Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Isaac Newton as a college kid

I am currently working on not one but two new courses so I will be posting less frequently. However, when I have time and something interesting to write about I hope to continue the blog.

One of the new courses is going to be based around a history of physics, so I am reading Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton by Richard Westfall. Newton came from a wealthy family, but his relationship with his mother and stepfather seems to have been somewhat strained. When he went off to college (Trinity College at Cambridge), he seems to have had little financial support from home. As a result, he went as a "subsizar." Subsizars were at the very bottom of the social scale at Cambridge. They had to do chores and errands for the other students: cleaning their boots, emptying their bedpans, and such fun stuff.

Newton seems to have had few friends (not surprising for someone in his social position) and little interest in the gambling, drinking, and  prostitutes that many students spent their time on. He does mention going to the tavern on occasion, but only after he had gotten his B.A. He plunged himself into books instead.

The curriculum was crusty and antiquated when Newton arrived. In principle, one studied the classics, meaning that you studied Greek so that you could read Aristotle. In practice, everyone knew that graduating was a formality once you were in. Newton's notebooks from his college days show that he started reading the standard texts, but soon left off without bothering to finish them. Instead, he started off on an unsanctioned path of study of his own invention.  He read Galileo, Robert Boyle, and Thomas Hobbes. He devoured Descartes, and began writing comments on him and others in a notebook he labelled "Quaestiones quaedam Philosophcae," pointing out ways that Descartes's theories could be tested by simple observations.

He figured out a way out of his lowly status, too. He began lending money to other students, and recorded these loans meticulously in a notebook. He did not record any interest paid on these loans - but presumably received some, for soon he was hiring other students to do the menial tasks he was supposed to do for others.

Graduation was not a problem, but what to do after it was. There were "elections" to scholarships for further study, held only once every three or four years. Newton's chance came up in 1664. His curious program of study didn't bode well for the outcome, however. His tutor took him to the newly appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics, Isaac Barrow. Barrow quizzed him about Euclid - but Newton had skipped Euclid, and worked his way painstakingly through Descartes's mathematical writings instead. Barrow never thought to ask Newton about Descartes - presumably one who understood so little of Euclid would have no knowledge of the newer, higher math. And Newton was too shy to mention it himself.

Nevertheless, Newton was given the coveted scholarship. How this happened is a mystery. Perhaps Barrow saw something of Newton's genius, and pushed him through. Perhaps someone else came to Newton's rescue, playing his patron. Certainly he would never have obtained the scholarship without someone supporting him from within the college. And without that support, Newton would not have been able to continue his studies. He most likely would have had to return to his family estate and play the landed gentleman role, overseeing the crops and the cattle. To that unknown benefactor, the world owes a great debt.

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