The apple of our eye

The Cambridge Companion to Newton - On the Shoulders of Giants - Newton
March 28, 2003

Graham Farmelo goes in search of 'genius' and finds old chestnuts.

If our celebrity-obsessed media are to be believed, "genius" has never been in greater supply. We bandy the word around when discussing virtually any human pursuit, even sport ( especially sport: who demurs when the footballer Pele is described as a genius?). In the higher-minded circles of science historians, on the other hand, the very concept is widely disdained: they argue that communities, not individuals, make revolutionary changes. Yet some of us cling to the belief that genius is a concept worth preserving, particularly in these relativist times. Among the scientists who are candidates for genius, Isaac Newton is perhaps the most obvious - as he would have been the first to agree.

Last year, the BBC's daft but compelling "Great Britons" poll demonstrated that the public is quite happy to accept that Newton was a genius and that his achievement was exceptional (he was ranked sixth overall, just below Shakespeare and Darwin but some way behind the princess of Wales). And as historian of science Patricia Fara describes in her scholarly and readable analysis of Newton's standing among his colleagues and the public, for two centuries his reputation has been at this stratospheric level. Kant, however, demurred, because he believed that science was fuelled by hard work rather than by inspiration: "We can readily learn all that Newton has set forth in his immortal work Principles of Natural Philosophy ... but we cannot learn to write spirited poetry." The idea of scientific genius was an oxymoron for Kant and for most other thinkers ever since the influential essayist Joseph Addison introduced the essentially romantic notion of genius in 1711 in The Spectator .

As Fara makes plain, Newton argued the case of his pre-eminence with a tenacity that would be the envy of the most zealous spin doctor. One is astonished at the reserves of energy that he expended in his bullying correspondence with his enemies, especially over matters of priority, for example with Hooke, who claimed to have been first to discover the inverse square law of the sun's gravitational attraction. But although historians pick over the bones of their disputes, there is no doubt that eventually Newton established himself as the leading scientist of his time throughout Europe.

Regarding the public, he was adept at seeding colourful anecdotes that blossomed into myths bolstering his reputation as the iconic scientific genius. In one particularly engaging chapter, Fara sets out these myths, which she has researched in meticulous detail. I was disappointed to learn that the story of Newton's predecessor in the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge resigning in his favour originated from Newton's own lips; I have been dining out on it for years.

What about the oldest chestnut of all, the anecdote about the falling apple? Newton came up with it a few months before his death while reminiscing with his friend and hagiographer William Stukeley. Perhaps conscious of the story's emotive power, he retold it to at least three other people. Assiduous scholars have even identified the apple tree in the garden of his family home near Grantham as a Pride of Kent, then a popular cooking apple (not the one on the cover of Fara's book, apparently). Fara delves into the story's underlying imagery and religious connotations, pointing out the typically English rural setting, the resonances with the Adam and Eve story, and the fact that the apple occurs frequently in classical mythology: all of which were well known to Newton.

Also impressive is her investigation of how cultural artefacts have illuminated society's attitude to Newton. In the 1850s, his native town of Grantham celebrated the 200th anniversary of his arrival at its grammar school by erecting an appropriately charmless 13ft statue. Today, the most prominent tribute in Grantham is the Isaac Newton shopping centre, now dilapidated. It seems that the modern Grantham prefers to celebrate the memory of its other famous offspring, Baroness Thatcher, who chose to feature Newton on her coat of arms alongside a Falklands admiral.

Newton: The Making of Genius is a fine book, but it would have been even better if it gave a clearer idea of why Newton is held in such esteem. Fara makes light of his achievements to the extent that a reader who is not aware of their depth would be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. Often she is too keen to downplay the contributions of Newton, so as to hammer home her point about how "Eureka!" myths and a weakness for hero-worshipping distort our perception of history. To describe Einstein as "just one of many researchers" who made an impact in the early 20th century grossly underestimates his status.

For a comprehensive account of Newton's contributions, one need look no further than the long-awaited Cambridge Companion to Newton . In their masterly introduction, editors I. Bernard Cohen and George Smith present an unsentimental overview of their subject's life, carefully exploring the extent of his achievements in mainstream science and examining his impact on philosophy and his lesser-known work on biblical prophecy and alchemy.

They tellingly comment that the famously solitary young Newton at Cambridge was anything but insulated from contemporary scientific thinking. Although he was certainly born at the right time to take advantage of a fertile intellectual climate, he made his contributions through the conventional combination of wide reading, hard work and a singular creative talent for both theory and experiment.

The absence of an essay that focuses on Newton's remarkable experimental work is my sole gripe with this collection. But it is a minor reservation: the 16 pieces, by leading European and North American historians of science, are generally accessible and of high quality. Especially enjoyable are Rupert Hall's thorough description and analysis of the Newton-Leibniz spat, William Newman's and Karin Figala's revealing essays on Newton's chemistry, and Alan Shapiro's clear account of Newton's optics and atomism.

This particular Cambridge Companion is a wonderful source not only for historians and philosophers but also for scientists who teach Newtonian physics and want to know more about what the great scientist really did, as opposed to what he is supposed to have done, and as an antidote to the recycled anecdotes trotted out in most physics texts. How many physicists are aware that what they call Newtonian mechanics first appeared comprehensively in print only in Laplace's Celestial Mechanics more than a century after the publication of the first edition of Newton's Principia ?

One finishes the Companion hungry to read Newton's original works. These are not usually easy to find, but a modern translation of the Principia (originally written in Latin) is available in the third book under review, On the Shoulders of Giants , along with original works by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Einstein. The book's title, derived from a 12th-century aphorism featured in a window of the cathedral at Chartres, was used by Newton in one of the more polite letters he wrote to his adversary Hooke, in 1676: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The phrase is today routinely used to allude to the notion that science progresses in terms of great individuals building on the work of their most illustrious predecessors, rather than on the work of scientific communities.

Even if one does not subscribe to this view, the essays vividly illustrate the progress made in the four centuries from Copernicus' time to Einstein's. A strange omission is the work of James Clerk Maxwell, whose papers on the theory of electricity and magnetism were crucial to Einstein's development of relativity. Without Maxwell, Einstein's papers on special relativity make little sense unless one knows the underlying science. That is not good news for the thousands of lay readers who will buy this book on the strength of the name of its editor, Stephen Hawking, emblazoned in gold on the book's cover. In case readers are in any doubt, the concluding biographical notes tell us that "Hawking is considered the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein". They apparently believe that Hawking has stood on Einstein's shoulders, as Einstein once stood on the shoulders of Newton, in whose Grantham garden Hawking has tellingly been photographed beneath an apple tree.

As well as editor, the book credits Hawking as the author of the introduction and commentary. Whereas the introduction is written in his engaging style, the five commentaries are more formal and presented with more historical emphasis than we expect from Hawking, if with rather less wit and more error. Yet the commentaries are informative and well written.

Flawed though these pieces are, they are worth the price of the book for lay readers, most of whom will want to behold the original works rather than read them. One could hardly blame them, given that few research scientists read their field's pioneering papers. Rather, they rely on review articles and textbooks for digested accounts of their content, usually garnished with a generous helping of historical myth.

Although one can quarrel with Hawking's selection of papers, there is no doubt that he has done us a favour by dusting down a set of historical masterpieces and encouraging us to look at them afresh. Each is, in a sense, a literary masterpiece, reinventing the landscape of our imagination using not only words but mathematics. To describe their authors as geniuses would be to trivialise their achievement. We need a new word that has neither been devalued by hyperbole nor encumbered by romantic rhetoric.

Graham Farmelo is director, Dana Centre project, Science Museum, and edited It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science .

The Cambridge Companion to Newton

Editor - I. Bernard Cohen and George E. Smith
ISBN - 0 521 65177 8 and 65696 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.95
Pages - 500

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