Dirty laundry

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.

The Newton Papers mentioned in George Johnson’s latest Raw Data column for NYT

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 public and private Isaac Newton

I just posted this piece on the Gates Cambridge website. I was lucky enough to get funding from Gates for my PhD–am happy to start to live up to my side of the bargain. . . .

Gates Cambridge

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In November of 1690, Isaac Newton sent a long essay to his friend, the philosopher and radical thinker John Locke. In it, Newton set forth the reasons he thought scripture had been corrupted over the centuries – and for his own disbelief in the Trinity, a key tenet of Anglicanism. He asked Locke to see about translating the work into French and having it published – anonymously – on the Continent. The contents of the essay were so controversial that Newton dared not attach his name to it.

The episode was unique. Never again would Newton come as close to publishing such sensitive material about his dramatically unorthodox religious beliefs. But the episode was also indicative of Isaac Newton’s lifelong relationship with publication. Never able merely to reject print culture outright – the rewards of priority, communication and prestige were too great for that – Newton was nevertheless intensely averse…

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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.

What did Catherine really think?

It is a perennial problem, the scarcity of women in the history of science.

Some responsibility lies in the present, with historians who may not dig hard enough for the remoter bits of information about women—often the sisters, daughters and wives of more famous men—who had the chance to do something scientific.

But while historians can work harder to pull stories from the past, they cannot create history where there has been none.

And the word chance in my second sentence really is the right word, combining a sense of opportunity with good fortune. It has always taken a fair amount of plain old luck for a woman to be in a position to think about science in a meaningful way. Education, access, and time have always been (and still remain!) hard to align in meaningful quantities.

And so it is not surprising that there are few women in the story of the Newton papers. The most prominent by far is Catherine Barton, the daughter of Newton’s half-sister Hannah, who lived with him in London for many years, running his household and eventually marrying the man who would become Newton’s successor at the Mint, John Conduitt. Catherine was both a prominent niece and wife and therefore doubly ‘lucky’, if that’s the word, in her social position.

She was by all accounts a vital, intelligent woman with strong ideas about her famous half-uncle. She and her husband fought to ensure that Newton was remembered not only as a genius but as a pious Christian. Her insistence on maintaining his image as a man of true religion after his death raises the interesting question of how much she knew of what Newton really believed. (What Newton really believed was radical stuff, demoting Christ from full equality with God and thus not for the faint of heart.)

We don’t know much, but one thing we do know is that Catherine hoped that a selection of Newton’s private religious writings would be published. It’s a tantalizing clue that perhaps Catherine did know what Newton really believed and hoped the world would come to know it too. On the other hand, it is possible that she had no idea what the papers contained, or else she might never have contemplated making them public. Catherine died in 1739 without leaving any more clues. She remains a cipher, her true beliefs difficult to fathom from the few sources that remain. Truth be told, this mystery makes her more, not less, interesting to me as I try to imagine her across the centuries that separate us.

The religious papers she hoped to share with the world? They ended up in the hands of a conservative Anglican who kept them out of sight, where they have remained until now.

In my next post, the other prominent woman in this story: Grace Babson, who created  the largest collection of Newton materials in the Western material while married to a man who thought gravity was evil.