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Quotes on Isaac Newton

January 22, 2015

Because it amused me…quotes and summaries from:  Newton and the Counterfeiter, The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.  As much as there is after the cut, there is much more in the book.  I cherry picked that which I found interesting.

  • Newton was indeed country-bred, but by the time he set foot in Trinity’s Great Court it was apparent that he was deeply unsuited for rural life.  And he would prove to be a student unlike any the college had ever encountered.
  • Born premature, so small he could fit into a quart jug at birth.  Mother was a widow who remarried.  At two years old, he was abandoned to the care of his grandmother.  “…with one possible exception, the adult Newton never permitted himself real emotional dependence on another human being.”  He drew, was fascinated by mechanical inventions and was good with tools.   Built water mills and dolls’ furniture for fun.  Designed and constructed a water clock.  Made very accurate sundials.  Kept notebooks filled with tiny handwriting.  “a pack rat of knowledge”   “The mind emerging on the pages is one that seeks to master all the apparent confusion of the world, to bring order where none was then apparent.
  • His mother made him come home to tend sheep and raise grain once the schoolmaster could teach him no more.  Newton made a lousy farmer and often ignored his mother’s orders to read or experiment.  Her attempts to break him lasted only 9 months.  He was saved by his uncle and his former school teacher who promised to pay the forty-shilling fee so that he could attend Cambridge.  At 19, he arrived at Trinity and remained for 35 years.  His mother got her revenge by limiting his allowance to 10 pounds a year.  This was not enough to cover food, lodging and tutor’s fees so he had to be a subsizar.  He did the work that richer students wouldn’t do for themselves.  Not one student from the early years admitted knowing him.
  • Considered Aristotle a waste of time.  Sleep was optional and food fuel that was often forgotten.  Fearless in the pursuit of knowledge to the point of inserting a blunt needle into his eye to understand the effect of shape of his eye on the perception of color.  Didn’t even notice the plague in 1655 where by September 1000 people were dying per day in London; 1300 per day by December, merely moved back home and continued his pursuits.  First mathematics and then gravity.  The epiphany of the apple tree occurred in the summer of 1666.  The tree of that famous apple was preserved until 1819 when it finally collapsed in a windstorm.  Branches from it had been grafted onto other trees.  In 1943, a member of the Royal Society Club pulled 2 apples from his pocket from such a graft.  Problems with this pursuit occurred due to lack of accurate measurements of the earth and distance to the moon so he moved on, optics was next.
  • For all his raw intelligence, Newton’s ultimate achievement turned on his genius for perseverance…If something mattered to him, he pursued it relentlessly. Equally crucial to his ultimate success, Newton was never a purely abstract thinker…he weighed, measured, tested, smelled, worked–hard–with his own hands, to discover the answer to whatever had sparked his curiosity.
  • The Great Fire of London came and with the burning of the slums that hid the infection, the plague finally was gone.  In April 1667, Newton returned to Trinity College.  “He had left two years earlier with the ink barely dry on his bachelor of arts degree.  In the interval, he had become the greatest mathematician in the world, the equal of any natural philosopher then living.  No one knew.  He had published nothing, communicated his results to no one.  So the situation would remain, in essence, for two decades.
  • In 1669 at 26 he received the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics for as long as he wanted to keep it.  It gave him room, board and 100 pounds a year.  He spent most of his time in mental pursuits.  His only diversion was a small garden on the college grounds.  He published next to nothing…until Edmond Halley (he of comet fame) asked a question about gravity acting upon planets.  That one question got a 9 page paper that foreshadowed three books that were written over the next three years and sold out almost immediately upon being put on the market (after Halley spent three months coordinating the publishing between two printers). “Newton entered a realm of fame that catapulted him out of the narrow company of natural philosophers and into the wide world.
  • Newton was a representative for Cambridge at the Convention Parliament (1689)to settle the question of the royal succession after James II fled to France.  Once the throne was given to William and Mary, Newton’s fame opened many doors to him.  It was during this time that he met and formed a lasting bond with John Locke.  “Both men had subterranean interests–alchemy…and in questions of biblical interpretation and belief which brought them to the edge of what the established English church would damn as heresy.”  Locke was a good man to know as he was well connected in the new monarchy.  Which was fortunate for Newton, because Cambridge became too small for him after the year in London, among the elite.
  • Robert Boyle was the not only a great chemist and experimental physicist he was also Locke’s mentor and a correspondent of Newton’s.  All three men had an interest in alchemy.  “At least for Newton, alchemy offered two prizes of infinite worth.  The first was…knowledge of the created world.  Alchemy, as he and Boyle approached it, was an empirical, experimental science.  Its theory was occult–literally, hidden–but its practice was hard, hot and practical the manipulation of matter with heat, solvents, weights and measures.  Each alchemical experiment told Newton some fact about the behavior of the physical world.”  The second was “an eyewitness demonstration of divine action in nature…Newton’s quarter of a century of alchemical experimentation formed his attempt… to replicate divine action closely enough to provide incontrovertible, material proof of the fact of God’s work in Creation and ever after.”
  • Newton first began alchemy in 1668, returning to it off and on.  It almost seemed that physics and mathematics were just mere distractions in his true purpose.  When Boyle talked of publishing his results, Newton was horrified.  Alchemy was not only frowned upon but was also illegal for a time but more importantly he was upset at the idea of exposing “potentially divine secrets” to the masses.   “As measured by the time, effort and accuracy of his laboratory trails, Newton was by far the most sophisticated and systematic alchemist in history.”  Unlike other alchemists, he did all his own work, even the tedious parts.  He designed and built his own equipment.  “Above all, he demanded a level of empirical precision that no other alchemist had ever attempted, and he pursued that experimental rigor with manic, total devotion.
  • There was the Newton “of popular memory” and then the the Newton that did alchemy and wrote about it in code to prevent “the vulgar from gaining access to knowledge too powerful to be trusted to just anyone“.  He wrote “Nonsense, seemingly, the stuff of fever dreams.  That is what (more or less) the syndics of Cambridge University Library concluded…The distinction was simple:  the real Newton, the official Newton, compounded antimony and mercury in precise proportions and carefully wrote down his results.  The other Newton was an embarrassing uncle…
  • Time passed and life changed.  Less and less fit for scholarly life… “It is unfair to ask for two Principias from any man.  He did still produce prodigious amounts of work, but increasingly his writing centered on history, biblical criticism, the analysis of ancient prophecy.  His breakdown [over a couple of things but greatly caused by being rejected by the one person who engaged his affections more than anyone, Nicholas Fatio de Duillier] probably helped impel the shift in emphasis, but the simple fact is that time was passing.  Very few creative scientists perform at the highest level for decades on end, and Newton had been at the leading edge of discovery since his early twenties.  On Christmas Day, 1694, he turned 51.
  • The currency crisis in England caused Newton, among others, to be sought out for advice on how to fix it.  Newton’s solution was to call in all money, new and old, melt it down, recoin it and alter the relative value of gold and silver…in essence turning them into a commodity whose value fluctuated instead of having an absolute value.  Newton did not grasp the full implication of this.  His friend Locke protested this because he understood that the devaluation would affect the moneyed and landowning class more than anyone else.  Locke’s view won although they did decide to recoin all the money in circulation.  However Newton was called to London in March 1696 to become Warden of the Mint.  Newton left Cambridge with nary a pang, it appears.
  • He officially took office on May 2nd swearing to never reveal the secrets of minting coins.  His responsibilities include overseeing the maintenance of the buildings, machines and livestock.  No actually expected Newton to do anything, that is why he had 3 assistants as no  Warden had done real work for 100 years and after Newton, no Warden would either.  But this was a tense time in England, the bungling of the coinage had caused a real problem.  Within a month of taking over the post, he asked for a raise…and received it.  Newton took his post seriously.  He mastered the details of every operation, he read the history and through decades of account books.  He used his exacting methods of the lab on every step of the minting process and “got his hands dirty as a matter of principle“.  Faced with Newton’s knowledge, the Master of the Mint quietly left.  Newton was outraged at the level of neglect and was not afraid to quibble with the Treasury…even over a sum of two pence.
  • Yet it wasn’t “the new Warden’ts cleverness with numbers” that helped here though he did save the Mint from being fleeced repeatedly, it was his “empirical skill–his ability to observe, measure, and act on his data” that made the difference.  First he had a new melting house built allowing all three main furnaces to be working at the same time.  Then he added new rolling mills and coining presses.  Then he worked out the pace need to get the job done and not tire out his workers too quickly, “just slightly slower than the human heart”.  Under Newton the impossible sum of minting 15,000 pounds per week became 50,000 pounds per week…even achieving 100,000 pounds in 6 days and with only one death.   Because of Newton’s actions, there were none of the feared currency riots, no rebelling against the king who was able to pay his troops in the field.  “At the conclusion of the recoinage, Charles Montague, Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that the enterprise would have failed without the presence of Isaac Newton at the Mint.
  • One aspect of the job that no one warned Newton about was the enforcing of the law in and around London for all crimes committed against the currency.  It was a task that he did not want and complained bitterly about.  Treasury insisted so he had to turn himself into a detective.  His first task was to hunt down dies missing from the Mint.  There was no modern police force and so there was no effective note taking or means of identification beyond anecdotal.  Those imprisoned in Newgate would say anything to get out or avoid death.  So Newton had to come up with his own methods and train himself.  He got himself appointed justice of the peace for the counties surrounding London.  He took on agents, informers and thugs, not all of whom stayed on the right side of the law.  Not that Newton cared, eventually they would overreach and then too he would deal with them as needed.  There is some evidence that Newton enjoyed his role as inquisitor maybe a little too much, as he did burn a number of his papers before leaving office.  That said it appears he did what needed to be done to achieve the results needed, bringing counterfeiters to justice, using permissible techniques of the time.  The remainder of the book (except the epilogue) details the pursuit of a particularly difficult counterfeiter that had offended Newton on all levels.
  • On his 57th birthday he became Master of the Mint and held that position for 27 years.  He became president of the Royal Society a 4 years later when Robert Hooke died.  Shortly after that he put out his second book, Opticks.  This book reported on his research into light and color, but it was all old research.  In his remaining years, he focus was on history and religion.  In his private notes, he speculated the second coming would not occur before 2060.  However the Mint still took up a fair amount of time especially since, as he had predicted, the recoinage did nothing for the monetary policy.  Newton then oversaw the switch over to the gold standard.  He also argued for paper money but this was not a popular view.  Newton also got sucked into a pyramid scheme which is on one hand surprising and on the other hand makes him seem more human in my eyes. Newton’s friends remember him as generally content and benign in his later years, even something of a “paterfamilias” to his extended family.  In his 80s(!), he started to show his age, becoming caught up in memories and with failing health.  Newton died March 19, 1727.  His monument is in the Westminster Abbey (rather ironic since he rejected communion at the last).
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