Isaac Newton, the giant of classical physics and co-inventor of calculus, was a pill. His anti-social and arrogant ways are well documented, providing a small comfort to people today who might feel daunted by the towering achievements of this 17th-century genius. Yet, there is no denying his foundational importance to science, known at the time as natural philosophy, as well as to mathematics.
Newton thought he was more intelligent than everyone else (well, he was). Part of his assumption was based on the belief that he had a direct line to God and was channeling His knowledge down to the rest of humanity. He had no real friends, nor did he care to make any. He disavowed the Trinity, which in his time was like rooting for the Yankees at Fenway Park.
Lucas Hnath’s play Isaac’s Eye, a comedy currently being performed at the Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan through March 10, offers insights into Newton’s early work on optics and his personal life, or lack thereof, all expressed in conversational 21st-century-style dialogue. Audiences journey into a historically inspired version of Newton’s mind as he tries to confirm his view of light as a particle rather than a wave, calculates how to gain entrance into the Royal Society to secure his place in history and decides whether or not to marry his childhood friend Catherine Storer.
“I’m just telling you what God tells me, and I’m right,” Newton declares to Robert Hooke, the scientific adversary who initially held power over Newton’s career and disagreed with him about the fundamental nature of light. “I’m right all the time.”
The play portrays Newton, performed by Haskell King, as brilliant but also self-absorbed, conniving, immature, defensive, manipulative, hostile, competitive, judgmental and deceptive, on a regular basis.
“He was a very challenging person, as we might say now, and he was from very early on,” said Columbia University science historian Matthew Jones during a post-performance panel discussion last week.
Jones’ colleague Matthew Stanley, a science historian at New York University agreed: “I’d say the play might be a slightly nice interpretation of Newton.”
Beyond Newton’s character, however, the panelists also provided context that revealed how radical Newton’s claims and methods were for his time, not to mention his effort to gain social recognition from a gentlemen’s society despite coming from a family of modest means. In the late 17th century, Europe was in flux, undergoing the Protestant Reformation, wherein the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was successfully supplanted by various thinkers for the first time in several centuries. “Everything that people thought was true, people could give you a reason why that might not be true,” Stanley explained. “Even saying something as simple as ‘I did this experiment’ is not an easy thing to say” at this time in history.
Newton himself suffered from the instability of the time as he wavered between issuing his statements about natural philosophy as received wisdom, correct as he might have been about optics and bodies at rest and motion, and coming to terms with shifting social mores. This new order, embraced by the Royal Society, encouraged debate and subjected claims about nature and matter to far more discussion than had ever been allowed by the Church. Newton chafed at such scrutiny by his lessers.
Hnath’s play does a good job, Jones said, of giving viewers a sense of Newton’s “deep concern with the problem of human beings coming to know things. He wanted to really know. His ideas were askew from convention.”
For those interested in hearing the discussion among Jones, Stanley, Hnath and Gabriel Cwilich, a physicist at Yeshiva University, visit the February 24th and 25th episodes of the Scientific American podcast ”Science Talk.” Additional resources for knowing Newton cited by the panelists include the Norton Critical Edition Newton, Opticks (“extremely readable,” Jones said), Gale Christensen’s In the Presence of the Creator, and The Newton Project.