A new account of Isaac Newtown’s life in London reveals a brilliant but flawed character.
Celebrities’ lives – like coins - have always been dual-faceted. A public persona created first by gossip and rumours, then later by the media and PR, and a real self that is often substantially different, if not outright contradictory. Stalin, with all his unpleasant dictatorial streaks, was widely admired for his reportedly modest and near-Spartan lifestyle, while in reality (according to some witnesses) basking in extreme wealth and luxury. The great physicist Albert Einstein, despite his assumed internationalist views and long-lasting refugee status was, as proved by his own diaries, rather naive, careless and at times even rude in his attitudes to different races and nations.
‘Life After Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career’ by Patricia Fara (Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 9780198841029) is a highly unorthodox and groundbreaking book, penned by a distinguished science historian, that removes the dusty veil of historic fable from the face of one the most famous scientists of all time.
Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) is best known for his theory of gravity and laws of motion; work he carried out as an introverted and eccentric (according to some of his students) professor in Cambridge. It is much less well-known, however, that Newton had a second life as a public figure (a ‘celebrity’, in modern speak) in late 17th and early 18th-century London. Among other duties, he ran the Royal Mint, where he successfully tackled counterfeiters by inventing a new technology of assaying, and was the head of the Royal Society.
Fara reveals that, while in London, Newton also became England’s third-richest person after collector Hans Sloane and actor David Garrick; that he was deeply immersed in political intrigue, and - as a major investor in the East India Company - profited from trade in slaves. To the detriment of his scientific ambitions, Newton enjoyed being an important member of London’s high society, perennially resplendent with gossip, intrigue, patronage and corruption – both moral and material.
What is the point of this belated exposure of one Britain’s greatest geniuses, you may ask?
As Fara points out: “Newton is one of Britain’s greatest heroes and contemplating his human flaws can be uncomfortable. I have no qualms about impugning Newton’s moral stance and no ambition to emulate him. There are always new ways of interpreting familiar facts. That is why being a historian is fascinating.”
Indeed, ‘Life After Gravity’ is neither a deconstruction of the famous man nor an exposé of any kind. To my mind, it is simply an honest and rather courageous attempt at commemorating him properly, without unnecessary glorification: portraying him not as an icon, but as an extraordinary, yet vulnerable and morally imperfect (like most of us), human being, thus bringing Newton, the great scientist, even closer to our hearts.
Fara makes the striking suggestion that the current “global economic system that promotes inequality” could be somehow linked to the epoch of “the rise of the state and the rise of the science and the rise of the empire” in the mid-17th century – the time of Newton’s London years. That may be her answer to the sacramental, “What’s the point?” question!
Reading ‘Life After Gravity,’ I was repeatedly reminded of the expression, coined by another famous Englishman and Newton’s near-contemporary (for they both brushed the edges of the 17th century), William Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts”.
Newton indeed played many parts – some more successful than others - and I am inclined to believe that it was with that very thought in mind that Fara divided her revealing and beautifully written book not into three Parts, but into three Acts - Act 1 is The Theatre: Isaac Newton moves to the metropolis; Act II is The Audience: Isaac Newton in London Society; Act III is The Play: Isaac Newton and English Imperialism – as if it were not a thoroughly researched monograph, but indeed a play, staged by the never-ending and ever-so-mysterious “theatre of life”, where we all are “merely players”.