this is just one little part of this entire project, figuring out everything about colors and then once he's experienced them all, then he can figure out what it really means, the truth behind it.  

Gabriel Cwilich:    Perhaps we can mention what is behind the Royal - which plays an important role here - what is the Royal Society?  What is the Restoration England?  Why the society became the Royal Society around that time  because they had to somehow make it up to the king and how dangerous it was doing or not doing or believing or not believing certain things around that time, around the 1660s.  Whichever of you want to tackle that?

Matthew Stanley:          Well, the Restoration England, I think, is an extremely interesting time because in some sense, everything is in flux, right?  Politics, religion, science - anything that someone thought was true about the world, you could find someone else who give you a completely cogent reason why that was no longer true.  And the stakes of this were very high - the stakes for whether or not you would cut the kinds head off or who was going to be ruling England or whether or not you should burn Quakers at the stake.  These were very serious issues and in important sense, these questions do come to the sort of questions that we see at play in the play here - is questions of how we can be sure about what we know and what kind of weight of truth can we put behind these things that we're quite sure are true, right?  So, even something as simple as, “I did this experiment” is an extremely complicated thing to say at this time. 

So, an experiment is not a self-evident kind of truth in Restoration England.  Even both - as we saw here - both Hooke and Newton, committed experimenters, disagree profoundly about whether or not Newton correctly reported the experiments he had done and whether or not how you wrote the story changed the sort of conclusion that you could draw, the kind of truth you could say about nature.  So, I find that this makes this an extremely interesting time in which people are so unsure about the foundations of belief that they constantly have to articulate them, too.  So, it's very nice for us as historians that people are constantly writing down why they think things are true.

Matthew Jones:   Yeah, and things were - things seemed so pathological that one moment in the play that I think really captures something crucial is when Hooke says to Newton that, “You can't handle criticism.”  And one of the things - the Royal Society was itself was an experiment about how to converse without coming to blows, without - I mean, literally getting to a state in which you could have a conversation in which you disagreed and that was okay.  And the creation of a new science was very much a debate about how far you could go.  Could you have any claims about what nature really is like or are you simply gonna have a group of people saying, “Look, I saw this.”  And Newton was such a challenge, actually, to the Royal Society because he was this profound individualist in his approach both in his mathematical work but also in this memorable paper that you've dramatized in which he does say, “I did this” in a way that it violates all the new community noise.

It seemed like a return to the bad past, the kind of thing that caused the killing of kings, the killing of Protestants, the killing of Quakers.  And yet, it's in some sense, it's the future for the Royal Society.  So, really, it's a moment of flux in which the stakes are very high but it's one in which fundamentally, people didn't know how to disagree.  And that's a key moment in the development of what we think of as science.

Gabriel Cwilich:    One thing - two questions perhaps, that answers the same question.  So, one is - can you try to convey how iconoclastic it was go to the Royal Society and say that light was particles in a time where it seems likely the general belief among the people who actually had some power there was the opposite?  And the other was, perhaps reflecting what the Royal Society was, in the following sense, it's difficult sometimes to imagine if Newton was born the week that Galileo died - who's the father of my profession, the father of physics.  And Galileo is thought of the father of physics because he had this crazy idea that instead of just thinking about the world like the previous philosophers actually one can interrogate nature but doing an experiment and that was revolutionary.  We are here, a couple of generations later and there is a society whose apparent main purpose is to sit down, have _, do an experiment in front of you - everybody and everybody discussing what it is so that in 40 years, science is obviously a completely different enterprise. 

That that's the main message from what I have read.  I am not a historian of the period, obviously, of what the Royal Society is.  How transcendent is that change and the appearance of the Royal Society in that process?

Matthew Stanley:          Well, on your first question, just to build on what Matt had just said, it's not so much that it was controversial that Newton claimed light was a particle, per se.  Rather, it was controversial was to go to the Royal Society and say, “I believe this.”  That's what, in some sense, the Royal Society is designed not to do.  It's a society where people get together and look at stuff and no one says what they believe because strongly saying what you believe, invites someone else to disagree with you and then the swords come out.  And this is really very much the way they thought about this problem. 

So, in an important sense, the controversial issue was not the actual theoretical claim so much as Newton's willingness to say, “This is a truth about nature that I have defined.”  There's a very important sense - it breaks the rules that they had set.

Matthew Jones:   Yeah.  And in some - and one of the funny things about the wave versus particle thing is Newton himself only slowly came to realize the full radical quality of what he had produced.  Because he created a new kind of mathematical - what he called “mathematical natural philosophy” in which it was okay not to opine about what, in fact, nature truly was but it was good enough to be able to give mathematical laws that explained it.  That you could not with exact.  What he did was just sort of square the circle, because on the one hand, the Royal Society said, “Oh, well, we'll look at facts and not generalize.”  And on the other hand, there was this danger of sort of dogmatic hypothesis of what the entire world was like, either particles or waves.

And what Newton did was to do something extremely radical and say, “Look, we're not gonna know the fundamental nature but we sure damn well can know, with exact precision, the mathematical principles that God has created on Earth.”  And that is one of the results ____.  So, that was a profound challenge, more so even than the wave versus particle duality.  And again, it was hard to realize how transformative that moment was in rethinking what the bounds of science could be and what the aspirations of science could be.  And it changed the Royal Society from a society of gentleman observing sort of nice experiments. 

And if you want to amuse yourself for an hour, look at the first few issues of their journal The Philosophical Transaction, filled with deadly serious experiments and a whole lot of various sort of flakey, gentlemanly figures who sent in all kinds of, well, just observations.

Matthew Stanley:          Like, two headed cows.  A rock fell from the sky last week. 

Matthew Jones:   Yeah, Leibniz, the great mathematician, publishes an article about a sheep he saw that had a head that looked like a giant wig.  This was an article one could publish in  The Philosophical Transactions but it's also The Philosophical Transaction's in 1674 publishes Newton's utterly transformative paper which then causes a fight and he withdraws completely from public life, until, in this weird dance with Hooke - Hooke gets him to come out.  I mean, his - the relationship there is a deeply strange on.

Matthew Stanley:          That was one of the things I loved about the early Royal Society is I should say, there are these experiments that now we look back on as sort of the first glimmerings of atomic truth or what not and then next to snakes with feet.  And the Royal Society did not particularly distinguish between these in terms of philosophical value.  These are all things that gentleman should be interested in.

Matthew Jones:   Yeah.  And Newton had different views on that, also.

Matthew Stanley:          Newton had ___. 

Gabriel Cwilich:    Do you want to say something about the role that optics played in Newton after all?  We remember Newton for his gravitation theory and that's what make him famous and his Principia, which we claim is the starting book of science or one of them.  It's mostly about gravitation but optics played a very big role in Newton's life from that age to the end when he was writing his book.  So, what is the relationship between all the Newton __, so to speak, and optics, which is what - seeing, which is what this play is all about.

Matthew Jones:   Well, on the one hand, it's sort of one of the fundamental places for understanding both what nature is like and our reactions to it.  So, when Newton adopts it, he's arguing against what had become the new sexy, exciting science of the time, which is the science of Dakar.  It's hard to imagine this but this was exciting.  But it was entirely hypothetical and Dakar even said it was a beautiful story about the world that was plausible.  And it had something to tell you about the world. 

You didn't need to be fearful of certain things and it was even useful because you could make better glasses.  That was the domain that Newton, as an undergraduate, not paying attention to the boring Aristotelians type, but were ready new, sexy, big Cartesian textbooks was embarked upon.  And he seizes both of those things and disagrees completely with the Cartesians.  So, it's both a way of really re-understanding the world in this fundamental way and creating new tools but also, re-understanding us as perceiving beings.  The optics - there's even a bigger thing that given Newton's theological orientation to understand the laws of optics was to very fundamentally understand something about the divine making. 

And light had long been associated with divine agency.  It was something - it was other to this world.  And that is unquestionably something he's so deeply - one of the reasons he's so deeply interested in it and it reflects a lot of the work that he does.  And it's in the optics, in fact, that he's most speculative.  So, late in life, he publishes many editions of a book Options Available and a reprint by Dover with an introduction by Einschtien. 

And at the end of the book, he has a long series of queries where the true beliefs of Newton are allowed to sort of - just to say their name.  Bizarre things about fermentation and other sorts of stuff.  These set an entire research program for a generation of English scientists in the 18th century.  So, it's utterly central to what he does at all sorts of levels.

Matthew Stanley:          Yeah.  That's right.  One of the interesting things I find about Newton and optics that's reflected nicely in this director's play is that it brackets his whole life.  It's sort of one of the first things that Newton can get serious traction on as a young man and he can show that he can do it better than the Cartesians, so that's appealing.  It's a time when glass technology is advancing rapidly, so he has new sorts of tools. 

It's amenable to the kinds of mathematical investigation and then also can actually __transcend an issue.  So, it's a perfect storm for the young Newton to tackle particular issues interested in.  And then when he's older, it's also his victory lap.  He writes the optics.  Once he's president for the Royal Society, he can finally say what he really thinks about light and God and matter and gravity and living inside God's brain and fermentation - all these things that he can only say at the end.  So, in that sense, I like it ‘cause you get the whole arch of the experience of Newton. 

Matthew Jones:   Yeah.  And when someone late in the 18th century like Günter wants to attack Newton - he takes on light and optics - it becomes so iconic and so intelligible as opposed to the rather abstract physics which is praised everywhere and understood almost nowhere, especially on his own terms. 

Gabriel Cwilich:    And light has been one of the areas of physics that attracted many people from other areas.  Experimental psychology started in some sense in the 19th century with people trying to understand perception of light.  So, what an area, from physics, that attracted many people.  I have a question for you, Lucas, but perhaps everybody can jump in which is - Newton is a strange character, human being.  We believe - and historians might disagree - he died a virgin. 

He never had any close friends of relationships very close and there are all sort of speculations that you might refer to.  Where this episode - where did you want to center on him with this girlfriend?  And we heard - you can say who this woman is because I'm sure you must have read who this Catherine Storey is or what do we know about her, besides what you just saw?

Lucas Hnath:       Well, I was interested in what drives a person to spend their life alone and to live this monastic life.  And that is not - it's not an interesting decision unless we get to see him make the decision.  So, that's why I put her in the play is because  - and I read a couple of places, a couple of people have written about her and kind of wondered about her and what she meant to him and it's possible he was close with her father and he had given Newton several books.  There's an account of Newton beating up Catherine's brother somewhere - a very brief mention of that.  So, she's somebody who seemed important, at least, but she's really there in part so we can see the weight of the decision he's made because to choose to be alone and to devote yourself so exclusively to the studies, it's - I needed to make that visible.  I needed to make that choice visible. 

Gabriel Cwilich:    The reason, a little bit, I ask that question is because - and perhaps you want to comment on that - one of the things that makes Newton stand out a farther side is not only that he was a great scientist or the greatest scientist as many people would say, was the first person who became a celebrity for being a scientist.  Before that, scientists were not people that were known to the big world.  And Newton became - in old age and particularly, when he went to Parliament, ___ this sort of icon figure.  And I always wondered, you know, he died at a very old age.  He died at 85 and then two or three years later after he died, this woman appeared, Catherine, is like, “Oh yeah, we were.  He was my boyfriend when we were 15 which was 70 years ago.” 

You know, it always sounded to me like all these women that appeared after Elvis died.  They'd say, “Oh yeah, of course he was my - yeah, we had something back when.”  She was saying that 70 years, approximately - after the fact, who's going to go and verify that two generations after?  So, it was interesting to me, because also this means - it's interesting what Newton became.  So, he some sense changed the role and the image of what a scientist is. 

Before him - I mean, probably you will cite examples of people who were famous society but in this scale of Newton, I believe there is nothing like it.  So, he invented, in some sense, the role of the scientist, as we all know it, beyond the scientist. 

Matthew Jones:   Well, one thing that's very hard actually as historians is that Newton, at the end of his life, was powerful enough to manage his image.  And then the people that produce the documentation, which we still depend upon, were also very careful about his image and they put it to lots of different usages.  They were attempting to fashion some vision of what it was to be a transcended scientific genius and this was a relatively new way of thinking.  He was not only a celebrity but a vision of what it meant for an individual to have the kinds of access that he did.  And it became increasingly secularized. 

So, the documents we have, the biographies, are written in the context of attempting to control this image.  So, it's actually very challenging for us, as historians, to document certainly, things he said because his family and others were committed.  And it changes, sort of - people have studied very carefully Newton's reputation, his character, his significant changes almost decade by decade over the next few centuries. 

Matthew Stanley:          Yeah, that's one of the things I find interesting is about once a generation, someone writes a - typically, an Englishman - writes a new biography of Newton in which Newton then takes on that “ages great” characteristics.  So, when the Victorians get their hands on him, Newton becomes a middle class, respectable gentleman who loved children and had a dog who he played with.  And you can see these like, paintings of Newton saying that he got thinking about the rainbow because he was playing with his nephew and his nephew had bubbles he was playing with and it's an effort to domesticate Newton for the Victorian age so he's a recognizable person instead of this crazy, heretical monk.  That was not okay for the Victorians.  And then in the 20th century, professional scientists reimagined Newton as a complete secular positivist who anticipated all the things that they wanted to find, as well.

Gabriel Cwilich:    And he began all his religious speculations and -

Matthew Stanley:          Yeah.  So, everybody wants to own Newton, is what I find all the time.  And interestingly - because his image was so tightly managed in order to sort of remove his past, it's fairly easy to claim Newton as your own because his past is kind of ambiguous and unclear.  So, whatever persuasion you want Newton to have, go start your web page with your Newton as secular humanist, whatever you need. 

Steve Mirsky:       We'll be right back with part two of the panel discussion following the performance of Isaac’s Eye running in New York City through March 10th.

[End of Audio]

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