After 5 years offline, is being updated during 2006. Please bear with us while we track down all the dead links etc.

Newton: the Man 7-15

Mathematician or Physicist

It is unfortunately the fashion, at the present day, to view Newton as a ``Mathematician,'' the only part of his Principia which is now commonly read being Book I, which is purely mathematical. Newton was not, however, a mathematician first and before all. He was essentially a ``Physicist''; who undoubtedly used mathematics as his chief ``tool.'' He was referred to by his contemporaries as a ``Mathematico - Physicist'' - his correct title; whereas most of his modern successors would be best described as ``Physico - Mathematicians.''

Building the Telescope

Dr. David Eugene Smith, Ph.D., LL.D. (Sir Isaac Newton 1727-1927 (1928) says that Newton did not advance ``mathematics'' very materially. This may or may not be true. Newton was not, however, essentially a ``tool-maker.'' He used the tools which he found, as long as he considered them suitable to his purpose. Further than that, he could use them in a mantler which his contemporaries apparently could not; some were even frank enough to admit this. When necessary, however, he improved them, or made a better one. For example, in the case of the telescope, finding the ``refracting'' pattern imperfect (or, in any case, unsuitable for his requirements) he built a ``reflecting'' pattern - and with his own hands. This was a case where Newton wanted a new tool; he therefore designed one, and made it himself.

Inventing the Binomial Theorem and Calculus

Again, when Newton found he wanted a ``calculating tool'' he invented the ``Binomial Theorem''; and from a modification of this he later invented a system of ``fluxions,'' which is now commonly called the ``calculus.'' Later again, when he wanted to calculate the shapes of bodies of least resistance, he invented a further modification, which is now known as the ``Calculus of Variations.'' This, however, being extraordinarily modest - Newton did not ``advertise'' - he never publicly revealed; the consequence was that, a good part of a century later, it was again invented by Lagrange (1762), who (very properly) gets the credit for it, though Newton undoubtedly knew it before 1686. Fatio Duillier, who was a contemporary and, some say, a pupil of Newton, certainly knew it, since he published a small pamphlet on the shape of the bodies of least resistance. A copy of this pamphlet is in the Patent Office Library; it is the only copy of which I am aware¹.

The ``Friend''

In Motte's translation of the Principia (1729) he gives the ``Explications (given by a Friend)'' of the two problems on this subject, to which Newton appended no proof. There can be little doubt but that the real ``friend'' was Newton. Through what channel this reached Motte is a disputable point; but the rough draft of Newton's own letter is in the Portsmouth Collection, now in Cambridge. Thus it will be seen that the subject was common property in 1729, or thirty-three years before Lagrange's work.

Augustus de Morgan was apparently unacquainted with these facts when, in 1846 (The Cabinet Portraits of British Worthies : Newton) he wrote :

``It is essential to observe that the genius of Newton did not shine in the invention of Mathematical language: and, the disputed fluxions apart, he added nothing to it.''
He was evidently not aware that Newton invented, and used, what we now call the ``Calculus of Variations.''

An Air of Divination

Also, in his review of Brewster's Memoirs of Newton (1855) de Morgan says: ``Newton, whose sagacity in pure mathematics has an air of divination, who has left statements of results without demonstration, so far advanced that to this day we cannot imagine how they were obtained, except by attributing to him developments of the doctrine of fluxions far, far beyond what he published, or any one of his time.'' [Emphasis added.]

The discovery in the Portsmouth Collection had not then been made, and, clearly, de Morgan did not know Motte's translation of the Principia, where the solutions are given.

Mechanical Power

Newton was not only a ``physicist,'' he was a very fine ``mechanic'' as well. In his ``Glass Works,'' as he called it, he ground lenses (they say as well as anyone else could do it) and did much other ``Mechanical Work.''

Interest in Classics

The first thing that strikes one in studying the catalogue of Newton's books is the very large number of Greek and Latin classics that it contained. I admit that I was not prepared for this, since I was not aware that Newton had so deeply studied what are called the ``Humanities.'' His reading of the ``Classics'' was cettainly exceedingly broad. On the other hand, I was equally surprised at the almost complete absence of any of the English classics, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, etc., etc. Newton evidently did not care for poetry.

Newton's Verse

Brewster says that ``Sir Isaac Newton told Mr. Conduitt that he `excelled particularly in making verses' ... though no authentic specimen of his poetry has been preserved.'' He continues: ``Beneath his portrait of Charles I, the following verses were written'': and then follows ten lines of by no means high-class verse - such as one might find in a Sunday newspaper or in a magazine article. Even if they were written by Newton, it is only really such stuff as schoolboys frequently write.

The authority for this statement was Mrs. Vincent (Miss Storey), who ``repeated the lines to Dr. Stukeley from memory, fancied they were written by Sir Isaac.''

His Indifference to Poetry

I do not think that one would hang a dog on such evidence! No! I am afraid we must say that, on the balance of evidence, Newton did not care for poetry. I might put thie more strongly, for Lord Radnor (Spence's Anecdotes (1820)) said that ``a friend once said to him, `Sir Isaac, what is your opinion of poetry?' His answer was: `I'll tell you that of Barrow; he said that poetry was a kind of ingenious nonsense'.''

His Puritanism

There was a complete absence of humorous books in his library. This is what we would have expected, since Newton appears always to have taken everything au pied de la lettre. Brewster only refers once to his having laughed; and that was on the not very strong evidence of a servant. There is no record that he ever made anything approaching a joke. We read that Halley once joked on what Newton considered a serious subject, and was sharply reprimanded for it. Newton was what one may call ``deadly serious'' on all questions. Almost puritanical. One could not imagine Newton laughing at a joke against himself.

We may, I think, say that Newton lacked the sense of humour; which is a pity, since ``we must not in our anxiety for the solid and permanent, cast aside or make light of or cease to cherish the genial, the spontaneous'' (W. E. Gladstone).

His Imagination

When I say that Newton lacked ``humour'' I would not wish to imply that he had no ``imagination.'' Quite the reverse; he had a very vivid imagination - every great man must have imagination - but he made (what Tyndall called) ``scientific use of the imagination.'' He simply did not see the ``funny'' side of questions. Most modern mathematicians lack this sense; and when they try to he funny their jokes are of an elephantine character. ``Lewis Carroll'' and Philip E. B. Jourdain were brilliant exceptions.

Interest in Travel

Newton's library contained a very large number of French books, so we may assume that he read French freely and easily. Many of these books are on travels in Russia, Siberia, Persia, China, the Great Mogul Empire, the Balearic Islands, and even the small and at present unknown kingdom of Macassar. There are not (as we should expect) any books of French poetry, nor even French contemporary literature: nothing beyond books referring to history and commerce, as well as, of course, books on science.

Since there were no books in Italian, German, or Spanish, we may assume that Newton was not well acquainted with these languages.

Mathermatical Gems

Was Newton artistic? I should say ``Yes'' and ``No.'' In all his mathematical and physical work he was, I think, intensely artistic. Some of his Propositions in Book I of the Principia are mathematical gems. Even when one has a difficulty in understanding some of them at first, one sees later their extraordinary - beauty and simplicity. Newton had a genius for leaving out all extraneous and non-pertinent points and seizing on the essentials. He had a genius for succinct presentation, and he was a great admirer of the artistic way in which the old Greeks put all their geometrical propositions. Pemberton tells us that Newton regretted that he had studied Descartes' analytical method of solving propositions before he had studied what he considered the very superior method of the Greek geometrical manner. From this it is believed (and probably true) that he solved many of his propositions analytica1ly, and then, later, translated these into geometrical proofs.

Book I of the Principia is (as is well known) pure Rigid Dynamics, or the Dynamics of a Particle. It is purely mathematical and treats only of imaginary bodies whose properties - or, more generally, `lack of properties' - are assumed a priori.

Real Bodies

Book II is quite different, since it treats of Real Bodies; and in it we find a Theory of Resistance which Cotes called Newton's ``noble theory of resistance.'' Few, apparently, read this Book II at the present day (more's the pity) so that few understand this beautiful and simple theory.

The Opticks

In this Book II, and, perhaps more especially, in his Opticks, Newton shows us that he was a great artist in his experimental work, so much so that Sir J. J. Thomson has said that every experimenter (whether interested in optics or not) should study Newton's Opticks.

Newton was probably not such a great `artist' as his contemporary Hooke; but Hooke was a prince of experimenters. Newton also, with his usual modesty, when he refers to a measurement, says it was ``about'' - or, in other cases, ``if my measurement was correct.'' He certainly was an artist in his physical work.

If, however, we turn to what is commonly called ``art,'' then we must admit that Newton was not artistic.

No Music

We have seen that he did not care for poetry - the beauty and music of language; we are therefore not surprised that Newton was not musical. We never hear of his playing any musical instrument, nor of his singing. He had only one book on ``musical sounds''; and that only on the vibrations of musical strings.

Schoolboy Caricatures

Did Newton draw or paint? To this also we must reply that he did not. Brewster tells us that he made portraits when at school at Grantham, but I expect that these were only the ordinary caricatures which all schoolboys make - more or less well. Even in his diagrams in his mathematical papers there is no appearance of ``artistic feeling for line.''

The Le Marchand Portrait

There were, it is true, a certain number of pictures in Newton' s house, but they were apparently of no value. For example, in his dining-room there were ``eleven pictures and one print''; but as the value of all the furnishing of this room, including, amongst other things, a fine ivory portrait of Sir Isaac by Le Marchand, was only £75 5s. 6d., the value of these pictures must have been negligible. It may be that Mrs. Conduitt was responsible for these ``pictures,'' which, perhaps, were only prints.

His Prints

In Newton's workroom, in a writing-desk, there were ``two hundred and ten prints.'' There were also ``forty articles in Dutch¹ in nineteen sheets'' (whatever these may be); but, again, the whole furnishing of the room was valued at £22 4s. 0d., so that they could not have been of more than nominal value.

The Ivory Portrait

A special reference must be made to the above-mentioned ivory portrait of Sir Isaac, since it was a very artistic object, and made hy a very good artist. Maude, in his Wensleydale, says that Newton's great-nephew, the Rev. Barnabas Smith, told him that his father had left an ivory portrait of Sir Isaac by the famous artist Le Marchand which had cost Sir Isaac £100. That this was the portrait referred to in the ``Inventary'' appears almost certain; whether it was worth £100, or whether Newton paid that sum for it, seems questionable. I am inclined to think that this story has got muddled in repetition.

British Museum Bust

Le Marchand certainly made a specially fine ivory bust (in the round) of Newton, which is now in the British Museum, and is marked hy the artist ``De Vivo.'' That this bust was worth £100 at the time of Newton's death is also certain. It is a very fine piece of work and a good portrait ; unfortunately it is hardly known. This, however, was certainly not the portrait referred to in the ``Inventary,'' since that one was ``in a glass frame,'' and not ``in the round.'' Since this bust came to the Museum from Dr. Meade's collection, I am inclined to think that it was an ``order'' from Le Marchand by Dr. Meade, who was Newton's physician and a great collector of all kinds of works of art. Dr. Meade probably arranged with Newton for the sittings, of which there must have been many since the portrait is excellent and ``lifelike.'' In return for tllis great favour - for Newton, we understand, did not like sitting for his portrait - I suggest that Dr. Meade got Le Marchand also to make a small basso-relievo portrait, which he presented to Newton. The portrait would have been similar to those of Sir Christopher Wren, Pepys, and others, found in the same collection. What has become of this portrait is not known.

Purchase of Paints

Did Newton paint? I think we may say that he did not. In one of his boyish note-books there is an entry that he bought some paints; but this is probably what all boys do, and it does not necessarily indicate a love for painting. Mr. Conduitt states that: ``I find in a small book of his, to which he has put his name, and 1659 - Rules for drawing and making colours.''

Newton appears to have studied colour only in its reference to the colours of the spectrum, and not from an artistic point of view. In the ``Inventary'' we find references to mathematical instruments and ``chymical glasses,'' but none to any painting materials.

Crimson Furniture

That Newton was fond of red is quite certain, since nearly everything in his house is detailed as of ``crimson'' - crimson mohair curtains nearly everywhere. Newton's own bed was a ``crimson mohair bed,'' with ``crimson Harrateen¹'' bed-curtains. The beds all had ``calico quilts,'' which were, I fancy, what are called in India ``rezais - red cotton printed with Cashmere patterns. Newton's own room also had ``crimson mohair hangings,'' lined with canvas, and in his dining-room there was a ``crimson sattee.'' In fact, there is no other colour referred to in the ``Inventary'' but crimson.

His Irritability

This living in what I may call an ``atmosphere of crimson'' is probab]y one of the reasons why Newton became rather irritable towards the end of his life. There are people who question the effect of colour on disposition; but this has passed into the language, and we speak of having a ``fit of the b]ues,'' ``seeing through rosy spectacles,'' and ``seeing red.'' Charcot's experiments on the efrects of colours on hypnotised patients were very striking, and I have even heard of the very beneficial efrect of red on patients sufrering from scarlet fever and similar comp]aints.

Back to pages 1-6 or Forward to pages 15-21

HTML © 1994-2001 Andrew McNab. Back to