Archive for the ‘Newtoniana’ category

For a Good Time in Second Life….

July 7, 2009

Go to the Nature Publishing Group Island in Second Life where, at 10 Pacific Time, 1 Eastern Time, I’ll be talking about Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon,PowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound) — where it came from, and at least a few of the high spots on what some of the key ideas might be….

For those wise in the ways of Second Life, I’m going to be spouting off at the Elucian Islands (214, 36, 57) and specifically in the Mt. Olympus Amphitheatre, whose appropriateness as a venue for this particular talk I will reveal in a later post. 😉

It’s my first attempt at anything so virtual, so there might be some unintended comedy as well.  Not promising, mind you, just realistically assessing the probabilities.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.1: Voices in my head, or why Neal Stephenson has to stop talking to me.

June 18, 2009

Just a little story here.  Last post I talked about getting blurbs from busy and very accomplished folks.  One of those was Neal Stephenson, author of some of best novels-of-ideas/racing action reads of recent memory.

The connection between his work and Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is pretty obvious, at least if you are (a) familiar with the three volumes of The Baroque Cycle, Neal’s massive fiction on the roots of both the scientific and economc revolutions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and/or (b) have gawked at the leaning tower of manuscript that Neal donated to the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle.  (Fun venue tucked in Gehry’s worst building, IMHO.)

Most notable, Neal’s characters include one Isaac Newton, whom we first meet as an awkward, prudish, timorous boy at Trinity College in the 1660s.  I understand that Newton acts throughout the whole multi-stranded epic, but I don’t know.

Why don’t I have at least that one fact down?

As I’ve worked to publicize my book, I have gotten asked more than once some version of these questions — have I read Neal’s telling of the story of science and gold?  Is mine a non-fiction version of the history Neal reimagined?  What did I think of Neal’s Newton?

And my answers are:  no, maybe, and I have no opinion…because though I have read almost everything Neal has put between book covers (I missed The Big U., but I have it on very good authority that I may have dodged a bullet there), I put down Quicksilver after I was about 75 pages in.


Because Neal’s Newton was too loud in my ear.  He was a real character; things happened to him, he felt, responded, changed and spoke.  I could see that Newton in my mind’s eye, and the last thing I wanted — absolutely the worst possible thing for a writer — would be to start hearing Neal’s Newton arguing with mine — and I certainly didn’t want his version colonizing mine.

Even more dangerous — Neal’s books are full of incident. Stuff happens all the time.  These three books centered on precisely the historical moments I was interested in, and for reasons that overlap with mine.  It was hard enough to keep track of my sources anyway.  Did I need the grief of remembering whether it was Enoch Root or John Locke that said something or other?

I did not.

So I didn’t just put vol. 1 down, I got it out of the house, as fast as its little legs could carry it.  I’m reclaiming it from my brother now, and look forward to reading the whole trilogy without peril this summer.

One last note:  I happened to meet Neal when he gave a talk at Harvard a couple of years ago.  He was speaking to the History of Science department there, so the bulk of his talk and reading centered on his rendering of the daily life of the scientific revolution within The Baroque Cycle.  Talking to him afterwards I made my confession that I had had to banish that work to the Boston equivalent of Siberia (Brighton, where my brother lives) — and I did receive my dispensation.

And one more last note:  there is nothing new under the sun.  Some version of everything has been written — and if I or anyone were to worry about that, I, we, would never get anything done.  But still, sometimes, it’s better not to read.

Image:  Frontspiece to Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton (1738).

What I Said — but from someone who knows what he’s talking about: Isaac Newton and Money Manias edition

June 18, 2009

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I recently published a book (ya’ think? –ed.).  Titled Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound), it tells a story from Isaac Newton’s second career as boss of the Royal Mint — how he chased down the notorious currency crook William Chaloner in a battle that ranged across London and took two years.

Through that story I get to look at lots of other stuff — the way the scientific revolution worked itself out at street level, connections between ideas of faith, science, and what with the benefit/arrogance of hindsight we call magic (alchemy), and how England for a variety of reasons undertook a financial revolution in parallel to and in part propelled by the same ideas and people who led the scientific one.

In that context I look at some of the stuff that Chaloner counterfeited — truly weird new bits of paper that still represented enormous value — and I trace the evolution of Newton’s thinking about whether or not money is just a thing — a chunk of gold or silver with a pretty design — or something more abstract, more elusive…a promise.  (See this post from last year for more on that subject.)*

And in telling all this I give my readers a glimpse of a true economic and financial wild-west, one in which there is not only a dearth of anything resembling regulation, but in which the meaning and import and dangers inherent in the newborn tricks of financial engineering eluded even the brightest of thinkers, up to and including the great Isaac Newton — who in fact lost one of his shirts, at least, in the infamous South Sea Bubble.

And there I conclude, gently, by implication, that the reason financial regulation with teeth is an essential part of a modern capitalist economy is that none of us, not even the one man in history best placed to see through the fraudulent math behind bubbles, are immune to the derangement of reason that money manias educe.  (I made the same point in this post , in which I discussed both some of Newton’s ideas about money (again) and his troubles in the summer of 1720.)

All this by way of preamble that while all the above is true and, I believe, a strong argument, I can’t suggest that your humble blogger could hold a candle to lighthouse beacon of economic chops in the person of the man who just said this in an interview with The Atlantic‘s Conor Clarke:

Self regulation never worked as far as macroeconomic events — whether we’re talking about post-Napoleonic War business cycles or the big south sea bubble back in Isaac Newton’s time, up to today’s time. The pendulum just swings back in the other direction.

The speaker there would be none other than Paul Samuelson, Nobel(ish) laureate, for years America’s leading Keynsian (or at least, popularizer of Keynes’ work) and author of the single most influential introductory economics textbook since the satraps of Ur first put stylus to clay.

Maybe if Tom Levenson says it, you can consider the source and ignore it.  But Samuelson?  Might as well try to bargain the ten commandments ten down to six.**

*Or, of course, just buy the damn book. 😉

**Old, old joke:  Moses comes down from the mountain the second time and says, “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news?  I got Him down to ten.”


“The bad news?…”

“…Adultery stays.”

Rimshot, please

Image:  Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, “Moses smashing the tablets of the law,” 1659.

Sighting: Newton and the Counterfeiter Second Review

May 2, 2009

A few days ago I had happy occasion to tout the first review of my upcoming Newton and the Counterfeiter. (Pre-order at Amazon, or if you prefer Barnes and Noble, or perhaps Target (!) …(who knew? Amazon serves as the back office, I believe) and last in this list but first in my heart, any local bookstore.)

Well, the second prepublication notice is in, this time from Library Journal, and while perhaps not quite as quotable as the first, it is, within the brief of that publication, very nice indeed:

Michael D. Cramer – Library Journal

If your ideas about Isaac Newton revolve around him watching apples falling from trees, writing the Principia, and living the life of a Cambridge don, MIT science professor Levenson’s (Einstein in Berlin) book will surprise you. A towering figure in science, Newton also had a passing interest in alchemy, but few people know that he also tracked down counterfeiters as Warden of the Mint and, later, Master of the Mint. Levenson focuses primarily on these years in which Newton outwitted, entrapped, and convicted master counterfeiter William Chaloner. Levenson also details how Newton improved the mint’s operation and handled the incredible recoinage of the 1690s that completely replaced the silver coinage in use as England stood on the brink of becoming a world power and developing what we would recognize as the modern banking system. Highly recommended for all collections, required for history of science collections.

As the last post anticipated the publication date of the review in Kirkus, which we’ve now passed I only quoted that one.  Full text below the fold.

Both of these early notices are of that peculiar variety known as the long-lead reviews, aimed at parts of the trade.  For those of you not in the professional side of reading — either selling or buying as part of your job — that ‘s why these are so laconic.  The form calls for a summary and swift judgment in a paragraph or so, aimed at readers who need to sift through notable fraction of the 80,000 170,000 or so books published in the US each year.  What is so pleasing about these from where I sit (on tenterhooks — waiting for the reaction that really matters, those of readers putting down their own nickels for the work) is that the opinions expressed are unequivocal, however brief.

Image:  Unknown Dutch master, “Still Life with Books.


Sighting: Newton and the Countefeiter First Review

April 22, 2009

As readers of this blog no doubt know too well by this point, I’m on the verge of publishing a new book called Newton and the Counterfeiter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 4, 2009; Faber & Faber, August 20, 2009).  In the writing trade’s equivalent of the first robin of the spring, I just got word of the first pre-publication review, to appear in the May 1 edition of Kirkus Reviews.

I’ve seen it, and as I’m not sure of the propriety of actually posting the whole thing ten days before its official release, I’ll just say that the unsigned reviewer liked it very much, using such author-happy-making phrases as “Levenson (Science Studies/MIT; Einstein in Berlin, 2003, etc.) demonstrates a surpassing felicity in his brisk treatment of this late-17th-century true-crime adventure….” not to mention the reviewers summing up:   “Swift, agile treatment of a little known but highly entertaining episode in a legendary life.”

It’s unseemly, I know, to toot one’s own horn — but perhaps I can be forgiven for transmitting someone else’s riff on the same theme?

Image:  Eva Gonzales, Enfant de Troupe, 1870

Friday Isaac Newton Blogging: Nick Montfort Cell Phone Fiction Edition

April 2, 2009

Nick Montfort, my prolific colleague in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT, is presenting a reading as I write this (actually, as I wrote this, as it took me a shockingly long time to finish this modest post).  Nick is in some ways the apotheosis of an MIT humanist:  his academic pedigree includes the Media Lab, a B.U. MFA, and a Ph.D. in computer and information science from Penn.  He gave a reading at MIT recently that was, or was supposed to have been (many technical glitches), a technologically enhanced tour through the still not-that-well-known but (to-me) astonishingly beautiful world of machine-mediated poetry (and a little prose).

Given my current passion, it’s easy to see why the following exercise in the art of concision appealed to me.

This one comes from one of Nick’s collections, called Ten Mobile Texts:

A MINIMAL LIFE: Newton was a young man. Then, he devoted his life to wondrous discoveries, such as the calculus. As a result, he was an elderly virgin.

Go here for more — and mouse into the spaces in between for invaluable commentary.

Image:  Kunisada Utagawa, The Ghost, 1852.  From the series An Imaginary 36 Poets (Mitate Sanjurokkasen no Uchi).

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Monday/Newton+Darwin Edition

February 23, 2009

Cross posted at So Simple A Beginning.

Up to now, we’ve been talking around the edges of what Darwin said to ease his readership into his ideas. Now it’s time to dig into the meat of the introduction to The Origin. (Past time, given the week or more that has passed since the epochal birthday – the celebration of which has already given at least one learned observer a bit of a hangover.  What would Chris Norris think of a whole year, give or take, immersed in Mr. Darwin’s Abstract?)

So to begin:  It’s going to take me a moment or two to get there, but what I want to point out here how much debt, and how much use Darwin makes of an approach to scientific argument originated by someone who is often seen as something of the anti-Darwin in subject, personality, and style.  That would be the one man with a clear claim to the title of greatest English scientist ahead of the master of Down House:  Isaac Newton.

It seems an unlikely comparison.  Opinions divide on the quality of Darwin’s prose, but there is no doubt that The Origin is at least a reasonably painless read.  Not so the Principia, even in its best translations.  (Here is my choice for an English version, which comes complete with Newton’s text and an invaluable guide to the work by the great Newton scholar I. B. Cohen.)

Where Darwin coaxes, Newton commands. Only once as I read the text does Newton break character and seem to give in – just a little — to the urge to persuade.  In Book III, as he describes how his new mathematical physics allows him to predict the paths of comets, he writes, “The theory that corresponds exactly to so nonuniform a motion through the greatest part of the heavens, and that observes the same laws as the theory of the planets and that agrees exactly with exact astronomical observations cannot fail to be true.” (Book III, prop. 41, problem 21.)

Even here, of course Newton buttresses his claim with a three – step chain of logical inference. The big stick of a formal proof seems to lurk in the shadows.  Still, that “cannot fail …” has a hint of rhetorical pressure, there to give its push to the reader.

Against such a modest expression of a hope for the reader’s assent, Darwin is ever-ingratiating, almost deferential.

After explaining the sequence of events that led him to write The Origin, for example, he begs that “I hope I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.”

On the significance of the observation of domesticated animals, he almost craves pardon, writing that “I may venture to express my conviction of the high value of such studies, although they have been very commonly neglected by naturalists.”

Even when he states the central theme of the Introduction and the work as a whole, Darwin remains unfailingly polite, and conscious of the sensibilities of his reader.  In the paragraph on page 3 in which Darwin finally stops clearing his throat, he writes:

“In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species.”

But for all the quites and the mights here, there is no disguising the muscle beneath the softness, as tough as Newton’s declaration that herein lies truth.  What follows actually bears more connection to Newton’s approach to the presentation of radical argument than may be obvious under the warming blanket of Darwin’s verbiage.

Remember:  Newton, for all the seeming artlessness of Principia – its apparent “just the facts ma’am” sequence of one demonstration after another –produced a book with a clearly articulated structure that enhanced the power of the content itself.* Crucially, in his introductory material, he laid down his famous three laws of motion as axioms, principles known (or to be seen) as true from which all else could be derived.

Newton’s use of this device was not new, (he said himself that he modeled his book on the works of the ancients) but it hadn’t been used in this way in the context of the new science of the seventeenth century, and he deployed it in the Principia to devastating effect.  By developing a seemingly exhaustive analysis of matter in motion based on the derivation of theorems from that handful of basic principles, Newton laid claim to more just the truth he proclaimed near the end of Book III. His book, like Euclid’s before it, promised a method to discover new truths — in Newton’s case, by subjecting motion to number, and thus to the rigorous scrutiny of mathematical analysis.**

Did this triumph have an influence on Darwin?  Not directly.  Those susceptible to its charms had to possess more stomach for mathematics (or, like John Locke, be willing to take the proofs on faith) than Darwin ever did.

But (at last, having travelled the long road home!) the introduction to the Origin shows the debt Darwin owed to the Newtonian style.  For all the cushioning of the blow, the essence of what Darwin said as he summarized the chapters to come turn on the axiomatic presentation Newton had deployed to such effect 150 years before.  Instead of Newton’s three laws, Darwin offers just two principles – but they are sufficient, he promises, to the matter at hand.

That is:  the concept of the descent of one species from another – the proposition to be demonstrated — he wrote, cannot be affirmed “until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration.”

And now, writes Darwin, it can be told: this modification takes place through the operation of just two facts of nature:  variation and selection.  On variation, Darwin says that  “we shall thus see that a large amount of hereditary modification is at least possible, and, what is equally or more important, we shall see how great is the power of man in accumulating by his Selection successive slight variations.”

As for natural, as opposed to human or artificial selection – that too will gain the status of a truth universally acknowledged, in Darwin’s promised treatment of “the Struggle for Existence: amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase”:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”***

There is no deference here.  No hesitation designed to obscure a possible discomforting moment for the reader.  At the point of the issue Darwin does not obscure the hard truth:  living things vary.  That variance has consequences, and if we must reproduce,**** then those consequences will include the differential selection of those better able to survive (and reproduce again).

All this could be, of course, just rather long-winded glimpse of the obvious:  that in The Origin of Species Darwin made use of the two concepts we all know he did, variation and selection, to organize all the observations and interpretations of nature to come.

I’m actually trying to say something a bit different (kind of you – ed.). Darwin’s ideas emerged for him from his close introspection on the mass of facts he collected on the Beagle and afterwards.  But his presentation of theory of evolution to the public proceeds the other way round:  within a brief, seemingly (and deceptively) simple logical structure, the facts follow theory.  As Newton had before him, Darwin presented his work in a way that framed individual facts – the track of a comet, the existence of nipples on male chests – into a weave of logic and prediction such that both theories cannot fail to be true.

Darwin was not Newton.  He would never put the matter quite that baldly.  But even if Charles was more polite than Isaac, he was no less aware of the real claim he was making.

And this speaks to an issue that runs through a modern reading of any 19th century text on biology.  It is a commonplace to say that Darwin got lots wrong, and that there is a lot that is missing in The Origin. In later posts, I’ll wrangle with what it means to say that Darwin made errors.  But leaving aside much of what I think is anachronistic in the “trip the genius” game (both as it applies to Darwin and to Newton, inter alia), the point is that Darwin, like Newton, was concerned in his book with the issue of creating a world view, a way of understanding all the specific phenomena each man sought to analyze.

Here, the axiom-and-application model is key.  It is the structural device through which Darwin asserted that he had a theory of evolution, in the full, robust Newtonian sense of the term.  Darwin was not merely arguing for that the current state of knowledge suggested the modification of species:  he was demonstrating the explanatory power of a view that showed how modification could account for both what was known, and what was to be discovered.  Q.E.D., for the last 150 years.

*I write more about the way Newton put together the Principia here, to be available in June.

**The phrase “to subject motion to number” originates with Alexander Koyré, who applied it to Galileo.  It works here too.

***To be sure, by the end of the book the catalogue of biological laws expands to five:  growth with reproduction; inheritance; variability; the struggle for life induced by high rates of increase; which induces natural selection, leading to divergence (of species) and extinction.  The core ideas remain the same, however, or clearly logically connected to the starting two principles.

****In conversation about matters evolutionary with Olivia Judson this week, she pointed out that, of course, reproduction requires death; immortality would preclude sex (for those species that so indulge).  I asked how many 18 year olds would choose deathlessness over sex; she answered, correctly in my view, none.

Images: A.Starilov, designer, USSR postage stamp, Scientists series, “Portrait of Isaac Newton (mathematician and physicist),” date of issue: 8th October 1987.  (The image is a copy of this Sir Godfrey Kneller portrait of Newton completed in 1689.)

Newton’s first and second laws of motion, from the 1687 (first) edition of Principia.

Anton Braith, “Kühe auf dem Heimweg mit Hirtin” [Cows on the way home with their Shepherdess] 1860.