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Flaws of Gravity
Even the idlest stroll through Cambridge, England, calls to mind a pantheon of great scientific minds, but none is greater than Isaac Newton, who revolutionized the world of “natural philosophy” while the rest of England was paralyzed by the plague. Reading an enlightening new biography by Peter Ackroyd, Christopher Hitchens learns that Newton probably didn’t get bonked on the head by an apple—but he did have some pretty funny ideas about sex, gold, and religion.
by Christopher Hitchens
When I was a young boy at a Methodist boarding school in Cambridge, England, I used to try and drink as much water as I possibly could. This practice was based on the false hope that I might acquire some slight knowledge of science and mathematics. In these areas I was hopelessly deficient, yet it seemed that only the water in Cambridge could explain the extraordinary profusion of mathematical genius that had flowered in this rather chilly little city on the flatlands of East Anglia.
You could take a walk in the town, for example, and pass the Cavendish Laboratory on Free School Lane. You could easily miss it: its quaint lack of space and resources, its generally shoestring and amateur character are lovingly satirized in Penelope Fitzgerald’s lovely novel The Gate of Angels. But a grand total of 29 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work done in this unassuming building, perhaps the best known being to Sir John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton for the development of the first nuclear particle accelerator (which allowed them to be the first to split the atom without using radioactive material), in 1932. This was during the exceptional directorship of Professor Ernest Rutherford, under whose benign and brilliant rule work at the Cavendish also garnered Nobels for Sir James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron and Sir Edward Appleton’s demonstration of the existence of a layer of the ionosphere that could reliably transmit radio waves. It’s not exactly a footnote to add Sir Mark Oliphant, who pioneered the deployment of microwave radar and flew to the United States during the war to assist American scientists in their pursuit of the non-peaceful implications of Cavendish’s split atom and the setup that would become the Manhattan Project. Within a very short time, Robert Oppenheimer, another of Rutherford’s Cavendish protégés, was watching the first nuclear detonation, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, and murmuring to himself a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death: the shatterer of worlds.”
As against that, and taking a break from work at the same laboratory on February 28, 1953, researchers James Watson and Francis Crick went round the corner to a pub on nearby Bene’t Street. Watson recalled feeling “slightly queasy when at lunch Francis winged into the Eagle to tell everyone within hearing distance that we had found the secret of life.” The structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, building block of existence itself, turned out to have the shapely form of a double helix. Humanity was well on its way to unraveling and analyzing the crucial strands that are our DNA. (It was in the Eagle, less momentously, that I later drank my first illegal beer and kicked the stupid water habit for life.)
Continuing our stroll—or pub crawl—we might pass Christ’s College, alma mater of the Reverend William Paley. In the early 19th century, Paley’s book Natural Theology, arguing that all of “creation” argued for the evidence of a divine designer, became the key text for those who saw the hand of god in the marvels of nature. A young student named Charles Darwin came to the same college not all that long afterward and was overcome by awe at being given the same rooms as Paley had occupied. As a naturalist and biologist, Darwin hoped to follow in the great man’s path and perhaps himself become a priest. In the event, his research was to compel him to a somewhat different conclusion. Tipping our hat to this astonishing double act, we might also pause to reflect outside the gates of Trinity Hall, the college that helped produce Stephen Hawking, who is now the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and a fellow of Gonville & Caius College as well. Until relatively recently, it was possible to spot the celebrated anatomist of time and space, born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo, grinding around these medieval streets and squares in his electric chariot: as good an instance of pure brain and intellect as one could hope to meet.
Who can pass the great and spacious lawns of Trinity College without thinking of Bertrand Russell, who could have been world famous in several departments, from adultery to radicalism, but whose most imposing work is probably Principia Mathematica, the result of a 10-year collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead. “The manuscript became more and more vast,” recalled Russell in his autobiography, and in merely writing it out, when the main labor was complete, he worked “from ten to twelve hours a day for about eight months in the year, from 1907 to 1910 … and every time that I went out for a walk I used to be afraid that the house would catch fire and the manuscript get burnt up. It was not, of course, the sort of manuscript that could be typed, or even copied. When we finally took it to the University Press, it was so large that we had to hire an old four-wheeler for the purpose.” Reflecting on this grueling experience, he remembered that it caused him to contemplate suicide very often, and wrote that “my intellect never quite recovered from the strain. I have been ever since definitely less capable of dealing with difficult abstractions than I was before.” (This, from the man who went on to produce A History of Western Philosophy.)
But to mention Trinity is also to summon the greatest figure of them all: the man who wrote the very first Principia Mathematica, who was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics more than three centuries before Hawking and who, while the rest of the country was paralyzed by fear of the Great Plague, of 1665–66, “revolutionized the world of natural philosophy. He gave the first proper treatment of the calculus; he split white light into its constituent colors; he began his exploration of universal gravity. And he was only twenty four years of age.”
I am quoting from Peter Ackroyd’s new biography of Sir Isaac Newton, who did not, as legend has it, find his consciousness of the implications of gravity provoked by the fall of an apple. He was rather more meticulous than that in his researches and, like Madame Curie with radium, was unafraid to experiment on himself. In his eagerness to distinguish light from color, he stared at the sun with one eye, to discover the consequences. He was reckless of his own sight in the process, and had to spend three days in a darkened room in order to recuperate from the experience. Later, to test Descartes’s theory that light pulsated as a “pressure” through the ether, he slid a large needle “betwixt my eye and the bone as near to the backside of my eye as I could.” Single-minded to the point of obsession, he was attempting to alter the curve of his retina so he could observe the results, even at the risk of blinding himself.
We tend to love anecdotes about apples and eurekas because they make scientific genius seem more human and more random, but that other great Cambridge denizen Sir Leslie Stephen was closer to the mark when he claimed genius was “the capacity for taking trouble.” Isaac Newton was one of the great workaholics of all time, as well as one of the great insomniacs. His industry and application made Bertrand Russell look like a slacker (and, like Russell, he was morbidly afraid of fire among his papers and books—fire which did, in fact, more than once break out). When he decided that a reflecting telescope would be a better instrument than the conventional refracting model, he also decided to construct it himself. When asked where he had obtained the tools for this difficult task, he responded with a laugh that he had made the tools himself, as well. He fashioned a parabolic mirror out of an alloy of tin and copper that he had himself evolved, smoothed, and polished to a glass-like finish, and built a tube and mounting to house it. This six-inch telescope had the same effectiveness as a six-foot refracting version, because it removed the distortions of light that were caused by the use of lenses.
In contrast with this clarity and purity, however, Newton spent much of his time dwelling in a self-generated fog of superstition and crankery. He believed in the lost art of alchemy, whereby base metals can be transmuted into gold, and the surviving locks of his hair show heavy traces of lead and mercury in his system, suggesting that he experimented upon himself in this fashion, too. (That would also help explain the fires in his room, since alchemists had to keep a furnace going at all times for their mad schemes.) Not content with the narrow views of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, he thought that there was a kind of universal semen in the cosmos, and that the glowing tails of the comets he tracked through the sky contained replenishing matter vital for life on Earth. He was a religious crackpot who, according to Ackroyd, considered Catholics to be “offspring of the Whore of Rome.” He was also consumed by arcane readings of the book of Revelation and obsessed with the actual measurements of the Temple of Solomon. Newton elected to write his already difficult Principia Mathematica in Latin, boasting that this would make it even less accessible to the vulgar. He is still revered in the little world of esoteric and conspiratorial mania, featuring as a member of “the Priory of Sion” in The Da Vinci Code. And secularists and rationalists conspire, too, in their way, to keep his mythic reputation alive. The beautiful “Mathematical Bridge,” which spans the River Cam at Queen’s College, is still said to have been designed by Newton to stay in place without nails or screws or joints, and to be supported by gravitational force alone. When later scientists dismantled it to discover the secret, according to legend, they could not work out how to put it back together again, and had to use crude bolts and hinges to re-erect it. Newton died in 1727, and the bridge was not built until 1749, but rumors and fantasies are much stronger than fact.
But then, so are unscientific prejudices. Francis Crick didn’t believe in god at all (he proposed having a brothel at his Cambridge college instead of a chapel), but he did follow the godly Newton in speculating that life had been “seeded” on Earth by a higher civilization. His “double-helix” colleague James Watson has several times speculated, against all the evidence, that female people and people with too much melanin pigmentation are genetically programmed to underperform. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at this. Joseph Priestley, the great Unitarian humanist and discoverer of oxygen, was wedded to a bogus theory of the chemistry of gasses wherein they burned into “phlogiston,” which he called a “principle of inflammability.” Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s great collaborator and perhaps even intellectual inspiration, was never happier than when attending spiritualist séances and marveling at the appearance of ectoplasm. It may not be until we get to Albert Einstein that we find a true scientist who is also a sane and lucid person with a genial humanism as part of his world outlook—and even Einstein was soft on Stalin and the Soviet Union.
We are inclined to forget that the word “scientist” itself was not in common use until 1834. Before that time, the rather finer title of “natural philosopher” was the regnant one. Isaac Newton may have been a crank and a recluse and a religious bigot and (during his period as master of the Royal Mint) an enthusiast for the hanging of forgers. However, the study of ancient thinkers and antique languages was second nature to him, and when he listed the seven colors of the spectrum—having carefully separated these from their formerly all-enveloping white light—he did so by an analogy with the seven notes of the musical scale. Any other conclusion, he felt, would violate the Pythagorean principle of harmony. He was probably wrong in this glimpse of the unified field theory that was to elude even Einstein, but one has to admire someone who could dare to be wrong in such a beautiful way.
Not everything about Newton was so harmonious. He clearly hated women, may well have died a virgin, and was terrified of sex (and believed that the menstrual blood of whores possessed magical properties). Peter Ackroyd, one of England’s premier writers, makes a mystery where none exists when he writes of Newton’s obsession with crimson and the furnishing of his room entirely in that color, from the drapes to the cushions. “There have been many explanations for this,” he writes, “including his study of optics, his preoccupation with alchemy, or his desire to assume a quasi-regal grandeur.” I would have thought that an easier and more uterine explanation might present itself …
The book I have been discussing is the third volume in Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series. Himself a gay son of Clare College, Cambridge, who has already “done” Chaucer and Turner, as well as longer biographies of Dickens, T. S. Eliot, Blake, and the city of London (at 800-plus pages), he may well be the most prolific English author of his generation. And, which I find encouraging, he can write movingly and revealingly about Isaac Newton while being no more of a scientist or mathematician than I am. In our young day in Cambridge, the most famous public squabble was between the “scientist” C. P. Snow and the “literary” F. R. Leavis. It eventually turned into a multi-volume international tussle about “the two cultures,” or the inability of physicists to understand or appreciate literature versus the refusal of the English department to acquire the smallest “scientific” literacy. Ackroyd helps to show us that this is a false distinction with a long history. Keats, for example, thought that Newton had made our world into an arid and finite and unromantic place, and that work like his could “conquer all mysteries by rule and line … Unweave a rainbow.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. Newton was a friend of all mysticism and a lover of the occult who desired at all costs to keep the secrets of the temple and to prevent the universe from becoming a known quantity. For all that, he did generate a great deal more light than he had intended, and the day is not far off when we will be able to contemplate physics as another department—perhaps the most dynamic department—of the humanities. I would never have believed this when I first despairingly tried to lap the water of Cambridge, but that was before Carl Sagan and Lawrence Krauss and Steven Weinberg and Stephen Hawking fused language and science (and humor) and clambered up to stand, as Newton himself once phrased it, “on the shoulders of giants.”
Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. Send comments on all Hitchens-related matters to firstname.lastname@example.org