12 April 2019


Nick Kollerstrom. The Dark Side of Isaac Newton - Science's Greatest Fraud? Pen and Sword Books, 2018.

The question mark added to this book's subtitle gives an indication of the approach taken by its author, Nick Kollerstrom, in what amounts to a thorough deconstruction of the reputation of one of Britain's greatest icons. In any public poll of the 'greatest Britons who have ever lived' you will invariably find Sir Isaac Newton in the top ten, along with the other usual candidates, such as Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin. 
It is one thing to accuse Newton of having a 'dark side', which would apply to most humans, famous or not, as it could merely suggest that which was hidden from public view. But to suggest that he was a fraud is another thing entirely, quite shocking, which arouses interest when first encountered. By presenting his book's main theme as a question, Kollerstrom wisely puts the onus on the reader to examine the evidence and come to an informed assessment of the man behind the myths.

There is nothing new or revolutionary in portraying Newton as a 'difficult' character. A pertinent quotation from the illustrious English writer Aldous Huxley receives prominence on the rear dust cover with the following brutal indictment: "If we evolved a race of Isaac Newtons, that would not be progress. For the price Newton had to pay for being a supreme intellect was that he was incapable of friendship, love, fatherhood, and many other desirable things. As a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb."

Also on the rear cover is a modern photograph of Newton's family home, Woolsthorpe Manor, with its famous apple tree in the garden. The tree is estimated to be about 400 years old, on its third set of roots, and still producing apples every year. This is, of course, the site of probably the best-known scientific legend in all of history. The story we all know is that young Isaac was sitting under the tree when an apple happened to fall on his head, causing him to ponder why objects always fall straight down to earth. In this 'aha' moment, so we like to believe, he achieved his understanding of gravity. It seems perfectly feasible.

However, it appears that the apple story is a fanciful reconstruction and it gained common currency only after Newton's death, at the age of 84, in 1727. The story comes from William Stukeley, who wrote the first British biography of Newton, 'Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life', eventually published in 1752.

Stukeley described the occasion of Newton telling his apple story, during a visit he made to Newton in 1726: 'After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea, under the shade of some apple trees...he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his head. It was occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself...'

The enhanced memory that Newton was relating went back to 1666, when the 23-year old Newton was on extended leave at the family home of Woolsthorpe Manor owing to plague ravaging the country. Cambridge University had closed for this reason in August 1665 and encouraged its resident scholars to sojourn in the countryside. The University did not re-open until late 1666 when the plague had passed. So, sometime in 1666, during his leisure time, Newton saw an apple fall and started pondering, but did this lead to his breakthrough of understanding the force of gravity? Actually, no. Many years would pass before he began to grasp how gravity worked.

This debunking of the 'apple myth' is one point among many in Kollerstrom's case that Newton could be "devious, deceptive and duplicitous", and that some of his greatest 'discoveries' may not quite be what they seem either. He makes a valid point here: "If a man only mentions what he presents as the key event of his life sixty years after it has supposedly happened and one year before he dies, that does not establish its veracity but rather more the opposite."

Nowadays we take it as given that celestial bodies exert an attractive force between one another, although gravity itself is still very much a mystery to modern physics. In the 1660s, however, the prevailing theory, as proposed by Descartes, was that planets were carried around the Sun by a swirling vortex of invisible matter: "it all worked through pressure and not by attraction. Newton's notes [written in 1669] on his copy of Astronomia refer to the pressure of the solar vortex upon the terrestrial one; and they queried whether the Earth's 'endeavour of receding' from the Sun might affect the Moon's orbit, 'unless the Moon also shares in the same endeavour'".

Towards the end of the 1670s great scientific minds in Europe were grappling with 'the great unanswered question confronting natural philosophy, the derivation of Kepler's laws of planetary motion from the principles of dynamics. The author describes a meeting at the St Paul's coffee house where Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren discussed these matters. Wren had been something of a polymath before becoming a great architect, and for some years was Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College and then Oxford University. "From a member of this group came the first formulation of the principle of universal gravitation: Robert Hooke."

As evidence, Kollerstrom quotes from a letter sent by Hooke to Newton in November 1679, saying that: "all Coelestial Bodies whatsoever, have an attraction or gravitating power towards their own centres... But that they do also attract all other Coelestial bodies that are within the sphere of their activity...". Then in his next letter of 9th January 1680, Hooke formulated the inverse law of attraction: "my supposition is that the Attraction is in a duplicate proportion to the distance from the Center Reciprocal." The first statement implies Hooke's realisation that all large celestial bodies are spherical because of their own internal gravity tending towards the centre.

Is it possible that he started to get a grasp of the true mechanics of gravity from Hooke, and then later began to convince himself that he had of course had that insight long before, even as far back as 1666 when he saw the apple fall?

In 1680 Newton was preoccupied and busy with his alchemical experiments and eagerly seeking to decode the Book of Revelation and determine the timing of the Apocalypse. Then, in autumn of that year, a great comet appeared which became one of the brightest ever seen over Europe and having a spectacularly long tail. "It disappeared into the sunrise in November and then reappeared in the sunset moving away from the Sun in December two weeks later, with its tail having swung around into the opposite direction, so it was visible in the evening sky instead of the morning sky."

John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, was of the opinion that the comet had gone up to the Sun, turned around and had then emerged back into view on the other side of the Earth. Newton wrote to Flamsteed, strongly disagreeing. Flamsteed had surmised that the Sun exercised a kind of magnetic pull. "This could hardly be the case, replied Newton in a long letter, concerning 'ye question of two Comets', for the Sun was hot, and heat destroyed magnetism, and therefore he thought it unlikely that any magnetic force could be pulling the comet round." So he did not accept Flamsteed's theory that the two comets seen in the sky two weeks apart were one and the same, nor obviously had he by this time acquired a theory of universal gravitation.

Newton changed his mind a few years later and provided a fold-out drawing of the comet in his great work, known as the Principia, published in 1687. Ironically, he used data provided by Flamsteed to prove Kepler's Law by the elliptical orbit of the comet, but without any acknowledgment, much to Flamsteed's dismay. Some years later, in the summer of 1694, he went to visit Flamsteed for the first time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. There he managed to persuade Flamsteed to give him 50 of his accurate observations of the Moon, with more to follow, promising to make Flamsteed famous for his contributions to the theory of the Moon and its motion that Newton was working on. Perhaps Flamsteed could have been more wary after past experience, but it all turned out very badly for him and he came to hate Newton. The feeling was quite mutual.

In October 1711 Flamsteed was summoned to a 'Council' of the Royal Society, with its President Newton in the chair and two secretaries. The Royal Observatory had, in the previous year, been placed under the supervision of the Royal Society who were now demanding "to know from him if his instruments were in order, and fit to carry on the necessary celestial observations." Not one of the instruments had been provided or paid for by the Royal Society. They were all his own property. A fierce row developed, with Newton in a towering rage shouting insults at Flamsteed, who responded that he had been robbed of the fruits of his labours, and so on.

The book has chapters devoted to each of the three most outstanding collaborators who became arch-enemies of Newton as a result of his inordinate pride and hypersensitivity to any kind of criticism or competition for praise: Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It was with Leibniz that Newton had his most celebrated feud, over which of them had first invented calculus, said to be the greatest advancement in mathematics since the invention of zero as a placeholder. The debate still continues. Nick Kollerstrom is the right man for the job of explaining the mathematics involved and the different notations used by Newton and Leibniz. He was a mathematics teacher for five years and has a great skill for making highly complex concepts understandable for the general reader. The chapter on this controversy is very detailed indeed and I am sure would be of great interest to anyone with a good knowledge of mathematics.

All that I would add to the story of Leibniz for the human interest is that the argument ultimately destroyed him. He might have had a good claim to priority, at least to having a published theory of calculus, and to a more advanced notation system which is still in use today. But Newton and his supporters had counter-arguments. Some said that Leibniz had gained access to certain earlier unpublished writings by Newton on 'fluxions', or infinitesimal quantities used in calculations. When the case was eventually heard by the Royal Society, with Sir Isaac Newton as its President, what was the outcome likely to be? Leibniz died a broken man in 1716.

A few thoughts remain to put Isaac Newton into some context. His coldness to others may have been influenced by being alone in early childhood. His father died before he was born, and when he was three his mother remarried and passed him to his grandmother to bring up. This sense of being an 'abandoned child' may have accounted for his persona of being a loner. A psychoanalytic study described the climate of his life as 'hostile and punitive'.

As a mathematics lecturer he could empty a hall. His assistant said 'oftentimes he did in a manner, for want of hearers, read to ye walls'. When he was a Member of Parliament for Cambridge, only one remark of his is recorded, the request that a window be closed. He had no interest in art, music or poetry. In the court of George II he had the opportunity of listening to Handel playing the harpsichord and at the end could only comment on Handel's 'elasticity of fingers'.

On only two or three occasions in his whole life was he known to have laughed. He never visited the seaside, despite the quotation attributed to him: 'I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I appear to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.'

He dined with William of Orange in 1688 a month before William was proclaimed the consort, as King William III, of England's new Queen Mary. In private Newton abhorred belief in the Trinity and longed for the pure original religion.

He was appointed Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, the year of the Great Recoinage, as his personal gravitas and eminence was exactly what was needed at the time. There was a prevalence of coin clipping and counterfeiting, which was equivalent to High Treason and punishable by hanging, drawing and quartering. He personally cross-examined more than 100 witnesses, informers and suspects, often with a great degree of severity. Another major problem was that the bullion value of the coins could be more than their face value, so there was a lack of money supply. Too many of the new coins in circulation were being melted down by goldsmiths and sold as bullion in Paris and Amsterdam for profit.

The 1690s have been called the decade when Economics was invented. Paper money was starting to be used in England, and by 1699 £1 million in paper notes were in circulation. "In 1701 Newton wrote, 'But though paper credit be a sort of riches we must not use it immoderately. Like virtue it has its extremes. Too much may hurt us as well as too little." England was the only European nation to succeed in creating paper credit in the early eighteenth century. It produced around £15 million in paper banknotes when it owned no more than £12 million in bullion, i.e. gold and silver.

One wonders what Newton would have said about the present day financial system, where money can be created 'out of thin air' electronically, without even needing to be printed. In some ways it can be seen as analogous to alchemy, where scientific knowledge is necessary to understand one's materials but wisdom is most important for how to handle them. He himself became a very wealthy man, continuing as Master of the Mint from 1699 until his death in 1727, although he lost a large sum of money in the South Sea Bubble.

Reading this enthralling and informative book will undoubtedly change the way you perceive Isaac Newton, as a scientific demigod and as a deeply flawed human who was capable of deception and extreme callousness. My own conclusion, having read the book thoroughly over a few weeks and struggled to understand all of the contradictions within Newton, is this: He was a true genius with a suppressed monster (as Aldous Huxley perceived), within his psyche. That monster, or 'dark side' was liable to erupt at any challenge to his innate intellectual superiority. Maybe that was the fire that drove him to be such a high achiever and leading figure on the world stage. It is all endlessly fascinating, and there are always more questions than answers, aren't there? – Kevin Murphy.

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