The attractive power of Newton’s archive

Dana Jalobeanu

(Sarah Dry, The Newton Papers:The Strange and True Odissey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts, Oxford University Press, 2014.)

When a student comes and tells you that she wants to work on Newton but she needs some guidance into the subject and one or two “good introductory books” there is always a moment of silence. The answer is difficult. I can perhaps put together a list of ten books, together with the strong recommendation to read them carefully and always be aware of the biases of their own author. Be particularly careful with biographies: in my experience, it is useful to read a biography of the biographer first (even if it is just a short notice in the Dictionary of National Biography). But two books? Well, since I discovered Sarah Dry’s book The Newton Papers:The Strange and True Odissey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts my task has been made much easier. Here is one of the two books. Not that I think that two books can ever be sufficient. But this one is a wonderful introduction as well as a very serious warning: the study of Newton is not for everyone, and, much more than other academic subjects, there are lions and shipwrecks wherever you look. And yet, few academic subjects exercise such a pull on one’s imagination; and Dry’s book is precisely about that: about the attractive power of Newton’s archive.

The book begins with a death; the death of Isaac Newton on the 20th of March, 1797. Sir Isaac was 85 and, according to contemporary witnesses, he was preparing for the event for quite a while. He burned some papers, left legacies to friends and family and set some of his affairs in order. But then, most curiously, he did not write a will. Dying intestate meant that his papers and manuscripts were left in a sort of limbo. It was not clear what to do with them – and unlike Newton’s other possessions, it was complicated to divide and select from the large mass of papers left behind by someone with the habit of thinking with a pen in his hand. On the other hand, the lack of a will proved to be a providential for the historian. It is due to this particular circumstance of Newton’s life that we have a full inventory of Newton’s possessions, including the contents of his library (which was sold soon after Newton’s death to the Warden of the Fleet Street Prison). Unlike books and furniture, however, Newton’s papers were difficult to catalogue; as Dry’s book clearly illustrates.

 The Strange and True Odissey of Newton’s Manuscripts spans 300 years of very rich history and involves a fantastic and colorful cast of characters. Newton’s story, Newton’s works, and Newton’s archive exercised a force of attraction upon many people: scholars and scientists, sometimes brilliant, sometimes eccentric, often prejudiced and willing to enlist Newton to their own cause. Each century – and sometimes each decade of a particular century – had its own Newton. In the eighteenth century we have the marble statue of Newton’s science (The Science, embodied in the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, and left like a model, in plain view for everyone to see and emulate). The nineteenth-century begins with a multiplication of images and biographies, whose complexity increases as more and more of the “secret life of Newton” emerges into the public sphere. First, from archives of others – such as the papers of the Royal Society, or the papers of John Flamsteed. The story of Newton’s genius, of Newton’s nervous breakdown (or, in nineteenth century terms, of Newton’s madness), the stories of Newton’s ruthlessness’ and lack of consideration towards others, of his bitter feuds and long-lasting grudges; as well as stories of his strange exploits in the field of alchemy and of his unorthodox views in matters religious began to take shape and could not be suppressed any longer. It is due to them – and to more and more scholars getting interested in either substantiate them, or refuting them, or trying simply to understand them that Newton’s own archive (safely guarded in the family of the Earls of Porthsmouth) re-enters the central stage and becomes one of the most desired objects for a new field of study: the emerging field of history of science.

File:Royal Society - Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia  Mathematica manuscript 2.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Newton’s archive was hard to reach; and when inside, it was extremely hard to read. And, as this book nicely illustrates, although each and every reader did find something of value in it, the way these bits and pieces were read was strongly influenced by reader’s own prejudices and commitments. The gallery of readers who investigated Newton’s papers is really impressive: it contains scientists and mathematicians of first rank, such as David Brewster, John Couch Adams and George Gabriel Stokes; as well as remarkable characters such as John Maynard Keynes and Abraham Yahuda. Each of them, and each of the other readers plunged in Newton’s archive like pearl divers; and they did come back with gems in their hands. But these spoils were extremely diverse, and somehow unconnected.

What was found, at various times, in Newton’s archive, tended to consonant with the conception of science at a given time. And repeatedly, Newton’s papers were classified into “scientific” and “non-scientific” according to whatever definition of science was widely accepted by the community at that moment. One of the most fascinating episode in the book is that which happened in the last part of the nineteenth century, when Newton’s paper returned to Cambridge for the first time, on loan from the Earl of Porthsmouth whose explicit purpose was to donate the “scientific” part of the archive to the University. It took 15 years to read and catalogue the papers and to separate de “scientific” from the “non-scientific” despite the fact that the committee appointed for the job looked ideal for the task. The four members of what came to be known as “the Syndicate” were the mathematician and astronomer John Couch Adams (whose habits of calculating things “in his head” made him to lose a very important competition: the competition for the discovery of Neptune), physicist and mathematician George Gabriel Stokes (one of the founders of modern hydrodynamics), chemist George Liveing and theologian Henry Richards Luard. The ideal team: a mathematician and astronomer to deal with Newton’s mathematical papers; a physicist to deal with Newton’s optical and physical research; a chemist to read the alchemical stuff and a theologian to make sense of the theological manuscripts.

File:Isaac Newton alchemical manuscript page AQ17 (2).jpg - Wikimedia  Commons

And yet, the result was not at all what you would expect. These brilliant Cambridge scholars read the papers through the distorted lenses of their own education. Which was shaped in decisive way by the so-called Mathematical Tripos: the harsh and competitive, public, problem-solving exams which marked the end of one’s first cycle of study in the University. The members of the Syndicate were all wranglers in the Mathematical Tripos, carrying with them the fame or the shame of the position they occupied in this extremely formalized and highly prized ritual. Adams and Stokes were first wrangles (Adams won the competition 100 points ahead anyone else). Luard and Livesey came among the first 20 – but that counted as a defeat in the Cambridge world; and that was a defeat that one would carry throughout one’s life.

 As Dry nicely illustrates, the culture of the Mathematical Tripos was in many ways a by-product of an ideal: the ideal of Newton’s (mathematical) science interpreted as an extension of classical mechanics. In turn, the pedagogical application of this ideal produced certain kinds of skills and biases, and a vision of a problem-based, mathematical science based on intuition and calculus (a successful combination of inspiration and hard work in which, however, empirical research had little or no place). As Dry puts it:

The men who were to judge the papers had already been judged, via the Tripos, according to a value system that deemed mathematical physics the highest form of knowledge. Stokes and Adams had come first, and Luard and Living, tasked with cataloguing the non-scientific papers, had fallen below the top ten. The Tripos ranking system, erected to sort students in the image of Newton the mathematical physicist, had ranked the cataloguers of his own papers, and by extension the contents of the papers themselves, even before they were sorted.

The Syndicate found in the archive those things they could read and were interested in: Adams recognized a similar style of doing mathematics, and related to Newton’s passion for calculation. Stokes was able to reconstruct Newton’s research on atmospheric refraction (a subject Stokes himself was working on). But the chemist failed to understand Newton’s alchemical papers in which he saw a rumble of quotes from obscure alchemists. More unusual, in a way, is that the theologian failed to find anything of value among Newton’s theological manuscripts. The alchemical and theological manuscripts were labelled non-scientific and sent back to the family. Moreover, the Syndicate introduced into circulation the long-lasting idea of Newton the compulsive writer; someone who mindlessly copied and re-copied passages of his own works for reasons that did not seem to have anything to do with what nineteenth century readers thought the writing is good for (to think with a pen in one’s hand, producing first drafts of ideas, or to revise and send the results to others for peer-reviewing).

It took 80 more years for the alchemical and theological manuscripts to find appropriate readers. And this happens at the end of another fascinating episode that Sarah Dry reconstructs in her book, the sale of Newton’s papers.

You might have heard of Sotheby’s sale of Newton’s papers – by now, everyone has heard of it. But in her book, Dry reconstructs the context of the story so that all the so-far quasi-incomprehensible episodes fall into place. I am not going to spoil you the pleasure of finding for yourself the details of this absolutely fascinating story which has everything it needs: suspense and context, details and fabulous characters. This was my favorite part of the book; and the one that made me understood, for the first time, its fantastic complexity. Again, key in this story are the characters. And Dry manages a very remarkable feat indeed: to sketch her characters in few lines, giving nice little portraits, painted in extremely vivid colors. Such are the portaits of the two characters who eventually managed to read, for the first time, Newton’s alchemical manuscripts and some of his theological writings: John Maynard Keynes and Abraham Yehuda. Again, it is because they were who they were – figures quite unique and difficult to classify in a profession, in a current of thought, and, in many ways, quite excentric – Keynes and Yahuda were able to decipher some of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts and some of Newton’s theological drafts. And in doing this they also saved them.

Imagine the following episode: Christmas Day, 1942. In the middle of the war, in a bombarded London, Royal Society opened its gate to celebrate the tercentenary of Newton’s birth. It was in this extremely particular circumstance that Keynes delivered his famous address of what will become the essay “Newton the Man”. It was in this context that the Royal Society (and the world at large) was informed on the first findings of Keynes’ research (and investments, since he managed to buy manuscripts not only at the auction in 1936, but ever since, until his death in 1946) and learned to think of Newton as “the last of the magicians.”

And it was also during the war that Yahuda begun to decipher some of Newton’s theological manuscripts, reconstructing aspects of Newton that no-one was able to see until then: his ability to pursue serious historical research, his obsession with details and painstaking rewriting and revising a text that was never “quite right”, his vast knowledge of the sources, his suspicious attitude towards most of the past historians (and theologians).

Keynes and Yahuda opened new doors into Newton’s archive. And through these doors, generations of Newton scholarship set to work to reconstruct the unified image of the genius (what Dray aptly describes as the “ great white whale” of the twentieth century Newton studies). It was in the course of this work, undertaken mainly in the second part of the twentieth century, that the full complexity of the archive was grasped for the first time. As well as a glimpse of the fascinating, dynamic and in many ways bewildering world of Newton’s own scholarship. A world whose understanding “require an industry, and many generations.” I am leaving you here, as a teaser, one of the last paragraphs of this engaging (and, to me, illuminating) book. A paragraph which discloses the true character of Dry’s story: the dinamic (and secretly attractive) archive.

More than any other comparable figure from the time, Newton was his own lifelong editor. He was always there first, revising, deleting, and redrafting across a lifetime of study. He constantly inspected his own material in his search for deeper meaning within it. This was both an effect and a cause of his lifelong aversion to publishing. By not publishing, Newton made it possible to continually revise what he wrote. Even publication did not mark the end of the process, as the extensive revisions between consecutive editions of the Principia and the Opticks indicate, but publication made the process more, well, public and querulous and generally time-consuming in the way Newton had forsworn, despairing of that “litigious Lady,” philosophy. Newton’s practice of continuous revision makes it very hard – perhaps impossible – to grasp the meaning of his manuscripts because there is no fixed meaning to find. Add to this the devilish difficulty of fixing dates to so much loose material with only infrequent references to contemporary events, and the problem becomes magnified. Time and again an appetite for suffering appears among the list of qualifications for would-be editors of Newton’s papers.

     Only by embracing the dynamic nature of these papers, for the ways they record the active seeking in which Newton was engaged, do we see them for what they are: not a single story but a mass of intersecting stories. This kind of thinking veers into uneasy territory, where instability trumps fixed meaning and multiplicity beats singularity. It is an uncomfortable place to be. For some, it is also the only honest ground on which to stand.

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