Just saw this paragraph on the book by Graham Farmelo in The Times Higher Education Supplement, including the phrase ‘pure joy.’ Which is how it made me feel.
Synergies of the private this Saturday. At 1 pm, I’m speaking at the Royal Society about The Private Life of Isaac Newton as part of the weekend extravaganza of private-things-made-public that is the London Open House weekend. I’m thinking of it as a double-disrobing. If I have time, I’d love to see this ‘more-or-less private, more-or-less public’ Georgian townhouse by Goodge Street.
That’s what The Newton Papers is according to Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman, as well as a ‘brilliant biography of Newton and how his reputation has changed over the centuries’ which is a ‘delight to read.’
He also suggests I write an old-fashioned biography of Newton–a flattering if also alarming suggestion. The deeper point behind the suggestion–that the book raises questions about who Newton really was (and what, for example, his 1693 mental breakdown was all about) that it leaves unanswered–is a fair one. The appetite to understand Newton is what the book is about, after all, and I wish I’d had room to include more about Newton himself in addition to the story of how Newton has been understood through his papers. But if there’s one thing I know since writing this book, it’s just how easy it is to lose oneself in the story of Newton, and just how hard it is to settle the matter of who he was once and for all.
Yesterday, in a guest post on the Guardian’s admirable H word blog (thanks to Vanessa Heggie and Rebekah Higgitt for letting me post), I considered the irony that Newton’s secrets–obsessed over for a long lifetime and carefully preserved though hardly ever shared–are now, gloriously, almost embarrassingly, easy to access. My point is that this digital disrobing, an undeniable step forward (or giant leap, more like) for Newton scholars, presents a potentially very disorienting remapping of Newton’s work. It’s almost all up there now–science, religion, alchemy (the last redoubt of Newton’s privacy turns out to be the administrative papers from his role as Master of the Mint)–rubbing shoulders in the ether. It’s easy to forget, hopping to and fro amidst the texts, which have been translated when necessary, normalized (additions and deletions invisibly added–don’t worry you can also reveal them), and rendered instantly searchable, that they belong to an intensely contoured psycho-geography.
In other words, Newton was extremely aware of who his audience was as he wrote a given text. Usually it was very small. Often it contained just one person, the only person Newton could always trust: Newton himself. Now, his audiences are multiplied, his communications granted equal billing in the everywhere/nowhere space of the online world. The challenge for scholars is to resurrect the outlines of Newton’s personal landscape from this flattened digital world.
Perhaps new digital tools will help to map the social, intellectual and chronological connections between these ideas. But it also occurs to me that one thing that might make it easier are the traditional disciplinary divisions of the scholars themselves. These have sometimes been a source of tension. In the 1960s and 1970s, the non-scientific papers first became accessible at the same time as work was finally underway editing the mathematical papers, Principia drafts and correspondence. Scholars responded differently to what felt like the fragmentation of Newton into pieces. Some sought unity between the science and the alchemy and theology. Others remained unapologetically focused on the natural philosophy and mathematics. Scholarship has moved on, but the fact remains that it requires very different skills to study Newton’s mathematics, his theology, his natural philosophy, and his alchemy. The depth and technicality of Newton’s engagement with each subject is part of the reason it’s taken nearly 300 years to take their measure.
Today, there are scholars with, as Augustus De Morgan put it, both ‘enough energy and leisure to work the ore and the metal’ of the Newton’s heterogeneous archive (substitute ‘paid work’ for ‘leisure’ to bring this up-to-date). Though the heady days of the so-called ‘Newton Industry’ are now decades past, the field of history of science has, happily, expanded. What it would be very difficult for one scholar to do–to master each of Newton’s chosen obsessions–is much easier for a group to achieve (insert provisos about herding cats, etc, here).
Intellectually, it’s a good moment for Newton studies. The materials are up. The historiographical toolkit is better than ever. The variety of scholars greater than ever.
The point about dirty laundry is obviously not to bemoan the availability of so much of Newton’s archive but to point out the new challenges it creates and the way it shifts how scholars relate to each other and to their own work.
I discuss this and nine other myths in a post on OUP’s blog today, using Newton’s own papers to confirm or debunk such perennial favorites as ‘Newton never laughed’ and ‘Newton was a virgin’ as well as more unfamiliar territory, such as Newton’s belief in the seeding of life on Earth and other planets from the dust in comet’s tails.
I was surprised and delighted to see that George Johnson mentioned The Newton Papers yesterday in his second post on anti-gravity crusader Roger Babson, noting that it was actually Grace Babson who got on with the serious business of collecting Newton books and manuscripts. (To be fair, Roger was very serious about fighting what he saw as the scourge of gravity, responsible for deaths by drowning, falls and even ‘bad air.’) I enjoyed writing the chapter on the Babsons, not least because it allowed me to write about an American woman (and her American husband) in a book full of English men. And the story is fascinating, loaded with equal measures of quackery and old-fashioned Yankee good sense.
The Newton Papers was launched in the UK in style on Tuesday night. It was a beautiful summer evening in Brighton, with sunlight streaming through the elegant windows of the Regency Town House on Brunswick Square. Local bookstore City Books were on hand to sell books to an obliging (!) and festive crowd of friends and Newton lovers. Thanks to all who came and made it such a great event.