Monday, December 27, 2010

Newton the Odd Duck

One might have expected that Isaac Newton, country bumpkin newly become scholar, would have been eager to publish his discoveries in science and mathematics and make a name for himself.

One would have been wrong.

Though he wrote up his discoveries in essays in his notebooks, and on occasion seemed to be writing a paper for publication, he avoided disseminating his work to an astonishing, even incomprehensible degree. His invention of infinitesimal methods (calculus), his essay on "The lawes of Motion," his optical experiments, all languished in his desk drawers.

He seems, indeed, to have had little human contact of any kind apart from his long-time roommate, John Wickins, and the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, Isaac Barrow. Years later, Wickins described Newton as someone so obsessed with his studies that he often forgot to eat and sleep. On the rare occasions he went to the public dining-hall, he went with "shooes down at Heels, Stockins unty'd, surplice on, & his Head scarcely comb'd." He never, as an adult, had a romantic relationship with a woman.

He was, in short, a nerd.

One might deduce from his lack of interest in publishing his work that he was simply uninterested in fame or in other people's opinions of him.

One would be wrong.

The incident that finally led him to put some of his work out in public view was the publication, in 1668, of a mathematical book of Nicholas Mercator that included the infinite series for log(1 + x). Newton suddenly saw himself being scooped on all his wonderful mathematical discoveries, and hastily put together a treatise on infinite series. He passed this on to Barrow, but forbade him to send it to anyone else. Finally, Newton gave Barrow permission to send the paper on to John Collins, a man who made it his business to facilitate communication among British mathematicians. Only when Collins reacted favorably did Newton allow the paper to be disseminated further. But when Collins and Barrow wanted to publish it as an appendix to Barrow's forthcoming book on optics, Newton drew back.

Thus a pattern was set. Newton would drop hints about his discoveries, begin to write them up, then put them aside and refuse to publish them. But let a challenger appear, and Newton would rush forward to claim priority. So by his own refusal to publish he became embroiled in priority disputes: notably with Leibniz over the calculus and with Hooke over the law of gravity.

Collins and Barrow continued to encourage Newton's mathematical investigations. Barrow asked him to annotate a Latin translation of a Dutch book on algebra, and Collins asked him to derive a formula for calculating the interest on an annuity. Collins wanted to publish Newton's formula, and Newton agreed, "soe it bee without my name on it. For I see not what there is desirable in publick esteeme, were I able to acquire and maintain it. It would perhaps increase my acquaintance, ye thing which I cheifly study to decline." 

Newton's claim to be uninterested in the British pastime of "increasing one's acquaintance," i.e., social climbing, is rather ironic, knowing as we do how tenaciously he was to grasp at fame in the not too distant future.

His mathematical work began to attract notice, but what really brought him to prominence was his invention of the reflecting telescope. Around 1669, his optical studies led him to realize that telescopes built of lenses will always suffer from a blurring due to the fact that different colors of light refract differently. A telescope built with mirrors instead of lenses would not suffer this drawback. Newton's 6-inch long reflector was more powerful than a 6 foot refractor.

The Royal Society, England's scientific society, got wind of the telescope, and, in 1671, Barrow brought it to them. Newton was swept up in a flood of adulation, and sent the Royal Society a paper on his optical investigations. The telescope and the paper brought Newton, finally, into the international scientific limelight.

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