Posted tagged ‘Isaac Newton’

Wednesday Isaac Newton Blogging: The (Very) Deep Roots of the Banking Crisis.

October 1, 2008

Coming up next June, I’ll be publishing my book, Newton and the Counterfeiter, in which I tell the story of Newton’s mostly unknown career as a criminal investigator and death penalty prosecutor.

It is as well a story that touches on the birth of the modern financial system — it covers the period when things like the Bank of  England, fractional reserve banking, a variety of paper instruments, debt-for equity swaps (a little later, actually) and other such esoterica were all being tried out.

Of great importance was the development of a bunch of different approaches to financing government expenditure.  All kinds of things got a work out. The book deals with some of them, including a marvelous chimera of an instrument that was at once a lottery ticket, paper money, and a bond.  Weird — but creditors of the Royal Navy, among others, were compelled to accept the notes at par.

Unsurprisingly, some writers on what was yet to be called the discipline of political economy had grave doubts about the transformation of money into paper, and government resources from receipts into debt.  They raised questions.  And on at least one occasion, Newton answered them.

In 1700, Newton, then Master of the Mint, got into a dispute with John Pollexfen, a member of parliament and a founding member of the Board of Trade (with Newton’s friend and admirer, the philosopher and theorist of money, John Locke).

Pollexfen was a hard money guy — paper might have some use in the financial system, but everyone knew real money took the form of silver and gold coins.

He argued that use of paper instruments depended on the money being held to support it.  Not for him was this new fangled notion of fractional reserve banking:  an institution issuing a note had to have the denominated amount in coin to back up the piece of paper that claimed to be money.  That is: paper was a convenient method of signifying the existence of an amount of real money; it was not money in and of itself.

Newton disagreed.  His handwritten draft of a reply to Pollexfen survives in his Mint papers, and in that draft he wrote that creation of paper instruments — including those issued by the government as debt — was essential to ensure that the nation’s economy did not collapse for want of an adequate money supply.  He wrote “If interest be not yet low enough for the advantage of trade and designs of setting the poor on work…the only proper way to lower it si more paper and credit till trading and business we can get more money.”

Interesting ideas, no?  Increase the money supply to lower the price of money, the interest rate, and thus enhance trade and employment.  What a notion!

The other Newton comment that I know of on the question of whether government debt instruments were a good idea is even more striking.  He wrote in a different context on the question of whether the creation of government debt instruments were inherently damaging to government finance and the economy that, in fact, credit was supremely useful because,

“Tis mere opinion that sets a value upon money [coined precious metal]…and the same opinion sets a value upon paper security…All the difference is …that the value of the former is more universal than the latter.”

Mere opinion!  This was a radical idea indeed at the turn of the eighteenth century

Newton did allow that credit was like doctor’s physic.  To a certain dose it was helpful; to excess it could be deadly… a sentiment which also has strangely contemporary echo.

None of this to say that Newton was anything like a pioneer of economic thought; he was not.  Most of his views represented variations on contemporary elite opinion — which was struggling to come to grips with a transformation in finance that accompanied the global expansion of English and European trade and economic life.

But even here there are parallels.  Much of our problem today derives from the toxic consequences of exotic variations on older financial tricks, some of which do in fact have roots that stretch back, through several removes, to this beginning.  Now, as then, the failure of many to grasp the implications, the risks, associated with such innovation presented opportunities both legal and definitely criminal.  Even the smartest were not immune to the lure of occult, effortlessly acquirable wealth…

…and not even Isaac Newton himself avoided the infection, as will be discussed in another post, soon.

(See G. Findlay Shirras and J.H. Craig’s article “Sir Isaac Newton and the Currency” in The Economic Journal, Vol. 55, No. 218/219 Jun – Sep. 1945 for a fuller account of Newton’s involvement in the currency/credit issues of his day).

(Also:  I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to take a brief break and write about something that doesn’t have to do with either of the those-who-must-not-be-named who have been bedevilling my concentration these last too-many days.)

Image:  Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson, “The Great Hall of the Bank of England,” in Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11).  (Anachronistic, I know — but what a nice image.)  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Friday (Isaac) Newton Blogging: Monday Cosmology Edition.

June 2, 2008

Update:  See correction below.**

(Cross-posted at Cosmic Variance.)

Let me just admit up front that I am a glutton for punishment.

Exhibit A: last year I read the Principia for pleasure.*

That’s not exactly right– it is more accurate to say that in the context of writing a book on Isaac Newton’s role as currency cop and death penalty prosecutor, I found myself reading the Principia as literature rather than the series of proofs it appears to be. Just like John Locke, who had to ask Christiaan Huygens if he could take the mathematical demonstrations on faith (Huygens said he could), I read to see what larger argument Newton was making about the ways human beings could now make sense of material experience. (This is, by the way, the only connection I can imagine that Locke and I share.)

What I got out of the exercise, more than anything else, was a reminder of how something we now mostly take for granted is in fact truly extraordinary: taken all in all, it seems genuinely remarkable that cosmology exists at all as a quantitative, empirical science.

That is: it is not obvious – or at least it wasn’t, all that long ago, that it would ever be possible to treat the universe as a whole as an object of study – especially given our very constrained vantage point from within that which we want to examine.

Most accounts of the story of modern cosmology more or less unconsciously downplay the strangeness of the claim that we can in fact make sense of the universe as a whole. They begin – mine did — with Einstein and the 1917 paper “Cosmological Considerations in the General Theory of Relativity, (to be found in English translation here.) Cosmology in this telling becomes more or less an inevitable extension of a recent advance in theoretical physics; the change in worldview precedes this extension of the apparatus of general relativity into a new calculation.

I recant: though I certainly wrote my version of this basic tale, reading Newton has reminded me of the much more radical change in the understanding of what it is possible to think about that had to precede all that cosmology (among much else) has achieved.

It certainly was not clear that the universe as a whole was subject to natural philosophical scrutiny in 1684, the year of Edmond Halley’s fortunate visit to Trinity College, Cambridge, and his more-or-less innocent question about the curve traced by a planet, assuming “the force of attraction towards the sun to be reciprocal to the square of their distance from it?  that would produce an elliptical planetary orbit with the sun at one focus.

An ellipse  inverse square relationship, Newton told Halley.

How did he know?

Why – he had calculated it.

By 1686, Newton had extended and revised his off-the-cuff answer into the first two books of Principia, both titled “The Motion of Bodies.” These pursued the implications of his three laws of motion through every circumstance Newton could imagine, culminating in his final demolition of Cartesian vortex physics.

But even though he had worked through a significant amount of mathematical reasoning developing the consequences of his inverse square law of gravitation, he left the ultimate demonstration of the power of these ideas for book three.

Books one and two had been “strictly mathematical,” Newton wrote. If there were any meat and meaning to his ideas, though, he must “exhibit the system of the world from these same principles.”

To make his ambitions absolutely clear Newton used the same phrase for the title of book three. There his readers would discover “The System of the World.”

This is where the literary structure of the work really comes into play, in my view. Through book three, Newton takes his audience through a carefully constructed tour of all the places within the grasp of his new physics. It begins with an analysis of the moons of Jupiter, demonstrating that inverse square relationships govern those motions. He went on, to show how the interaction between Jupiter and Saturn would pull each out of a perfect elliptical orbit; the real world, he says here, is messier than a geometer’s dream.

He worked on problems of the moon’s motion, of the issues raised by the fact that the earth is not a perfect sphere, and then, in what could have been a reasonable resting point for the book as a whole, he brought his laws of motion and gravity literally down to earth, with his famous analysis of the way the moon and the sun influence the tides.

Why not stop there? The story thus far had taken gravity from the limits of the observed solar system to the ground beneath each reader’s feet. More pragmatically – it told a story whose significance Newton’s audience would have grasped immediately: the importance of understanding the rules governing tides was obvious enough to the naval powers of the day.

No matter. Newton kept on going. The last section of his world-system turned to the celestial and seemingly impractical: the motion of comets, in an analysis of the track of the great comet of 1680

Newton presented his findings through two different approaches: one produced by collecting all the data points he could of traveler’s observations and plotting the comet’s track against those points; and the other in which he selected just three points and calculated the path implied.

The two analyses matched almost exactly, and both showed that this comet did not complete a neat, elliptical orbit. Rather, it traced a parabola.

Newton knew what he had done. He was no accidental writer. A parabola, of course, is a curve that keeps on going – and that meant that at the end of a very long and very dense book, he lifted off again from the hard ground of daily reality and said, in effect, look: All this math and all these physical ideas govern everything we can see, out to and past the point where we can’t see anymore.

Most important, he did so with implacable rigor, a demonstration that, he argued, should leave no room for dissent. He wrote “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.” (Italics added).

And now, finally, to get back to the point: this, I would argue, was the essential first and in some ways the most difficult step in the foundations of cosmology. With it Newton transformed the scale of the universe we inhabit, making it huge, perhaps infinite. Even more important, he demonstrated that a theory that could not fail to be true made it possible to examine one phenomenon — matter in motion under the influence of gravity — throughout all space.

That thought thrilled Newton’s contemporaries – Halley caught the mood in his dedicatory poem to the Principia, writing that “Error and doubt no longer encumber us with mist;/….We are now admitted to the banquets of the Gods;/We may deal with laws of heaven above; and we now have/The secret keys to unlock the obscure earth….” To catch a distant echo of that euphoria, just imagine what it would have been like to contemplate that ever receding comet, fifteen years into its journey towards who knew where at the time of Newton’s writing, and know that its behavior was knowable through an extraordinary act of human invention.

It’s a whole ‘nother story to ask what it would take to create a similar sense of pride and pleasure in a general audience today. But just to get the discussion going, I’d suggest that one of the oddities of contemporary cosmology as presented to the public is the degree to which the universe at large has become more homey; the very success in making the argument that there is a continuous scientific narrative to be told from the Big Bang to the present makes it harder to see just how grand a claim that is.

So, to end with an open invitation to this community: what would make current physical ideas as powerful and as intelligibly strange as Newton was able to make his story of a comet traveling from and to distances with out limit?

Last housekeeping notes: in one of the more premature bits of self-promotion in publishing history, the Newton material discussed above derives from my book, tentatively titled Newton and the Counterfeiter, coming early next year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (and Faber, for those of you across the pond).

Also – my thanks again to Sean Carroll for welcoming me to Cosmic Variance.

*If you are minded to pick up a copy of Principia, get this edition. Not only is it a well made book, easy to look at, well printed, with clear diagrams, it comes with the invaluable guide to reading the Principia written by I. Bernard Cohen. Accept no substitutes.

**Thanks to reader and award-winning physics teacher David Derbes for catching my inversion of the problem Halley put to Newton.  Let this be a lesson to me:  blog in haste; check one’s notes at leisure; repent in public.

Image: Woodcut by Jiri Daschitzsky, “The Great Comet of 1577.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Friday (Isaac) Newton Blogging: Newton — gourmand.

April 25, 2008

Apologies to all for the hiatus in this blog feature. The reason, beyond the normal clutter of late term stuff, is that I did, this week, finally ship the manuscript of my upcoming book, Newton and the Counterfeiter to my various publishers. Premature plug: look for it early next year, probably Feb., from Houghton/Harcourt (whatever they are calling that merged entity) of, for our British friends, from Faber.

So, that’s a relief. How much so can only be truly grasped by those of my fellow writers who have watched deadlines grow more elastic, while the lines around editors’ tightened lips grow less so. (My two editors, both magnificent, were delightfully and surprisingly humane when I decided I needed to rip apart the first two thirds of the book and rebuild.)

So, now, I will resume at least slightly less sporadically, these occasional detours into the marginalia of Isaac Newton’s life.

There is an icon-making quote in Newtonia, the question the Marquis d’ Hopital asked one of the great man’s acquaintances: “Is he like other men?”

That’s one of those questions that is supposed to answer itself: no, of course. And to be sure, there has been centuries of Newton hagiography to support the notion. Given the lack of much in the way of autobiographical writing by Newton himself, it has proved fairly easy to map onto Sir Isaac pretty much any desired iconography, whether Alexander Pope’s laconic “Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night/God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was Light” or Frank Manuel’s Freud-influenced portrait of a soul twisted by a fatherless, loveless childhood.

But, it’s not just in the area of love — as I blogged here — that Newton was in fact a man like other men. He was not, no matter how often he has been portrayed as an asensual ascetic, without his ordinary pleasures.

How do we know — given the lack of self-revelation in all the millions of words the perhaps-graphomane Newton committed to paper?

Because if we do not have private glimpses of his feelings, we do have some of his accounts. As you might expect for someone of Newton’s deep (i.e., not like most other men and women) passion for precision, his personal books are models of detailed completeness. Two of his early notebooks, both available online, contain records of his expenditures down to the penny.

You find there that Newton liked to eat and he liked to drink, at least occasionally.

In 1666, he lists one pound against “At the Taverne severall other times &c;” early 2 shllings went to the Cambridge white lion; more for Whitewine; white wine & sugar; China Ale. (He also bought beer — but that was more of a staple than a luxury, given the quality of the water supply in towns of any size at all.)

He liked to eat, some delicacies: marmolet (marmolade), “cheries,” apples and pairs, “a chickin,” custard, cakes and bread.

And even though this is a fairly mundane list of extras for a hungry young scholar to add to the board he would have received at Trinity College, evidence from late and early in his life confirm that he took pleasure at his table.

Late – there are accounts for dinners he gave that show he was fully prepared to feed his guests well, and pour enough drink to ensure that they would be as unsteady as they wished to be on their way home from the house at 23 Jermyn Street.

And early: check out the list of confessions in one of his youthful notebooks. Among the desperate admissions of neglect of God: “Not loving Thee for Thy self;” “Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee” — and of his capacity for rage: “Punching my sister;” “Wishing death and hoping it to some;” and most terrifying, “Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them;” you can find seven admissions of the overweening desire for something to eat: “Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar;” “Making pies on Sunday night;” and, twice, simple “Glutony.”

Newton was, of course, unlike others in any number of ways. Beyond his raw mental power, he could indeed completely ignore his body when occasions demanded. He told his niece once that his cat grew fat on meals he forgot to eat when he was deeply consumed by an idea. He was capable of sustained work and the self-enforced solitude required for his most intense efforts to a level that his contemporaries found extraordinary. He did not seem to need much in the way of physical companionship.

But the point is none of this makes him some celestial creature — not the nearer-to-the-gods-than-any-mortal-man of Edmund Halley’s introductor poem to the first edition of the Principia. Rather, he was in fact a man, an extraordinary one, but still, one of us. IfHe ate, drank, slept (sometimes) conversed (with selected companions) drank in taverns, and liked apples – to eat, even if not, perhaps, to ratiocinate upon

Image: Franciso de Goya y Lucientes, “Still Life with Hen and Fish,” 1808-1812. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: How Mean Was He?

March 21, 2008

March 22, 1699 offered Londoners one of their favorite entertainments: execution day, the carnival held at the foot of the hanging tree.

The pageant actually begun at Newgate Jail (Gaol, for any British/Commonwealth readers). There, at the edge of the old city of London, after church, and efforts by the chaplain to get the condemned men to repent and forgive, the convoy headed west for the execution ground at Tyburn, where the Marble Arch now stands.

Crowds as large as 100,000 would gather for the fun, passing gin to favored convicts as they rolled by, cheering or jeering bravery and cowardice at the foot of the gallows, thrilling to the beat of the hangman’s dance as dying men jerked and twitched on the rope. (Trapdoor gallows would not come into use until 1760, and even then it took a bit of experience to get the height of the drop just right — far enough to break someone’s neck, not so far as to decapitate them.)

On this particular March day, one of the men to be hanged was a coiner named William Chaloner, who had been convicted of counterfeiting the King’s coins earlier in the month, a crime classified as High Treason. The man who brought him to his last moments on the hanging tree — along three dozen or so others over the years — was Isaac Newton, then serving as Warden of the Royal Mint.

My next book, most likely to be titled Newton and the Counterfeiter (Harcourt/Faber 2009) will trace the quite remarkable story of the cat and mouse game Newton and Chaloner played. The story as I’ve found it sheds a lot of light on how Newton thought, what he was trying to do — not just as a civil servant, but as a natural philosopher, someone trying to make sense of the world of experience — and what he felt, what motivated him. There’s a lot of the times as well as the lives in my account — what it was like to live through an enormously transformative period, not just in science, but in pretty much everything to do with daily life. I’m telling a true crime story, in other words, but a lot more.

That terribly premature plug aside (the book won’t be out until early next year), the question for this post is did Newton take pleasure in the deaths he triggered?

That’s not my question, originally.  Some Newton biographers, most notably Frank Manuel in his psychology – drenched book A Portrait of Isaac Newton, saw Newton as a deeply damaged person. Manuel argued that Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters to the gallows was a crucial psychological release, a transference of perceived guilt from his deformed psyche onto an external figure.

Manuel writes “In the Mint Newton was gratified with the exercise of naked power over fellow creatures. …With such avenues available to him, he never again sufffered a psychic breakdown like the one of 1693. He no longer needed to beat his head against the bars of his inner consciousness. There were other human beings upon whom he could vent his wrath.” And later: “At the Mint he could hurt and kill without doing violence to his scrupuolous puritan conscience. The blood of the coiners and cliperrs nourished him.”

To which I say, with respect (for I value Manuel’s Newton scholarship highly): nonsense, ahistorical, anachronistic nonsense.

Newton certainly was a good hater — Manuel is right there. I wrote a bit about Newton’s prosecution of his grudge against Robert Hooke here, and Newton certainly pressed without scruple the priority dispute with Leibniz.

And it is true that Newton could be violent, at least in thought.  Consider the transgression he listed among his sins in 1662:

Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne
them and the house over them

This confession is, in fact, one of the pieces of evidence Manuel uses to build his picture of an Isaac Newton so scarred by his miserable childhood that he became the blood-drinking monstrous adult described above.

But while it is certainly true that Newton had a lonely, and at least at times an angry childhood, it is too great a leap of logic to posit the connection to grown up psychopathology, or even a connection between what appears to ahve been a bout of depression in 1693 with a murderous streak judicially indulged.

Why? Because within the actual context of criminal justice in London in the late seventeenth century, Newton was a perfectly unexceptional agent of the state. He was more effective than many – not surprisingly. He was Isaac Newton! He knew how to do empirical research. He had spent years weighing evidence for his physical claims. He was incorruptible. He had been given a job to do, and he did it — no surprise there.

And as for bringing men (and a few women)* to their deaths: Isaac Newton did not invent the bloody code. He did not refine the miseries that Newgate and its turnkeys inflicted on the residents there. He did not, in fact, pursue a true horde of coiners to their deaths; many were reprieved — after providing him with enough information about bigger fish to earn their way out of jeopardy — or with or without his connivance were convicted of lesser offenses, and spared the gallows.

That is: Manuel and those who have since picked up on the notion of Newton as a damaged man, have allowed their modern revulsion at the severity of seventeenth century criminal justice to blind them to the fact that Newton’s prosecutions were normal acts in his time, obligatory, in fact. Once he accepted his post at the Mint, it became his duty — as his superiors at the Treasury reminded him — to pursue counterfeiters with all the energy he could command.

Did those he convicted die hard? Certainly. But seen as part of the historical landscape in which he lived, Newton’s moral culpability for their sufferings is roughly equivalent to that of the hammer for the nail’s pain.

*Women convicted of high treason faced an even grimmer fate than men. Out of respect for female modesty (or simply to block the prurient male gaze) it was considered unacceptable to feed the crowd the spectacle of a woman jerking at the end of a rope in a mockery of an erotic spasm. The solution: burn them, when convicted of either high or petty treason — high for crimes against the monarch, low for crimes against constituted authority, including the murder of one’s marital superior, a husband.

In practice, most of those condemned to burn were killed by strangulation before the fire was lit. The last time a woman was truly burnt to death judicially in England came in 1685, when Elizabeth Gaunt was done to death for her part in the politically over-hyped Rye House Plot against the Stuart monarchy. The last use of the stake in England came in 1789. Then, Catherine Murphy, a coiner was led past the hanging bodies of several men hanged that day, including that of her husband, convicted for the same counterfeiting scheme for which she faced death. She was led up to a low wooden platform, and bound to the stake . The executioner placed bundles of straw around her, but then, he tied around her neck a rope fixed to an iron ring at the top of the stake. The platform was pulled out from under her feet, and there she dangled. The executioner waited half an hour before lighting the pyre. bound tied to be hanged before having her body stood up at the stake, and set on fire.

The Sheriff of London, Sir Benjamin Hammett, officiated at Murphy’s execution. The next year, he led the successful effort in Parliament to end the practice of execution. He pointed out that he was himself technically guilty of a crime, like all Sheriffs for the previous fifty years, for he and they had all failed to follow the letter of the law in carrying out the immolation of convicted female traitors. The law mandating the gallows for female coiners passed in spring, 1790.

Images: José de Ribera, “Martyrdom of Phillipus,” 1639. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Diepold Schilling “A Witch is Burned at Willisau, 1447” 1513. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

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

February 15, 2008

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

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: February 8. Mark the day …

February 8, 2008

…because if modern science has a birthday, this could be it. (Think of February 8 as the analogue to Christmas: a useful and not-provably-wrong conventional solution to when something significant in human history got its start.)

What happened on February 8?

On that date in 1672, Henry Oldenburg, secretary to the Royal Society, arranged to have a letter read at the Society’s regular meeting. That letter was from the still young, relatively recently installed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, Isaac Newton.

The Society had reason to pay attention to Newton, for all that this was the first significant piece of his writing that had come its way. He had sent the society a working telescope of a radical new design in 1670 — and that invention propelled him from more or less complete obscurity to the first rank of those who communicated with the Society.

A critical feature of this new reflecting design was the elimination of chromatic aberration — a distortion produced by the fact that the lens used in a Galilean telescope has different refractive indices for different wavelengths of light.

This encounter with color and light prepared the way for what was to come. Newton would become famous for his reluctance to publish — and especially for his aversion to criticism.  It took him almost two years to summon up the courage or the ambition to submit the paper that would lay out the underlying theoretical and experimental work that produced the telescope as a by-product. But at last, on February 6, 1672, he mailed his letter to Oldenburg. Two days later, the news became one of the founding documents of the public record of modern science.

That letter begins with one of the most impressive deadpans in the history of science: “Sir, To perform my late promise to you I shall without futher ceremony acquaint yo, that in the beginning of the Year 1666 (at which Time I applyed my self to the grinding of Optick glases of other figures than Spherical,) I procured me a Triangular glass-Prisme, to try therewith the celebrated Phenomena of Colours.”

(The entire paper can be found in The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, Volume I, Cambridge University Press, pp 92-107. “Of Colors” — Newton’s write-ups on the work as he did it in 1665-1666 can be found online here. Check it out — the transcript comes with copies of Newton’s sketches, including the cringe-worthy illustration of his experiment deforming his own eyeball with a bodkin.)

Newton’s letter to Oldenburg was incredibly rich in new science, but in fact, as Newton’s best recent biographer, Richard Westfall described, there was a long and in many ways very productive history of optical investigation that preceded it. So why was this one document so special?

Because of the experimentum crucis — Newton’s crucial, irrefutable experiment, in which he used two prisms to demonstrate that “Light consists of Rays differently refrangible.

And even more, as Westfall argues, because of the design of that experiment, and the way Newton used his mathematical tools to drive the interpretation of his observations. As Westfall wrote, “In shattering the conception of color as a scale of gradation between opposing qualities, Newton made possible their mathematical treatment.” This was more than mere technique:

“Newton now identified colors with given rays possessing other objective, measurable qualities. Degrees of refrangibility could be arranged on a single absolute scale, whereas a scale stretching from white to black necessarily lacked an absolute reference. The subjective sensation of color became little more than a convenient symbol to signify the measurable entity.”

(Richard S. Westfall, “The Development of Newton’s Theory of Color,” ISIS 1962, Vol. 53, Part 3 173, p 158.)

The 1672 letter was not Newton’s last word on the subject, and in the immediate context of the day, it embroiled him in precisely the kind of wrangle he loathed, a battle over the accuracy of some of its details with Robert Hooke.

But it was what some have called the first true scientific paper. That kind of top ten listing is always something of a mug’s game, but this much is true:

With hsi letter to the Royal Society, Newton laid down what would be required to do meaningful science from that point forward, from the way he designed his  experiment, to the way he used mathematics in the interpretation of data, to the manner in which both results and interpretation would now need to be reported to the community.

Put that another way: I’ve talked elsewhere in this blog about science as a set of habits of mind. Here Newton provides a synoptic view of how those habits work in action:  the systematization of observation; the skepticism needed to put your initial results to the test; the interplay, back and forth,  between evidence and theory.

It’s a quibble to argue if this was the first paper we can imagine John Maddox ever accepting. It’s a fact that this one letter from a proud and fearful man working alone in the stagnant backwater of Cambridge showed his world that there was a new way to comprehend the world.

Now all we need is a name for the day. Happy Prismas anyone?

Update: A bunch of minor edits to correct typos and remove some nasty word repetitions and the kind of sentence structures you get when writing something at the tail end of the Friday of the first week of term.

Images: Newton’s Reflecting Telescope (replica). Photograph by Andrew Dunn c. 5 November 2004, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0.

William Blake, “Ancient of Days,” 1794. Location: the British Museum, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Q: How did Newton get rich? (A: He mastered a mundane form of alchemy.)

February 1, 2008

Three hundred and eight years ago this Sunday, Feb. 3, Isaac Newton finally got his hands on the one sure way to multiply gold.

This time Newton had got his hands on the real thing — not the phantom he had pursued so deeply in his alchemical researches. It’s true that seven years before he had convinced himself that he had discovered the Philosopher’s stone. With it he believed, he had found the secret that allow the adept to begin with a stock of gold and then, as he wrote in his last alchemical manifesto, “you may multiply [it] to infinity.”

He believed — and held on to that faith for a few weeks, before recognizing his error, and then (perhaps coincidentally) falling into the deep depression that has led Newton historians to call 1693 his black year.

That experience more or less cured Newton of alchemy — not that he abandoned what he saw as its animating idea, but he did give up trying to turn its concepts into a practical experimental program. (He did in fact perform a few more laboratory experiments in the mid 1690s, but with nothing approaching the intensity of his pre 1693 research).

But the failure of his alchemical ambition did not end his deep involvement with the gold in it’s vulgar, day to day manifestation. In 1696, Newton left his academic job in Cambridge to begin life as an officer of the Royal Mint. And then, on February 3, 1700, he managed to make his way into the top job, taking the post of Master and Worker of the His Majesty’s Mint.

There he had formal responsibility for the production of all England’s coin. As of 1700, the official coinage was silver, with gold guineas and half guineas serving as convenient high denomination tokens that could be exchanged for “real” silver money. (How big a chunk of change was a guinea? About one week’s wages for a skilled London craftsman.)

Over the next decade and a half, Newton would preside over the death of the English silver currency; by the late teens, gold became the de-facto standard — a shift driven in part by a mis-pricing of the value of a golden guinea as measured in the value silver could command on an increasingly globalized market for precious metals. (The full legal switch to the gold standard came only in 1844, with the passage of the Bank Charter Act.)

The switch from silver to gold did not bother Newton. In fact, though he was as scrupulously honest as any man — more so than most in that patronage and corruption ridden age — he personally gained from any event that brought more metal into the Mint and spat more coins out. In his first post at the Mint, he received only a stipend — a generous one, to be sure: 500 pounds a year by 1699 — but not a foundational fortune, not an inheritance.

At the same time, it’s important to note that he worked for his money, more than any prior holders of his Mint offices for the previous century at least.He did the paperwork, made himself an expert assayer, kept exceptionally accurate accounts (shortly after coming to the Mint, he fought the Treasury over a discrepancy of two pence. Two pence! He was, in fact, one of England’s first real civil servants — along with his friend, the philosopher John Locke, who earned his keep at the same time as one of the founding eight commissioners of the Board of Trade.

This was, in other words, another side of the revolution in science — the very first steps (a lot of the one-forward, two-back variety) towards instituting an ideal of disinterested expertise in government.

That took a while — some might say that we are still waiting

Civil service — bureaucracy, if you will — was still in its infancy in England when Newton became Master of the Mint, however, and there were definitely some bugs left in the system. The job was one of the great surviving feudal privileges left for powerful patrons to deliver to loyal supporters. He got both a substantial stipend — and a percentage of every pound of silver or gold minted into coins. Now you were talking real money, an income that handily topped four figures in the busier years.

When Newton died in 1727, with almost three decades of his cut from the Mint’s prodution in hand, he left an estate — excluding the land inherited from his mother — worth 30,000 pounds. That’s between four and five million pounds in contemporary currency. Newton died rich…

…And thus was proved the proposition that the surest way to make a pile of money is to make it yourself.

Q.E.D. — with this qualification: don’t try this at home, kids.

(This last is a long distance tease for my book-in-progress — which will have a lot more to say about Newton and some of the more questionable ways English men and women tried to make money back in the day. My telling of that story is due out on Houghton’s Winter 08-9 list.)

Images: Sir Godfrey Kneller, “Isaac Newton,” 1702 and “Coining Press used by the Royal Mint,” 1818. Source: Wikipedia Commons.