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Science Talk

Inside Isaac: A Discussion of Newton, Part 2

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 podcast is brought to you by Audible.com, your source for audio books and more.  Audible.com features more than 100,000 titles including science books you've been meaning to check out like Kevin Dutton's The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success and Richard Panek's The Four Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality.  Right now, Audible.com is offering a free audio book and a one-month trial membership to the Scientific American audience.  For details, go to Audible.com/sciam.

Steve Mirsky here.  Welcome back for part two of the panel discussion about Isaac Newton following a performance of the play Isaac's Eye on February 20th.  This production of the play runs through March 10th at the Ensemble Studio Theater.  Your panelists again are playwright Lucas Hnath, NYU astronomer and science historian Matthew Stanley, Columbia University science historian Matthew Jones and the moderator, Yeshiva University physicist Gabriel Cwilich

Gabriel Cwilich:     We left out the other big character in this play, Hooke.  He's an incredibly interesting character.  Say something about Hooke.   

Matthew Jones:    Yeah, so I was very pleased to see Hooke here and he functions very effectively, anachronistically, as you indicated at the end of the play.  And Hooke, like Newton, came from very modest social circumstances.  And it's more in that modesty of his social circumstance, despite going to Oxford, is part of what enabled him to do the sorts of things he did.  The Royal Society probably would have been a talking club and of very little significance.  He just had topography of London.  If you wanted to get anything from drugs to any kind of chemical thing or any mechanical contrivance, he could call in, literally, favors and have it done almost overnight. 

So, Leibniz demonstrates a calculating machine.  Hooke says – and this is classic for Hooke, “Oh, I already have one of these.”  Complete crap.  But a month later, demonstrates one.  Probably worked his better.  It's one of the missing items, actually, that's alluded to in the play.  But he could do that. 

Now, that meant that the Royal Society could be more than words about intervening in nature because Hooke was the one who could get air pumps working because he's the one who could find cement.  Remember, this is an age when nothing is standardized.  No chemicals.  No – you can't depend on anything, which is why say, Newton and Huygens and all these people, they blow their own glass and make their own lenses because you can't trust anything.  Hooke was a master at this. 

And so his – the character that he's sort of wheeler/dealer with knowledge of the street is integral to the kind of science and technology he does.  It couldn't happen if he weren't this sort of character.  The other thing I'd say about the diary is one thing I very much liked is that the diary, like the needle in the eye, those are tools of investigating the perversities of the self.  There's this deep and profound sense – they don't know how to trust themselves as individuals.  And the answers that philosophy has given don't count. 

And so diaries, as well as sticking needles in your eyes, are investigating yourself so that you may be able to have any sense of what you might be able to say about the nature of their integrated practices.  And it's not accidental that Hooke is writing his diary around the same time as Pepys.  We don't have diaries of this kind if you were going 50 years earlier.  It's just not there.  Whereas for the next century and a half, we're gonna have too many.  And they're not nearly as interesting as Hooke's.

Lucas Hnath:       Well, Pepys' is pretty interesting.

Matthew Jones:    No, Pepys' is even more interesting.  Pepys is not as laconic.  Hooke is very laconic, in a way.

Gabriel Cwilich:     [Inaudible]

Matthew Jones:    Right, no.  This is – what – the entire textbook's like that.

Gabriel Cwilich:     Perhaps it's a good time to open it a little bit to see if there are questions here and ___ the time, at least. 

Matthew Stanley:      No, I can't see.

Matthew Jones:    I can't see. 

Gabriel Cwilich:     I see one hand there. 

Audience:             Well, I have two questions.  One is – what do you think Newton's theological beliefs were, if any?  I mean, they seem to be complex in the play and I don't know ____. 

Matthew Stanley:          Sure.  So, Newton's theological beliefs were, as you say, complex.  To a certain degree, idiosyncratic.  He, as the play discussed, denied the reality of the trinity and this is a conclusion he probably came to by doing his own biblical scholarship.  So, Newton sort of invents what nowadays we would call “Biblical criticism” – a couple of hundred years ahead of time. 

And one of the things he does is find multiple, different versions of early Christian and Hebrew scripture.  So, for instance, he has this great chart where he has several different versions of the Book of Daniel put sort of parallel so he can try to figure out what the original version of these texts was.  And he decides that the earliest references to the trinity don't appear until the fourth century and therefore, the trinity is clearly a plot, possibly satanic, probably papal.  He thinks it's a Roman Catholic conspiracy to turn true Christians away from true Christianity.  So, he essentially comes to think that Orthodox Christianity is a vast conspiracy to turn people away from the truth. 

So, he spends most of his life – we think of Newton as a physicist or mathematician but he spends – he writes several million words of theology over the course of his life.  And spends – if you add up like, number of days or number of years, that's what he spends his time doing is writing theology, trying to find the true Christian religion.  So, the closes analog to his particular scheme is this early Christian heresy called Arianism which denies that Jesus was divine.  Jesus was sort of created as this intermediary between God and the world but doesn't have any divine properties on its own.  But a lot of Newton's theological manuscripts are actually available online now at the Newton Project so if you want to entertain yourself for a while, you can read through those for 20 or 30 years. 

[Crosstalk]

And so he becomes obsessed with the true nature of scripture.  He spends time trying to figure out the original dimensions of the Temple of Solomon in addition to figuring out what the true Christian scripture said before they were corrupted.  So, it's in some sense, impossible to summarize his theological views but hopefully, this gives you some sense of the variety of things he was interested in.  

Matthew Jones:    Yeah.  The only thing I'd add to that is that he – he believes that a properly amended scripture is an independent source of knowledge from knowledge of nature and they both will contribute to knowledge of the divine.  And he writes absolutely parallel rules for reasoning and philosophy, which he puts in the Principia, his great book of physics.  And he writes rules for the interpretation of scripture, which are rational rules for dealing with revealed scripture, which needs to be amended.  But is nonetheless – it's, on the one hand, a profound, new kind of rationalism applied both to nature and to scripture but on the other hand, he's convinced that scripture carries something above and beyond anything one can find in the natural world. 

Matthew Stanley:          Yeah.  Deep truth.  That as an honest inquirer about the world, one is obligated to interrogate scripture in the same way you interrogate nature.  It would be foolish to leave one of these sources of knowledge behind. 

Audience:             Who would you consider a greater scientist – Newton or Hooke?  Short question, long answer. 

Matthew Stanley: Well, historians are professionally obligated to not answer those questions, generally.  I think one of the – in terms of legacy, one of the things I find interesting about Hooke is that he sort of gets written out of history in a very important way and partly, that's because Newton wants to crush all record of his rival.  But also, as Matt was just talking about, the gifts that Hooke brought to the investigation of experimental philosophy were mechanical and messy and dirty and relied on your hands and knowing how to make cement and smoking enough Opium before you worked on the air pump and such.  And those are the sort of characteristics that men of science did not necessarily want themselves associated with very often.  So, the messy parts of – Hooke was so closely associated with the messy effectiveness of experimentation that people were happy to not talk about him because they didn't want science to look messy.  So, in that sense, Hooke is great in so far as people didn't talk about him.

Matthew Jones:    One thing I should say about Hookee is that despite the nature of their rivalry, Hookee knew, say, his lack of the kind of mathematical gifts that Newton had.  And it was really under Hookee's prodding and indeed, almost creating rivalry, that he enabled Newton to come out of his shell and use – I mean, Newton had produced this unbelievable new mathematics and this unbelievable new account of motion but not done anything.  He really just sat on this stuff.  He was totally ambivalent about publication and especially after the disaster of what happened when his optical paper was published.  But Hookee, for all of his faults, had a sense that Newton could solve these problems and indeed, out of that emerged – almost forced Newton's hand into producing the Principia which truly is a sort of – a turning point in the way one thinks about the relationship between mathematics and physics. 

Gabriel Cwilich:     If I can add something to the question.  A historian, as you say, is not supposed to say – I am not a historian.  My day job, when I cannot hang around the theater here, is to be a physicist.  And if you ask physicists – and actually, I believe somebody polled somehow – I remember having read about that – who is the biggest in your profession and without any doubt, everybody would say “Newton.”  That Newton is the biggest physicist ever existed. 

Even if we called Galileo, the father for profession, even if Einstein is our most popular figure and everybody believes he’s genius, everybody – there was no one in physics like Newton.  So, in that sense, they will answer you.  If you ask physicists, they will say, “Newton” on anything.  It's not Hookee, it's not anyone else.  It's Newton.

Matthew Stanley:          Along these lines, some years ago, 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.” 

[Laughter]

So, it has diffused all the way into ___.

Gabriel Cwilich:     And he _____. 

Matthew Stanley:          Yeah. 

Audience:             Is there one biography of Newton that you would recommend?

Gabriel Cwilich:     Oh boy. 

Matthew Jones:    What I would recommend actually is there's a small volume published by Norton, which is – it's the Norton critical edition of Newton's writings and it interweaves biography with very carefully selected examples of his writings.  And the reason I suggest it is that something like the optics paper that is at the heart of this play is extremely readable.  And so it's – so I very much commend that volume.  And in there, it has references to the major biographies which range from very large ones to very small ones.  But I think it's both entertaining and interesting to get a texture. 

And the text, it's carefully selected that it's completely legible.  So, that's what I would recommend.  And then this Newton project that Matt referred to is putting together all of these manuscripts, many of which no one wanted.  60 years ago, people didn't want to keep the papers on alchemy.  They didn't want to keep the theology papers. 

So, they're in funny places in some cases.  A lot of them are – a lot of the theological papers are in Israel for example.  So – ‘cause Cambridge just didn't care.  Those are now being put online and you can get a taste of the diversity of his interests including the wonderful Of Colors manuscript that the whole experiment with the bodkin comes from. 

Matthew Stanley:          Yeah, I'll second that edition.  That's what I use for teaching and it is surprisingly fun.  It's the sort of thing where you can pick it up and kind of read 10 or 20 pages and you're like, “Wow.  I know something cool.” 

Matthew Jones:    Yeah.  And there's a wonderful letter.  “If you want to read the Principia, you need to read the following 70 books.”  And then what they editor provide you is the first preposition of the Principia and then, as it were, Newton's own popularization of his natural philosophy which is, again, completely legible.

Matthew Stanley: Very interesting.

Audience:             I've heard that the Newton dabbled in the Kabbalah and in alchemy.  Is that –?

Matthew Stanley:          Well, I'd say more than dabbled.  Again, probably wrote a couple of million words on alchemy.  It was one of the intense focal of his – well, I was about to say “later life.”  That's not true.  Even when he was a young man.  And partly – Matt can say more about this – one of  the things I think he found very attractive about alchemy is the – it was an opportunity to see forces that were not normally present in nature – that is, you have falling objects and you have light but when you start messing around with alchemy, you get really strange things happening.  So, it was a way of looking into forces that you couldn't find otherwise.

Matthew Jones:    Yeah.  And alchemy, we tend to think of alchemy as being sort of all mumbo jumbo and about creating gold and it was a lot of that and he spent a  lot of time figuring that out.  But it also was really a way of doing incredibly practical chemistry.  So, it had a very elaborate, experimental apparatus but also was a very important theory about what matter and motion is like.  And so just as Newton was interested in his physics, he said, “The world is not simply particles hitting each other but it's particles plus this really strange force called gravity.” 

With the experiments that he did in his alchemy, what he found were principles of growth and production which he thought he could analyze on the same terms.  Kabbalah, that's a little hard to say.  He was interested in an entire strand of thinking which said something like this – and this is very popular in the European renaissance that at the time of Moses or even before, there was a sort of pure knowledge of God's intention.  So the true religion of Abraham on the one hand and on the other hand, true knowledge of the way nature really is.  And that this had gotten corrupted over thousands and thousands of years.

And so Judaism, Christianity, Islam were all corrupted versions of this, including the Kabbalah and so were all the bad forms of natural philosophy.  And he believed this to such an extent that at one point, he was preparing an edition of the Principia that included marginal annotations to show how some of the ancients clearly had knowledge of all of his discoveries because there was this great knowledge in the past.  So, it's one of those moments where he's completely embedded on the one hand in creating the most modern, new mathematics and believing – and the evidence suggests that he really did believe that this had been lost in the great time when true kings ruled in which there was not this kind of human corruption.  And just to bring it back to alchemy, alchemy was seen as a practical art but it was also sort of a way of transforming things such that they returned to a less corrupted state.  And as I said, there's this – almost everyone in 17th century Europe is convinced that what you need to understand is how human beings are corrupted and then try to fix it maybe.  And alchemy was one bit of that. 

Gabriel Cwilich:     Fascinating.  Well, yes Rich?

Audience:             [Inaudible] Can I just ask one question?  ______ Newton in the play, I'm wondering to what extent is this an accurate depiction of Newton.  I mean, what drove that mean sprit?

Matthew Stanley:          I'd say the play might even be a slightly nice interpretation. 

[Laughter]

Gabriel Cwilich:     I completely agree. 

Matthew Stanley:          As for what drove it, I guess that's harder to say. 

Matthew Jones:    Yeah, that's extremely hard to say.  And there's been a very substantial industry, you can imagine, of psychoanalytic readings of Newton precisely because his character had such strong characteristics.  This has, in some sense, fallen out of fashion.  But it was – he was a very challenging person, as we might say and he was from very early on.  There's these evidence about – we have Hookee's diary on the one hand and then there's this list of Newton's sins in shorthand and – you guys both know about this – and historians were mouthwatering.  “This is gonna be the best stuff.”  And so someone finally figures out what the shorthand is and they decode it and the sins are things like, “Took a bath on the Sabbath.” 

[Laughter]

Matthew Stanley: Yeah, he made pies when he wasn't supposed to.

Matthew Jones:    Yeah.  But it's an indication that, you know, when we say the phrase, “Pure otamicalsy” there's a strict sense in which he had a very profound – and what we might characterize as pure otamical sense of self and sense of how to maintain his integrity.  And one of the things that led him to just strike out against everyone that he saw as any way impugning his integrity which was, as I think Lucas got quite right, almost every single person on the ___. 

Lucas Hnath:       What I love about that list of sins was it's, yeah, “I ate an apple on the Lord's day.  I slept in on the Lord's day.”  And then “Wished for the death of myself and others” just thrown in there. 

[Crosstalk and laughter]

There's something kind of charming about that. 

Matthew Jones:    Right.

Matthew Stanley: And I think this actually brings us back very nicely to the theme Matt has articulated – that this is a period in which people are deeply suspicious about their ability to understand and regulate themselves.  So a lot of Newton's mean-spiritedness comes from that kind of deep crisis of anxiety about not being able to control his body or this thoughts and working hard around that. 

Gabriel Cwilich:     In one word, he didn't exaggerate. 

[Laughter]

I always tell my students – perhaps you will tell me if I have been lying – I tell my students, “This man invented or discovered 80 percent of the centuries – of the science in the centuries.  He lived and spent all his time fighting to get credit for the other 20 percent.”

[Laughter]

Well, perhaps it's a good time now to close and to thank our panelists.  It was wonderful.  Really, really wonderful.  Thank you so much, guys.

[Applause]

[End of Audio]

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