Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Valentine’s Day edition.

Sir Isaac Newton lived a prodigiously long life for his day — not bad for ours either. He died in 1827, 1727 (oops) not quite three months past his eighty-fourth birthday.

To the limits of historical knowledge, he went to his grave a virgin.

That fits one of the popular images of Newton, and by extension, the genius scientist in general. Truly deep penetration into the secrets of nature is presumed to consume such reserves of spirit and attention so as to leave little energy or opportunity for penetration of any other sort.

That notion attached to Newton very early on. You can hear it in the question the French mathematician the Marquis de Hopital put to Dr. John Arbuthnot, who showed him a copy of the great book. The Marquis was astounded, Arbuthnot reported, and pressed him for “every particular about Sr I., even to the colour of his hair and said does he eat & drink & sleep. is he like other men? (italics added)

Hopital was surprised, Arbuthnot added, when told that Newton “conversed chearfully with his friends assumed nothing & put himself upon a level with all mankind.”

The Marquis was naive. The history of physics — the history of science in general — has plenty of examples of genuine brilliance accompanied by an enormous range of styles of love, lust and all the rest of the experiences the human senses afford.

Albert Einstein enjoyed the company of women — perhaps rather more than their conversation. Erwin Schroedinger did him several better — or worse — housing his mistress with his wife in his wartime bolt-hole in Dublin. (See this novel for a wonderful treatment of that episode.) Niels Bohr was a contented family man and Georges Lemaitre was a priest.

And in that company, as Arbuthnot told the startled Marquis, even Newton, was a man in the world, open to — even eager for — conversation, friendship, companions. He was certainly capable of passion, even if many of the major episodes of strong emotion on record are passionate hatreds rather than loves. See for example, his scorn for the unusually short Robert Hooke, expressed in the carefully constructed taunt that Newton saw further because “I stood on the shoulders of giants;” or else track his sustained campaign against Gottfried Leibniz over the little matter of who could claim credit for inventing calculus.

But Newton was not merely a great hater. His capacity for friendship is often overlooked, but it was there. John Locke esteemed and trusted him and remained his good friend through some rough times. Samuel Pepys the same. He was no hermit, however cloistered especially his years in Cambridge may seem from this distance in time.

But this is supposed to be a Valentine’s day post, and mere friendship is perhaps more water than wine. Newton was capable of affection for certain of his fellow creatures. Could he love any of them?

The evidence here is ambiguous. But there is one encounter on record that suggests a deeper bond.

On June 12, 1689, a young, reputedly brilliant and beautiful Swiss mathematician named Nicholas Fatio de Duillier attended a meeting Royal Society. Isaac Newton was almost certainly there, and the two men met, if not that evening then within a few days of the date.

Over the next several years, the letters between Fatio and Newton contain both the conventional forms of affection and regard common to correspondence of the day — and richer, more personal claims of affection and hope.

Several times Newton suggested they visit, lodge in adjoining rooms, meet in either Cambridge or London. They dealt in secrets — especially around the subject of alchemy, in which Newton acted as Fatio’s hermetical master, introducing a disciple into the inner circles of that special knowledge.

Later, Newton took alarm when Fatio reported falling ill, telling his confidante that “how much I was affected I cannot express,” and offering whatever money Fatio might need for physicians and his cure.

And then, in the spring of 1693 the tone of the letters changed…then stopped. Fatio retreated from Newton’s attention; found another alchemist to follow, albeit briefly; and then disappeared from sight in June.

Shortly after Newton lost track of his friend, he suffered what appears to have been an episode of deep depression that lasted into the autumn. Other events in his life at the time had powerful emotional resonance as well — but the sequence of events is there.

Was Newton gay? Not in any modern sense of the term. Mostly, he seems not to have experienced much in the way of sexual desire of any kind. But it is true that the closest one can find to an expression of need for another human being anywhere in his personal correspondence comes in his exchanges with Fatio. Newton was moved by this man, and he suffered as anyone suffers when a close connection sunders.

So: if in this Valentine’s season, I may take a moderately expansive view of what it is to love, then I will say that Newton was not a loveless man.

Images: William Blake, “Newton” 1795. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unknown artist, “Nicholas Fatio de Duillier.” Location: Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire de Geneve. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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2 Comments on “Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Valentine’s Day edition.”

  1. This is a really lovely post, and I learned something new and fascinating about Newton. 🙂

  2. It is worth noting that today (17 July) is Georges Lemaitre’s birth date.
    David Berghouse
    (Author: Museum-Tracker)

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