Abiding Grace

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Aside from Catherine Conduitt, Newton’s half-niece, the only other woman with a prominent role in the story of Newton’s manuscripts is Grace Babson. She too is the wife of a prominent man and she too remains frustratingly obscure. I tried hard to unearth anything that would reveal her personal motivation for what remains an unparalleled undertaking: the creation of the greatest collection of Newton material in the Western hemisphere.

Grace was neither a scholar nor a scientist. She was married to an eccentric man who became very wealthy by investing in the stock market (he famously predicted—and profited from—the Great Crash of 1929). Roger Babson’s eccentricity makes for good copy, so he naturally comes to the fore. Suffering from tuberculosis in an age when fresh air was the only reliable treatment, Roger set up an office on an open-air porch of his New England home where he worked there year-round. The cold was so intense that photographs show his secretaries in woolen capes and pointed hats resembling Klan costumes, using wooden mallets (!) to hit the keys on their type-writers. He also set up a Gravity Foundation to fight what he considered this natural ‘scourge.’ For Roger, gravity was not merely a force of nature but a personal foe that had killed his brother and his grandson (they drowned and Roger blamed gravity for holding them under the water).

Against the busy backdrop of her husband’s colorful eccentricity, Grace almost disappears from view. This is frustrating because Grace Babson’s mania for Newton—which she expressed by collecting as much material as she could relating to the man—had an interesting wellspring. What Grace believed about Newton was that his scientific ideas also had non-scientific applications. Laws that were true about physical nature, she came to strongly believe, would also apply in spheres such as economics, psychology or history. This is a dangerous and powerful idea. It can promote dangerous pseudo-science (such as Social Darwinism) as well as drive the search for more fundamental explanations that really do link seemingly disparate subjects.

In the case of the Babsons and their love of Newton, the leap of faith paid off in a big, and literal, way. Together, Roger and Grace came to believe that Newton’s third law of motion, often paraphrased as “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” also applied to the stock market. The big rise of the 1920s was, according to this theory, necessarily to be followed by a big dip. Roger bet money on it and was proved right when the market did crash.

Grace was careful with money. That’s the greatest insight I was able to gain from her personal correspondence with the librarian she and Roger hired to look after their Newton collection. Yet alongside her Yankee prudence was a mind unafraid to think big, much bigger than professional scholars generally do.

Her soaring belief in what she called the ‘fundamental law of equal reaction’ led her to link science, religion and economics together under a shared explanation. What would Newton have thought of it? I know that I find myself feeling embarrassed for Grace’s evangelical zeal and the simple-mindedness of her borrowing of ideas from one field to apply to another. I suspect he would have rejected the simple correlation between ideas in science, religion and economics (and he had thought deeply about all three). His systems of thought in each realm were more complex and considered in every respect and he would have bitterly resisted, I’d say, any attempt to draw such direct links.

But that only makes Grace Babson more, rather than less, interesting to me. I only wish I knew more about her.

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