10 March 2019


Florian Freistetter.  Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe, Prometheus Books, 2018.

Well, the title certainly grabs the attention, which is half the battle in getting the prospective reader to pick the book up (or, these days, click on the link). It also signals that we’re in for a quirkier take on the life of the genius who almost single-handedly started science as we know it. A dry, academic tome on the history of science this isn’t.
It’s what we’d expect from Florian Freistetter, an astronomy lecturer turned freelance science journalist and blogger who also performs in what the book jacket describes as ‘humorous popular-science presentations’ on stage and TV. He knows his science, and how to make it not just interesting but fun.

In this translation from the German, Freistetter not only brands Newton an asshole (‘Arschloch’, in case you were wondering), but also a ‘jerk’, ‘pigheaded’, a ‘belligerent bully’, ‘ruthless’, and much more – while declaring him his scientific hero. But it’s not just a warts-and-all celebration of Newton’s genius; Freistetter also uses the strange, maddening personality of Newton – who comes across as not merely eccentric, sociopathic and obsessive but downright obnoxious - to examine what it takes to carve a scientific career in the modern world, setting out to answer the question, ‘Can a genius and an asshole be a role model for a successful scientist even today?’

Freistetter doesn’t attempt to produce a full biography, noting that there are plenty of them around already. It’s a short book, consisting of seven chapters, most of which focus on one of Newton’s revolutionary discoveries or ideas, such as (of course) his theory of gravity and his formulation of the laws of motion, explaining succinctly and clearly why it was so ground-breaking and how vital it was to the science that came after. But Freistetter also uses each example to bring out a facet of Newton’s character, either through the way he presented his work (or, in many cases, kept it secret or deliberately obscure) or how he responded to even well-intentioned criticism of it. Then, at the end of each chapter, Freistetter turns to a discussion of how Newton, with those character traits, would fare in the modern scientific environment.

It’s an inspired approach, making Newton’s story relevant to the modern reader, connecting them with the beginnings of science and allowing them to see what’s changed and what hasn’t, making the book particularly valuable to science students.

Surprisingly perhaps, most of the lessons Freistetter draws from these discussions is that Newton exhibited extreme, OTT versions of personality traits that are still useful in a scientific career.

For example, when it comes to the many, often childish, feuds that Newton engaged in throughout his life – with the likes of John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, his ‘favorite enemy’ Robert Hooke and in his final, titanic clash with Leibniz over who invented calculus - Freistetter notes that disputes, and even confrontation, are not just unavoidable but necessary in science (‘if you want to be a successful scientist, a certain amount of pugnacity isn’t necessarily a bad thing… You just don’t need to take this to extremes as Newton did’). ‘Moderate ruthlessness’, he calls it.

Similarly, Newton’s haughty antipathy to receiving feedback or constructive criticism is used to launch a discussion of peer review and why it’s necessary. (When discussing that side of Newton, and his aloof indifference to public praise, Freistetter frequently describes Newton as a ‘shrinking violet’, which I assume is a not-quite-exact translation of a German idiom, since he hardly comes across as the shy and retiring type.)

I naturally homed in on the chapter Freistetter devotes to Newton’s ‘esoteric side’, his writings on ‘Bible interpretation, religious chronology, mystical alchemy, and prophecies’ that were until very recently ignored by science historians in an effort to remake him in the image of the ideal modern mechanistic scientist, despite Newton dedicating more energy to these subjects than to his scientific endeavours. As Freistetter puts it, ‘it would be closer to the truth to call Newton’s research into physics a “hobby” that he fitted in between his theological and alchemistic studies.’

Freistetter presents an admirably even-handed picture of this aspect of Newton’s life and passion, showing that for him religion, alchemy and physics were far from incompatible - they were all ultimately about understanding nature and the cosmos – and noting the conclusion of Newton specialist Richard Westfall that some of his discoveries of key physical principles were directly inspired by alchemical concepts.

Even here, Freistetter sees a positive lesson for today’s scientist, arguing not just that holding personal religious beliefs needn’t be incompatible with a scientific career but that those beliefs can even be, as they were for Newton, a source of inspiration. The important thing is not to mix the beliefs and the science; in this respect Newton – unintentionally and perhaps ironically – ‘showed us how to separate belief from knowledge.’ As Freistetter observes, ‘Newton founded the modern scientific era, but he himself was not part of it.’

Noting that Newton’s mix of interests made perfect sense in the context of his time – it’s only with hindsight they seem so incongruous – Freistetter sagely cautions that ‘Perhaps some of what we consider today to be serious research will later be recognized as being as nonsensical as Newton’s alchemy.’

The Asshole who Reinvented the Universe is an engaging read, made more enjoyable by Freistetter picking up on some of the more Monty Pythonesque details of his hero’s life and times, such as the 19-year-old Newton, in a list of his ‘sins’ that he set down in his notebook, confessing to ‘Making pies on Sunday night’, or his world-changing Principia nearly never being published because the Royal Society had overspent its budget on another work entitled History of Fish.

Freistetter has produced a book that is both entertaining and informative, an excellent introduction to Isaac Newton and the contributions he made not just to science but to the development of the modern world, while putting them in a perspective that gives an insight into the workings of science now. And encouragement to assholes everywhere. -- Clive Prince.

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