Posted tagged ‘Newton’

Isaac Newton vs. Paul Ryan…

October 11, 2012

…who you gonna trust?

Paul Ryan on credit, debt and the wealth of nations:

You can’t spend, tax, regulate and borrow your way to prosperity.

[Tweet by @PaulRyanVP (little ahead of yourself there fella, wouldn’t you say? –ed.) at 11:40 on Wed. 10 Oct.]

Or — perhaps you can.

Isaac Newton:

If interest be not yet low enough for the advantage of trade and designs of setting the poor on work…as divers understanding men think it is not…the only proper way to lower it is more paper credit till by trading and business we can get more money.” (Italics added. Any invidious shadow that might fall upon the aspirant to the Vice Presidency is wholly intended.)

[Newton to John Pollexfen, MP and member of the Board of Trade, 1700.¹]*

In fact, of course, modern capitalism, the rise to power and great wealth of first Britain, and then ourselves and an increasing proportion of humanity, turns on the creation of credit, the ability of nations and individuals to borrow today against tomorrow’s increase in capacity, invention, and comfort.  It is precisely by paying Tuesday for the (means of making) hamburgers today that the whole system works.  If Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have their way, we will slow our growth as a nation and as individuals, families, circles of friends will  suffer the consequences in diminished lives and opportunities.  (That such loss would fall  more on the mass of us than on those who recline at ease in Mr. Romney’s tax bracket is, of course, something that Adam Smith understood very well too — but that discussion is for another post.)

And if you don’t believe me? Take it up with my man Izzy:

But be careful — he really was a tad smarter than young Paul.

¹quoted in G. Findlay Shirras and J. H. Craig, “Sir Isaac Newton and the Currency” The Economic Journal, Vol. 55, No. 218/219 (Jun.-Sep., 1945) pp. 230-231.

*I’d be failing my Galtian duty as a profit maximizer if I didn’t mention that I discuss Newton’s role in coming up with new conceptions of money in my book Newton and the Counterfeiter, available at Amazon and wherever books are sold (also as an audiobook, where my sales are, alas languishing).

Images:  Marinus van Reymerswale, The Money Changer and his Wife, 1541.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Portrait of Isaac Newton, 1689.

For a Good Time in Pasadena: Newton and the Counterfeiter Edition…

October 29, 2009

Thanks to physics blogging major domo Sean Carroll, I’ll be chatting tomorrow at Caltech in a presentation prompted by my recent book (I’ve mentioned it once or twice), Newton and the Counterfeiter.  (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders,John Smith & Son)

I’ll be speaking about what  Isaac Newton’s work as a currency cop, investigator and prosecutor can tell us  about the scientific revolution as lived experience, and not just as some disembodied sequence of ideas and discoveries.

Reckless finance; seventeenth century sex toys; the experimental method and more.  If you are in the neighborhood of 201 East Bridge on the Caltech campus tomorrow at 4 p.m., stop on by.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.0: Blurbs redux

June 17, 2009

So, when we last left this journal, I promised to get to the point on the dark art of blurbing. 

Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is by far my  best-blurbed book, boasting enthusiastic and generous praise from a very diverse crew of luminaries — (David Bodanis, Junot Díaz, Timothy FerrisBrian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Sylvia Nasar, and Neal Stephenson).

This follows, as I wrote last time, a much sparser field of those who promoted my three previous books.  How — and why — did I go for this level of long-lead pre-publication encouragement?

The how first:  I began to contact potential blurbers as I was finishing the editor’s revisions to my first-submission mss.  That’s nine months before publication — four or five months earlier than I had in the past, following publishers’ schedules of bound galley production.

Again the reasoning behind this can be found in diary entry 8.0 — basically, if you plan to ask busy people for a favor, best to do so in a time frame that gives them more of a chance to say “yes” than plead the press of prior commitments.

What this choice meant was that I was sending a version of my book that was at least two, and really three passes short of being done.  It wasn’t typeset.  It did not possess the form factor of a book.  All of which meant that I was asking a double favor:  that someone should read my work and that they should do so  in an inconvenient form.*

So, step one was simply to render my mss. as readable as possible.  Book Antiqua font, printed double sided at 1.5 line spacing, a photocopy of the cover design to front it inside a Kinko’s black spiral binding with a clear plastic front  — i.e. a pretty standard “I’m trying here” manuscript package.

Step two was to identify a couple of people who might be willing to read with charity — knowing that what they were seeing was still unfunished.  That means personal friends and/or those who have made it clear that they are supporters of my body of work and this project.

Critically:  the ask has to be open-ended, imho:  you enquire of those already well-disposed to you if they are willing to do you an unusually large favor (large with reference to this favor-space), or whether they would prefer to wait until the galleys come along.  Minimize the chance that they will say no to your first ambition, in other words, in a way that will make it more difficult to come back at a later date for help from someone reasonably inclined to deliver.

So that’s what I did, with three folks on my short list.  First up was David Bodanis, author of E=MC2, and much else besides.  David and I met about five years ago at an Aspen Institute event celebrating the Einstein miracle year centennial, and it was one of those instant friendships.  He’s a great, funny, incredibly smart-and-quick guy, and we share a lot of the same interests and personlity tics (for good and ill…but that’s a different story).

He and I are serendipitously-met are personal as well as professional friends, in other words, and that made it possible just to call him and ask him both to read the mss. as a fellow writer, providing a reality check, and, assuming it wasn’t in his eyes a disaster, to give me a very early blurb.

A call from my then-editor Rebecca Saletan made the timing more important than I had first expected.  Despite the usual wait-for-it counsel I had already received on blurbs, when I told her in early September, 2008, that David had liked the mss. she immediately asked for his blurb so that she could use it in her presentation to the sales conference for HMH’s spring list.

And that gets to one of the “whys” of blurbing

(more…)

Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition

July 26, 2008

It’s about time this blog actually turned to an subject square in the middle of its stated theme, to look at science in public life.

In today’s episode: What John Habgood, retired Anglican Archbishop of York had to say in this review of Ronald Numbers’ history of creationism and the “intelligent design” movement. (h/t Patrick Appel)

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks around the science blogosphere who would take issue of the former second-ranking cleric in the Church of England’s claim that “all assertions about the objectivity and truth of science must themselves depend on belief in some form of reality which is simply “given”.

But that point in Habgood’s lede is something of a throwaway; he’s concerned with creationism, which he contrasts to a more general belief in creation, and which he says “is much more specific and much less plausible.” Again, I’m sure this will also piss some people off — including many of his own flock, for whom his quite abstract vision of God will be just as unsatisfying as his assertion of the necessity of the concept of God will be to the non-believing reader.

Most of the review is in fact quite good — a clear and useful review of the competing strands of creationism at the birth of the movement. He calls out ID for the nonsense it is — as theology as well as science — and if he annoys me (as he does) for urging a fairly typical “both sides need reform” argument –asking “some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions” — it is important to remember who is writing here. Habgood is/was a bishop, after all, and writes from certain assumptions into a particular structure of thought.

Rather — I want to take issue with just two words as Habgood misuses them. The first is “Darwinism” and the second is “orthodoxy” used in combination with the modifier “scientific.”

On Darwinism: Last week, Olivia Judson dissected the mixture of foolishness and bad-faith polemic contained in the use of the word as a synonym for evolutionary biology. Habgood uses the term once more or less appropriately, as the thing opposed in the early days of creationist attacks on Darwin’s idea. It’s still misleading to assert that all that was known and being done in the second half of the nineteenth century could be contained under the umbrella of the devil’s chaplain’s name — but there is a clear historical context to opposition to Darwin and his ideas by name, and in discussing that history, “Darwinism” is not the worst shorthand to use.

But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet? How about Daltonism to describe that discipline that studies the different combinations into which different species of matter can form? That’s actually a historically appropriate analogy — for Daltonism could be used to describe nineteenth chemists’ commitment to the reality of atoms and molecules, despite some physicists resistance to the atomic idea for many decades more. But in 2008? Come on.

The problem for Habgood specifically in using the word “Darwinism” in such a fundamentally wrong-headed way is that it betrays a perhaps unconscious affinity for the ideas he overtly criticizes here.

The word as employed in this piece is purely polemical, and, as Judson pointed out, its use represents an attempt to redefine the playing field. If Darwin could be shown wrong, then Darwinism falls — except of course, Darwin was wrong about lots of individual bits and pieces, and yet created a body of ideas and an approach that has fostered a branch of science that is very well indeed, thank you very much. Habgood plays on the wrong side of the pitch when he uses this word.

The same kind of bad faith appears in his odd choice to use the word “orthodoxy.” Habgood twice refers to “scientific orthodoxy” — once in the context of a discussion of clever people “riven to reject current scientific orthodoxy” and again in warning of creationism/ID’s “a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.”

I suspect that the reason the use of the word orthodoxy is malicious (in result even if not intent) is pretty obvious to those reading this.

But just to show blogger due-diligence: orthodoxy is a term of art with specific meanings in the religious discussion. Those meanings do not describe the practice of science, which turns on various methods to guage the reliability of its claims.

The use of the word in conjunction with science is at best a sociological claim — that as a human activity, scientists can form shared assumptions that seem analogous to a credo. Even here, it makes a highly imperfect comparison to the use of the same terms — both orthodoxy and affirmations of belief — in the religious context.

At worst, the word is clearly designed to play a very nasty set of mental chimes. Orthodoxy is readily turned into a term of abuse, to mean unthinking commitment to unsupportable ideas: women, derived from Adam’s rib, are intended by God to serve men; human beings are descended from ancestors common to their primate kin.

There — that should make the sleight of hand obvious. Habgood’s rhetoric is designed to create a false equivalence between science and religion, and a false sharing of blame for the spread of nonsensical notions to the fundamentalists who cannot read their bible as Habgood reads his, and to those blinkered orthodox scientists, who cannot appreciate Habgood’s vision of the mysterious.

Habgood surely knows the weight of language; his life has been spent parsing the Word in great detail, and with great distinction within his community. He is responsible for this abuse of meaning.

Update: minor edits to produce something resembling grammar in a few sentences.

Image: Yorkminster spire. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

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 (Monday edition): Isaac solves the subprime mess.

March 24, 2008

We are in a mess. How bad is it? I don’t know — but when the Fed et al. race to make sure that the most significant housing lenders in this country are less fiscally sound than they were last week, all to pump some extra dollars into the mortgage market, you know it ain’t good.

What to do? Why, suggests Tim over at Balloon Juice, let’s get the right man for the job:

Isaac Newton, of course.

Tim was joking, I think, but in fact Newton would be a more appropriate choice than just about any other physicist I could name. England in the late seventeenth century experienced a financial revolution as well as its more famous scientific one. Newton took part in both.

For example — he was among the great and the good whose advice was sought on what to do about the disappearance of England’s silver coinage in 1695 — along with such luminaries as John Locke, Charles Davenant and Christopher Wren.

Then, beginning the next year, first as Warden and then Master of the Royal Mint, he became a significant, if not the dominant player in the transformation of England’s money system from a silver to a de-facto gold denominated pound.

More to Tim’s point, Isaac Newton took up his role in England’s nascent financial bureaucracy at a time of wild, uncontrolled, truly exuberant financial engineering. This was a time when the English government’s attempts to fund a wildly expensive overseas military adventure (the Nine Years War) stretched to include licensing the issue of tickets that were at once (a) high-interest bonds (what might later be known as junk), backed by a stream of government tax revenue on malt, the key raw ingredient in making beer;* (b) entries in a lottery, offering chances to win up to a 1,000 pounds against a ten pound ticket; and (c) paper money.

As another excessively premature plug — I cover all this in my book on Newton as a currency cop, coming out early next year. But for now the point is that Newton was not only present while all this happened. He was in fact a fairly senior civil servant working for a government struggling to figure out how to fund and foster a transforming economy. He was a pretty smart guy too, I hear, and he thought in some detail about questions of credit, government control, and probity in financial dealings.

He came to a lot of quite sensible conclusions about the new paper instruments, and the proper role of debt and credit: “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 is more paper credit till by trading and business we can get more money.” Keynes forshadowed, anyone?

And then there is this: “Tis mere opinion that sets a value upon money; we value it because with it we can purchase all sorts of commodities and the same opinion sets a like value upon paper security….All the difference is…that the value of the former is more universal than that of the latter.”**

Interest is certainly heading low enough for the advantages of American export trade. (evanescing dollar, anyone? I’m only complaining as one who just had to wire a fee for a researcher in London). We still have a way to go to set the poor on work, but at least Newton had that as one of his priorities, which is more than I can say for some, on the evidence. And certainly, the interesting times (in the Chinese sense) we are living in confirms the truth of the observation of the relationship of opinion and value.

But even though Newton could see what many others could not about the essentially abstract nature of money, he was not entirely immune to the confusion — or perhaps to baseline human desires — triggered by half-comprehended new notions of finance. His first investment in the South Sea Company paid off, when he sold on the rise.

But even though there could have been no other man in England better placed to grasp the mathematical implications of the unfolding scheme — he still bought back into the madness of the bubble year, 1720.

He lost, by his heirs’ estimate, some 20,000 pounds — a prodigious sum, a fortune.*** It’s hard to gauge what that means across such gaps of time, but using the Parliamentary research service’s estimate of inflation across that time, a rough guesstimate leads to the conclusion that the smartest man in Europe blew the modern equivalent of better than three million pounds on a “greater fool” dynamic of what had become, in the end, a fairly straight forward pump-and-dump stock fraud.

Newton had succumbed to greed, or perhaps the simple impetus of the common mania — but which ever it was, it still overcame both his capacity to think quantitatively (Newton!) and any prudential impulse. After all, he was rich already. He didn’t need to risk much to gain much: when he died, seven years after the bubble year, he still left a fortune of 30,000 pounds, not counting his land in Lincolnshire.

The moral of the story: This is why you need to regulate financial markets. No one, not even the cleverest, is immune to all the familiar temptations of money in flux. No wise man remains wise always; one of the most reliable inducers of folly is the possibility of gains that seem to repeal financial laws of gravity. Rules that are no respecters of persons are there to save even the Isaac Newtons among us from themselves.

*More crucial than you might think given that weak beer was the staple fluid in a society where the water supply looked like this.

**Both quotes taken from Newton’s Mint papers, and published in G. Findlay Shirras and John Craig, “Sir Isaac Newton and the Currency,” in Economic History. Subscription required.

***It’s not quite clear from the record exactly what Newton lost in the bubble. The suggestion is that he lost an investment of 20,000 pounds, but this seems unlikely, given what is known about Newton’s income throughout his career. More likely, and the more popular interpretation among Newton scholars, is that Newton converted into South Sea stock debt instruments with a total, long term future value at that rather grand number. In other words, he didn’t lose tens of thousands in cold cash; rather, he gave up income that could have added up to very satisfying amounts over time. Still a lot of money, but not the stunning out-of-pocket disaster the raw number implies.

Images: Quentin Massys, “Der Goldwäger und seine Frau,” 1591. 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.

South Sea Bubble Card, 1720. 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.