The Spell of Biography: Isaac Newton and the History of Science

Dana Jalobeanu

Motto: It was the hemlock that made Socrates great. (Seneca, Epistle 13)

(Rebekah Higgitt, Recreating Newton: Newtonian biography and the making of nineteenth century history of science, Pickering & Chatto, London, 2007)

For a longtime, scholars claimed that one of the major differences between philosophy and science reflected their attitude towards biography. Philosophers were prepared to die for their ideas and had to to live according to their own preaching. By contrast, scientists produced ideas and theories which inhabited a different world than that of their own biography. They were concerned with the Truth. And the Truth spoke for itself. Gaston Bachelard once famously contrasted Galileo and Bruno in these terms. Bruno was defending a theory for which there was no proof (the infinity of the universe). A theory he was prepared to die for. By contrast, Galileo constructed a theory for which he had a number of proofs. There was no need to die for it. Isn’t it tempting to think that this is how science was born?

One  has to admit that this is a nice story, even if it does not ring quite true. If in science ideas and theories are so much detached from their bearers, why are we so interested in scientific biographies?

Newton, the hero

For a longtime, there was a life scientists looked up to with the same reverence one can encounter in the case of philosophers’ attempts to know, model and emulate Socrates: The life of Isaac Newton. It provided a model and constituted a genre all by itself. At least until mid-nineteenth-century, Newton was regarded as a model for the scientific life: a moral standard for any kind of life in pursuit of truth (or maybe of “the Truth”). This was the inheritance of the eighteenth century eulogies, but also the image that Newton himself constructed with the help of his students and followers: that of a keen, humble, patient and assiduous investigator of nature, of “innate modesty and simplicity,” endowed with charity, generosity, temperance, piety, goodness & all other virtues, without a mixture of any vice whatsoever.”[1]

This was the public image of Newton that early modern science inherited; but it did not last long. The fascination with Newton’s genius and the puzzling nature of his works were too strong for this carefully crafted but lifeless statue to endure. Rebekah Higgitt’s book tells us the story of how working scientists discovered Newton, engaged with his work, and felt the need to write his biography in order to both understand a much more complex personality and to vindicate a particular image of science. Her book surveys some of the most important early biographies of Newton written in the nineteenth century in France and England by mathematicians, physicists, astronomers and philosophers.

Recreating Newton : Newtonian Biography and the Making of Nineteenth-Century History of Science, Hardback Book

Recreating Newton tells us a fascinating story. It is not very often that a dense and intricate historical reconstruction keeps you glued to your chair, and to the text, as keen to find out what is next as when you read an engaging novel. Higgitt goes through a number of early biographies of Isaac Newton, from the first “scientific biography,” properly speaking – published in 1822 by Jean Baptiste Biot – to the second attempt of David Brewster to compose a scientific (and properly documented) biography of his idol, in 1855. The period between 1820s and 1860s is marked, in England, by a growing interest in Newton’s papers (mostly unpublished at that time), by various attempts to understand and integrate Newton’s various pursuits (in mechanics, optics, mathematics, theology and history, as well as in alchemy) and by a growing interest in science and its exploits. In fact, as Higgitt’s book convincingly shows, all these interests are going hand in hand and

“[…] interest in Newton led the way in writing about the history of science in Britain, for he was the first figure to be discussed in such depth and in relation to such a wide range of sources” (6)

It is interesting that discussions about Newton and his achievements were almost always, during those years, coached in the genre of biography. It was Newton’s life that mattered: and his achievements were often seen as a measure of his life.

These early biographies of Newton have something in common: they were written by practicing scientists who regarded Newton as their hero and – sometimes – as the founding father of their discipline. It was not always the same discipline. Jean Baptiste Biot, a disciple of Laplace, sees Newton as the founding father of mathematical physics (“mathematical philosophy”). Biot’s Newton is a contemplative genius; and the two relevant moments of his biography are the falling of the apple (leading to the insight or flash of genius from which the celestial dynamics was born) and the nervous breakdown of 1692-1693 which Biot reads in terms of nineteenth century’s images of the “condition of genius” (which always contains a grain of madness).

By contrast, David Brewster, an experimental philosopher and expert in optics – but also one of the last representatives of a corpuscularian theory of light – makes Newton a much more complex personality. Brewster also has a different conception of scientific genius, in which morality and righteousness play a decisive part. Brewster’s Newton is an instrument of God through which Truth reveal itself; a high-priest of science who had to be not only inspired but also blameless; “modest, candid, affable and without any of the eccentricities of the genius.”[2]

As Higgitt shows quite convincingly, tension accumulates in these attempts to write a scientific biography between sources, documents, the “world of facts” and the philosophically charged levels of interpretation.

Brewster’s biography of Newton, in particular, is full of contradictions. Although Brewster is an experimental philosopher in his own right, and he does recognize Newton’s gifts as an experimenter, he is also keen in insisting that progress in science results from the efforts of peculiarly gifted individuals to accomplish high-level, abstract, theoretical work, and not from a bottom-up Baconian-kind of research. His conception of genius is that of a gifted individual, instrument of the Providence:

“Original and inventive minds are not of earthly mould. Divinely formed, they are instruments through which Providence discloses to man the wonders of creative power, and the laws of his material universe.”

But perhaps the most striking set of contradictions in Brewster comes from his insistence that Newton’s discoveries were rather “the fruit of persevering and unbroken study” than of his “quickness of penetration” and “exuberance of invention which is more characteristic of poetical than of philosophical genius.” Brewster’s Newton had both genius and patience and determination; but seems to own his achievements only to the latter set of qualities. Moreover, in order to protect Newton’s reputation, Brewster reinterprets the story of the nervous breakdown in terms of physical illness produced by exhaustion and overwork. To do so, he has to dismiss the current story which attributed Newton’s breakdown to the psychological effects resulting from the burning down of his laboratory and papers. Which leads Brewster to claim that Newton was not “very imaginative” – so that the burning of his own laboratory could have not affected him that much.

As Higgitt shows, there is a way one can make sense of Brewster’s contradictory claims. A thorough and honest historian, Brewster saw the contradictions between the public image of Newton and what one can find perusing his unpublished manuscripts. And the things just did not tie up. On the other hand, Brewster had his own agenda. Like Biot before him, Brewster was somewhat of an outsider to the mainstream scientific community; he failed to get a position in the university and was supporting himself through private tutoring. He was a critic of the scientific establishment (especially of the Royal Society) and many of his writings are proposing alternative models of science and “men of science.” In his work as a historian he was writing biographies of the “martyrs of science”[3] discussing Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Kepler as victims of neglect and persecution. Something of the same is projected upon Newton whom Brewster sees as someone who did not get all the credit and honor he deserved, especially posthumously. Last but not least, Brewster was set to vindicate Newton’s reputation: and to this he devoted a good part of his life.

Brewster is probably the only historian who wrote not one but two biographies of Isaac Newton. After the first biography, published in 1831, he set to work on something which will only appear in 1855, in two volumes, the Memoirs of life and works of Isaac Newton – a work that will remain the standard biography of Newton until the late twentieth century. Higgitt’s book explains the context and the driving force behind this enterprise.

The character of the genius

What happened in England between 1830s and the 1860s was a full-fledged debate surrounding “the character of Isaac Newton.” For a while, this was a debate over the character of a genius, much influenced by Romantic concepts of imagination, genius and madness. It was also a debate over the status of science and its long-lasting alliance (in England, again) with the Anglican Church. However, as biographers unearthed more documents and opened new archives, the focus of the debate changed. Biot did not have access to much unpublished material; but Brewster managed to get access to the Porthsmouth Collection.[4] The archive of Newton’s family was not the only interesting repository of documents. Sometimes in the 1830s another practicing scientist uncovered extraordinarily interesting documents in another place: the Royal Observatory of Greenwich. Francis Baily was a former accountant who made some money to fulfill his life’s dream: he became astronomer. Or, as he clearly stated, he became engaged in doing “practical astronomy,” i.e., accurate observations, cataloguing and also – very important – keeping track of historical records in his field. Higgitt paints a nice and vivid portrait of this practicing astronomer who gradually came to believe that he should also take care of the history of astronomical observations, saving what can be saved from old records. These attempts led Baily to the discovery of John Flamsteed’s papers, of which many lied untouched for more than a century. Among them, ample correspondence regarding the “case” of Flamsteed versus Newton (and Halley).

Baily saw in Flamsteed a kindred spirit: a practical astronomer who valued stellar charts and tables over speculative theories; someone obsessed with making precise observations to the point of delaying publication until he gets the data right. Also, someone who was deeply wronged by Halley and Newton, “theoreticians” who appropriated Flamsteed data, publishing them without permission.

Francis Baily’s Account of the Revd. John Flamsteed, (1835) created havoc amongst the Newtonians. Not only because Baily sets himself as Flamsteed’s champion, attempting to restore his reputation. But because the documents published together with Baily’s biased account were clearly damaging to the reputation of Newton. They demonstrate that Newton, the father and hero of modern science was someone who did not refrain from bullying his collaborators and appropriate work without permission. Moreover, in one of his letters, Newton shows himself not only impatient and angry with Flamsteed’s delays (thus contradicting openly the moral portrait of the stoic and patient sage of equal temper and generosity) but is also rude and dismissive, referring to the importance of his own work as the master of the Mint by contrast with the “trifling matter”[5] of the lunar theory.

How does all this square with the moral character of the genius? Newtonians adopted diverse strategies, but they were all up in arms to defend their hero. They accused Baily’s of partiality and objected to the publication of his book.[6] They accused Baily of not having fully understood the importance of Newton’s work. The “Newtonian confederacy”[7] claimed that Flamsteed’s observations were a “national property,” and it was in the interest of Science that Newton (and Halley) published them.

An interesting answer came from William Whewell who, both in his Newton and Flamsteed (1836) and in his larger project of building a philosophy of the inductive sciences turned this case into an exemplar of scientific research. Whewell distinguished between data gathering and the “history” assembled by mere practitioners and the work of theorists like Newton who, on the basis of data, construct theoretical superstructures. In fact, as shown by Richard Yeo, the emergence of Flamsteed papers and Baily’s reconstruction of the case proved a turning point in Whewell’s career and led to the further elaboration of his philosophy of inductive science.[8]

What is interesting is that in responding to Baily’s history, the “Newtonian confederacy” changed their way of talking about Newton’s character. Gradually, the discussion moved from the image of moral genius to that of the importance of Science and the duty of each scientist to serve Truth and the common cause of Science.

Impartial historians and objective scientists

The controversial work of Baily proved an incentive for more historical work, and more digging into archives. This, in turn, led to the discovery of other stories, even more damaging for Newton’s reputation: his hand in the final blow against Leibniz, the Comercium epistolicum. His endless pursuits of what seemed “mad” alchemical research. His tricky position in what looked like the illicit relationship of his niece, Catherine Barton with Lord Halifax (who left her a large fortune in his testament). Nineteenth century historical research assembled many of the puzzling pieces from which one has to make sense of Newton’s complex character. As Higgitt shows, history of science developed, in the nineteenth century, out of this clash: on the one hand, practicing scientists attempted to appropriate Newton for their own discipline. On the other, as impartial historians, they felt compelled to give not only detailed accounts but also to publish (and translate) documents from Newton’s archive, bringing to the surface the evidence on which much of the subsequent history of science was constructed. They did that guided by ideals of impartiality and objectivity characteristic for their own time. Impartiality did not mean not having a standpoint in the matter; it meant having the “best standpoint” (126) to exercise one’s “judicial objectivity.” But “the moral position of the author was subsumed into the chosen historical format” (127) and that was that of scientific biography. What happens with Newton’s biographies is that they became more and more filled with f contradictions as time went by. Biographers made their case; but quite often were forced to recognize their defeat. And sometimes, their own limits. As in the famous Brewster’s saying

[…] we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry.[9]

A new image of Newton was slowly emerging at the end of these intense efforts to combine an empiricist historiography centered upon documents with sophisticated interpretations still tributary to apologetics. That was the Newton of the twentieth century: the Newton of the split personality, difficult – if not impossible – to understand; impossible – or at least extremely difficult – to follow as a model. Together with this change of image, a parallel change took place in history (and philosophy) of science. Because, as Higgitt claims:

“The debate surrounding the character of Isaac Newton can be viewed as one element of the secularization and even de-mystification of science and thus as fundamental to the creation of a critical tradition within the history of science.” (192)

Recreating Newton convincingly shows that the writing of Newton’s scientific biographies was motivated by working scientists’ attempts to define their own enterprises, as well as Science in general. Biot, Baily, Brewster, Whewell and the other characters of Higgitt’s book had not only an individual agenda and individual biases, but large visions of Science they wanted to impose on others, and on the society at large. Some failed to do so; some, perhaps, succeeded, at least for a while.

Some concluding questions

At the end of this, the reader is left with a number of questions. One is precisely that which constituted my point of departure in this review. Is science so much different from philosophy? Can we say, at the end of centuries of writing about Newton, that we are left with a more objective and impartial image of the scientific enterprise? Can we say, for example, that the handful of questions posed by Newton’s seemingly incomprehensible character, conflicting decisions, and manifestly disjoint interests are of no consequence for our current vision of science, that there are merely “trifles” and curiosities of historical research? Or are we – as in the case of dealing with our heroes, the philosophers – still under the spell of biography? Is it not this spell of biography that compels us to ask questions about the unity of Newton’t thought? What eventually sends us back to the library to do more historical research, in the attempt to understand and “unify” Newton’s enterprise, to get deeper insights into his mysterious interests and problematic decisions?

If all this is true, maybe philosophy and science are not, after all, so very different. The spell of biography acts in the same manner in both.

Notes and references:


[1] John Conduit’s “Memoir” of the life of Newton, transcribed in Robert Iliffe, Early Biographies of Isaac Newton, vol. I, p. 101.

[2] David Brewster, 1831, p. 337, cited by Higgitt, p. 48.

[3] He published a book with this title in 1841.

[4] Most of Newton’s manuscripts remained in the possession of the family (the earls of Porthsmouth) until early in the twentieth century when some parts of the collection were acquired by the University of Cambridge and the rest was scattered through a famous public auction which took place in 1936.

[5] “I do not love to be…. Thought by our own people to be trifling away my time about them, when I should be about King’s business”

[6] The book was published by the Admiralty in a limited number of copies which were distributed to various astronomical observatories in England and abroad. Copies could not be bought; at the same time, this private distribution was seen by some as even more detrimental because done under the high patronage of the State.

[7] Higgitt, p. 93

[8] Richard Yeo, Defining science: William Whewell, natural knowledge and public debate in early Victorian Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[9] Brewster, Memoir, II, p. 375.

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