“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,/God said let Newton be and all was light.” So runs Alexander Pope’s heroic couplet on the cranky Lincolnshire genius who unified the heavens and the Earth and brought to a triumphant crescendo the epoch known as the “scientific revolution.” Before Newton, philosophers could quibble about the value of the new science; after him, scholars in almost every conceivable branch of knowledge were faced with the problem of how to compete. If the Copernican cosmology of the 16th century dethroned Man from the center of the physical universe, Newtonian cosmology of the 17th enthroned natural science at the center of the Western intellectual world (at least in Europe). In this International Year of Physics, it is fitting that the Huntington Library is celebrating Newton’s life and work in a wide-ranging two-part exhibition.
Right now, L.A. is host to two major retrospectives of physics talent — Newton at the Huntington and Einstein at the Skirball — and there has never been a better opportunity to get acquainted with the historical arc of this alluringly daunting science. The two exhibitions strive to locate the work of these masters within the context of their respective periods. And in both, the master himself is at center stage, for along with the science are the personal stories of two powerfully idiosyncratic individuals: on the one hand, the obsessive, polymathic, secretive and irascible Newton, a man whom his biographer Richard Westfall aptly summed up in his book title, Never At Rest; on the other hand, the seemingly effortless Einstein, whose energies — at least at the Skirball — flow forth in one graceful cascade after another. “Einstein,” which closes May 29, is backed by an enormous budget; every technique of electronic wizardry is called into play to illustrate his famous ideas about the bending of space and the stretching of time. “All Was Light” is an electronic-free zone and relies on the more muted power of original documents and period paraphernalia. The Huntington show is a stripped-down version of an exhibition that originated at the New York Public Library and covered every aspect of the great man’s life, from his development of the laws of motion and gravity, and his theories about color and light, to his religious obsession with the prophecies of Revelation, and his covert interest in alchemy. Considerably smaller than its New York incarnation, the Huntington show is more intimate and accessible. Though there is no doubt that we are in the presence of a giant, the Newton on display here is very much a human being.
Take the page of a manuscript dating from his student days at Cambridge in which he describes, in words and graphic diagram, how during his investigations of vision he stuck a bodkin up between his eyeball and the bone “as neare to the backside of my eye as I could.” By pressing the metal pin against his eye to produce curvature in the orb, he found he could induce the appearance of “severall white darke and coloured circles” when he rubbed his eye at the same time. In the excellent accompanying book, curator Mordechai Feingold urges readers not to repeat the experiment themselves. During a recent visit to the Huntington, Feingold, who is a professor of history at Caltech, talked admiringly, if somewhat bemusedly, about Newton’s commitment to his empirical researches. On another occasion, the young Newton explored the relationship between vision, sensation and will by staring fixedly at the sun through a telescope, then retiring to a darkened room to observe the patterns of colors produced in the aftermath. After several iterations, Feingold said, he had to stay in the darkened room for three days merely to regain his sight.
Another manuscript page from Newton’s student days shows table after table of minute calculations as he painstakingly worked out his method for calculating infinite mathematical series, a precursor to his development of the calculus. The amount of labor congealed on that page, and in the many thousands of others he filled throughout his research years, belies the myth of the genius whose productivity derived from lightning strikes of inspiration. Whatever else he was, Isaac Newton was a hard worker. The story of the apple’s fall as the basis for the law of gravity is almost certainly apocryphal, Feingold said. Newton may well have possessed an uncommonly good mathematical mind, but he also knew the value of perseverance. No modern scientist except Darwin has come close to having so much influence on the wider cultural landscape. Feingold writes that the success of Newton’s mathematical and natural science “set an example of so-called superior knowledge for other domains to emulate: The search for rational, universal principles became the modus vivendi for all researchers regardless of field.” During the 18th century, scholars sought to imitate Newton’s achievements by articulating basic laws of theology and philosophy. Others sought to explain chemical interactions and the nature of disease and health in terms of Newtonian-style forces of attraction. Even the nascent field of sociology came under a Newtonian sway when the Baron de Montesquieu published The Spirit of the Laws, in which he laid out basic laws from which he derived social consequences. The broader cultural, social and political ramifications of Newton’s ideas are explored in the second part of the Huntington show, which opens in late July.
Newton Making Experiments
with a Prism(1809 engraving)
Newton’s own writings are legendarily inaccessible, and it was left to others to make his work available to a wider audience. In this he had the help of a truly superior cadre of disciples, including Voltaire, whose elegant wit brought Newtonian thinking into the salons of Paris. One audience specifically courted was women. Chief among the volumes aimed at the fairer sex was the Italian Count Franceso Algarotti’s Newtonianism for Ladies. Original copies of Voltaire’s and Algarotti’s books, along with a raft of other feminine Newtoniana, will be included in part two of the Huntington show.
Not everyone was pleased by the cultural juggernaut of the Newtonian science. The most famous of the dissenters were the romantic poets, who, à la William Blake, accused Newton of a tunnel-like vision that had deadened nature. “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings./Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,/Empty the haunted air and the gnomed mine,/Unweave a rainbow,” Keats howled in a poetic tirade against the sterilizing tendencies of natural philosophy. This tension between a mathematico-mechanical and an intrinsically animated view of nature remains with us today. It is in part this refusal to accept a purely mechanistic vision that propels so many people now to believe in reincarnation, spirit channeling, extrasensory powers, angels, ghosts and God. Newton himself would have been horrified by the de-spirited world picture promulgated in his name. A deeply committed Christian who studied Hebrew so that he could translate for himself the books of Daniel and Revelation, Newton saw his cosmology as one long argument for the existence of a beneficent and attendant deity. From what other source would gravity issue? What other power was preventing the stars from burning out and keeping the solar system in its perfect order? For Newton, the idea of a universe without God was abominable, and in that respect, Professor Feingold reminds us, he remains as relevant a thinker now as when he burst upon the scene more than three centuries ago. ALL WAS LIGHT: Isaac Newton’s Revolutions | Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino | (626) 405-2100 | Through June 12