Could Isaac Newton be discredited?

Here are some little known and damaging facts about the scientist who supposedly discovered the law of gravity, among other achievements.

When Newton was three, his mother remarried and went to live with her new husband, the Reverend Barnabus Smith, leaving her son in the care of his maternal grandmother, Margery Ayscough. The young Isaac disliked his stepfather and held some enmity towards his mother for marrying him, as revealed by this entry in a list of sins committed up to the age of 19: “Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.”[10]

Newton later became involved in a dispute with Leibniz over priority in the development of infinitesimal calculus. Most modern historians believe that Newton and Leibniz developed infinitesimal calculus independently, although with very different notations. Occasionally it has been suggested that Newton published almost nothing about it until 1693, and did not give a full account until 1704, while Leibniz began publishing a full account of his methods in 1684. (Leibniz’s notation and “differential Method”, nowadays recognized as much more convenient notations, were adopted by continental European mathematicians, and after 1820 or so, also by British mathematicians.)

Starting in 1699, other members of the Royal Society (of which Newton was a member) accused Leibniz of plagiarism, and the dispute broke out in full force in 1711. Newton’s Royal Society proclaimed in a study that it was Newton who was the true discoverer and labeled Leibniz a fraud. This study was cast into doubt when it was later found that Newton himself wrote the study’s concluding remarks on Leibniz. Thus began the bitter Newton v. Leibniz calculus controversy, which marred the lives of both Newton and Leibniz until the latter’s death in 1716.[26]

He was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669. In that day, any fellow of Cambridge or Oxford had to be an ordained Anglican priest. However, the terms of the Lucasian professorship required that the holder not be active in the church (presumably so as to have more time for science). Newton argued that this should exempt him from the ordination requirement, and Charles II, whose permission was needed, accepted this argument. Thus a conflict between Newton’s religious views and Anglican orthodoxy was averted.[27]

When Robert Hooke criticised some of Newton’s ideas, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate. Newton and Hooke had brief exchanges in 1679-80, when Hooke, appointed to manage the Royal Society’s correspondence, opened up a correspondence intended to elicit contributions from Newton to Royal Society transactions,[34] which had the effect of stimulating Newton to work out a proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector (see Newton’s law of universal gravitation – History and De motu corporum in gyrum). But the two men remained generally on poor terms until Hooke’s death.[35]

With the Principia, Newton became internationally recognised.[43] He acquired a circle of admirers, including the Swiss-born mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, with whom he formed an intense relationship that lasted until 1693, when it abruptly ended, at the same time that Newton suffered a nervous breakdown.[44]

In the 1690s, Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible. Henry More‘s belief in the Universe and rejection of Cartesian dualism may have influenced Newton’s religious ideas. A manuscript he sent to John Locke in which he disputed the existence of the Trinity was never published. Later works – The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) – were published after his death. He also devoted a great deal of time to alchemy (see above).

Newton was also a member of the Parliament of England from 1689 to 1690 and in 1701, but according to some accounts his only comments were to complain about a cold draught in the chamber and request that the window be closed.[45]

In April 1705 Queen Anne knighted Newton during a royal visit to Trinity College, Cambridge. The knighthood is likely to have been motivated by political considerations connected with the Parliamentary election in May 1705, rather than any recognition of Newton’s scientific work or services as Master of the Mint.[47]

After his death, Newton’s body was discovered to have had massive amounts of mercury in it, probably resulting from his alchemical pursuits. Mercury poisoning could explain Newton’s eccentricity in late life.[51]

Historian Stephen D. Snobelen says of Newton, “Isaac Newton was a heretic. But … he never made a public declaration of his private faith — which the orthodox would have deemed extremely radical. He hid his faith so well that scholars are still unravelling his personal beliefs.”[6] Snobelen concludes that Newton was at least a Socinian sympathiser (he owned and had thoroughly read at least eight Socinian books), possibly an Arian and almost certainly an antitrinitarian[6]. In an age notable for its religious intolerance there are few public expressions of Newton’s radical views, most notably his refusal to take holy orders and his refusal, on his death bed, to take the sacrament when it was offered to him.[6]

In his own lifetime, Newton wrote more on religion than he did on natural science. He believed in a rationally immanent world, but he rejected the hylozoism implicit in Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza. Thus, the ordered and dynamically informed Universe could be understood, and must be understood, by an active reason. In his correspondence, Newton claimed that in writing the Principia “I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity”.[66] He saw evidence of design in the system of the world: “Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice”. But Newton insisted that divine intervention would eventually be required to reform the system, due to the slow growth of instabilities.[67] For this Leibniz lampooned him: “God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.”[68] Newton’s position was vigorously defended by his follower Samuel Clarke in a famous correspondence.

In a manuscript he wrote in 1704 in which he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible, he estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. In predicting this he said, “This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.”[81]

As warden of the Royal Mint, Newton estimated that 20% of the coins taken in during The Great Recoinage were counterfeit. Counterfeiting was high treason, punishable by being hanged, drawn and quartered. Despite this, convictions of the most flagrant criminals could be extremely difficult to achieve; however, Newton proved to be equal to the task.[84] Disguised as an habitué of bars and taverns, he gathered much of that evidence himself.[85] For all the barriers placed to prosecution, and separating the branches of government, English law still had ancient and formidable customs of authority. Newton was made a justice of the peace and between June 1698 and Christmas 1699 conducted some 200 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers and suspects. Newton won his convictions and in February 1699, he had ten prisoners waiting to be executed.[citation needed]

Now, if I were looking for reasons to reject Newton’s scientific work, I could refer to such things and say, “AHA! He hated his mother and stepfather, used his connections to bend the rules to his favor, stole ideas from a rival and libeled him, had mental breakdowns, was a religious extremist, was a politician,  and used his power put people to death! Maybe all his scientific work was worthless!”

But I wouldn’t do that, because the scientific work can and should stand on its own, regardless of anything else Newton did. All that needs to be done, if you doubt the validity of his work, is to start from scratch and test everything he did via experimental data that can be reproduced by others.

About these ads

2 thoughts on “Could Isaac Newton be discredited?

  1. Pingback: Climategate, what it really means. « Dale Husband's Intellectual Rants

  2. Pingback: It’s not a whitewash, you denialist bastards! « Dale Husband's Intellectual Rants

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s