May 10, 2013

"Newton, the Man" by John Maynard Keynes

As a Whig rationalist, the economist John Maynard Keynes was a tremendous fan of Newton. Keynes bought a large mass of Newton's papers, only to be shocked by what he found.  Newton turned out to be a character out of a Jorge Luis Borges story, a proto-Umberto Eco hero.

The celebration of the 300th anniversary of Newton's birth on December 25, 1642 was postponed to July 1946, by which point Keynes was dead. So, the biographical sketch written by the economist was read by his brother, the surgeon Sir Geoffrey Keynes.

The influence of Keynes' essay on Neal Stephenson's monumental Baroque cycle of four huge historical novels is highly likely. Stephenson views these books as a tribute to his Puritan WASP cultural and genetic precursors.
Newton, the Man
John Maynard Keynes 
It is with some diffidence that I try to speak to you in his own home of Newton as he was himself. I have long been a student of the records and had the intention to put my impressions into writing to be ready for Christmas Day 1942, the tercentenary of his birth. The war has deprived me both of leisure to treat adequately so great a theme and of opportunity to consult my library and my papers and to verify my impressions. So if the brief study which I shall lay before you today is more perfunctory than it should be, I hope you will excuse me. 
... In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. 
I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child bom with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.


 .. For in vulgar modern terms Newton was profoundly neurotic of a not unfamiliar type, but - I should say from the records - a most extreme example. His deepest instincts were occult, esoteric, semantic-with profound shrinking from the world, a paralyzing fear of exposing his thoughts, his beliefs, his discoveries in all nakedness to the inspection and criticism of the world. ... Like all his type he was wholly aloof from women. He parted with and published nothing except under the extreme pressure of friends. Until the second phase of his life, he was a wrapt, consecrated solitary, pursuing his studies by intense introspection with a mental endurance perhaps never equalled. 
I believe that the clue to his mind is to be found in his unusual powers of continuous concentrated introspection. ... His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. I fancy his pre-eminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted. 
Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one's mind and apply all one's powers of concentration to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that what you are surveying is a blank. I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret. Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will, for purposes of exposition, but it was his intuition which was pre-eminently extraordinary ... 
There is the story of how he informed Halley of one of his most fundamental discoveries of planetary motion. 'Yes,' replied Halley, 'but how do you know that? Have you proved it?' Newton was taken aback - 'Why, I've known it for years', he replied. 'If you'll give me a few days, I'll certainly find you a proof of it' - as in due course he did. 
Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements (and that is what gives the false suggestion of his being an experimental natural philosopher), but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia. He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty - just as he himself wrapt the discovery of the calculus in a cryptogram when he communicated with Leibniz. By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate. 
He did read the riddle of the heavens. And he believed that by the same powers of his introspective imagination he would read the riddle of the Godhead, the riddle of past and future events divinely fore-ordained, the riddle of the elements and their constitution from an original undifferentiated first matter, the riddle of health and of immortality. All would be revealed to him if only he could persevere to the end, uninterrupted, by himself, no one coming into the room, reading, copying, testing-all by himself, no interruption for God's sake, no disclosure, no discordant breakings in or criticism, with fear and shrinking as he assailed these half-ordained, half-forbidden things, creeping back into the bosom of the Godhead as into his mother's womb. 'Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone', not as Charles Lamb 'a fellow who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle'. 
And so he continued for some twenty-five years. In 1687, when he was forty-five years old, the Principia was published. ...
During these twenty-five years of intense study mathematics and astronomy were only a part, and perhaps not the most absorbing, of his occupations. Our record of these is almost wholly confined to the papers which he kept and put in his box when he left Trinity for London. 
Let me give some brief indications of their subject. They are enormously voluminous - I should say that upwards of 1,000,000 words in his handwriting still survive. They have, beyond doubt, no substantial value whatever except as a fascinating sidelight on the mind of our greatest genius. 
Let me not exaggerate through reaction against the other Newton myth which has been so sedulously created for the last two hundred years. There was extreme method in his madness. All his unpublished works on esoteric and theological matters are marked by careful learning, accurate method and extreme sobriety of statement. They are just as sane as the Principia, if their whole matter and purpose were not magical. They were nearly all composed during the same twenty-five years of his mathematical studies. They fall into several groups. 
Very early in life Newton abandoned orthodox belief in the Trinity. ... He was rather a Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides. He arrived at this conclusion, not on so-to-speak rational or sceptical grounds, but entirely on the interpretation of ancient authority. ... The revealed God was one God.

But this was a dreadful secret which Newton was at desperate pains to conceal all his life. ... In the main the secret died with him. But it was revealed in many writings in his, big box. After his death Bishop Horsley was asked to inspect the box with a view to publication. He saw the contents with horror and slammed the lid. A hundred years later Sir David Brewster looked into the box. He covered up the traces with carefully selected extracts and some straight fibbing. 
His latest biographer, Mr More, has been more candid. Newton's extensive anti-Trinitarian pamphlets are, in my judgement, the most interesting of his unpublished papers. ... 
Another large section is concerned with all branches of apocalyptic writings from which he sought to deduce the secret truths of the Universe - the measurements of Solomon's Temple, the Book of David, the Book of Revelations, an enormous volume of work of which some part was published in his later days. Along with this are hundreds of pages of Church History and the like, designed to discover the truth of tradition. 
A large section, judging by the handwriting amongst the earliest, relates to alchemy - transmutation, the philosopher's stone, the elixir of life. The scope and character of these papers have been hushed up, or at least minimized, by nearly all those who have inspected them. ... 
There is an unusual number of manuscripts of the early English alchemists in the libraries of Cambridge. It may be that there was some continuous esoteric tradition within the University which sprang into activity again in the twenty years from 1650 to 1670. At any rate, Newton was clearly an unbridled addict. It is this with which he was occupied 'about 6 weeks at spring and 6 at the fall when the fire in the elaboratory scarcely went out' at the very years when he was composing the Principia - and about this he told Humphrey Newton not a word. 
Moreover, he was almost entirely concerned, not in serious experiment, but in trying to read the riddle of tradition, to find meaning in cryptic verses, to imitate the alleged but largely imaginary experiments of the initiates of past centuries. 
Newton has left behind him a vast mass of records of these studies. I believe that the greater part are translations and copies made by him of existing books and manuscripts. But there are also extensive records of experiments. I have glanced through a great quantity of this at least 100,000 words, I should say. It is utterly impossible to deny that it is wholly magical and wholly devoid of scientific value; and also impossible not to admit that Newton devoted years of work to it. Some time it might be interesting, but not useful, for some student better equipped and more idle than I to work out Newton's exact relationship to the tradition and MSS. of his time. 
In these mixed and extraordinary studies, with one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot treading a path for modern science, Newton spent the first phase of his life, the period of life in Trinity when he did all his real work. Now let me pass to the second phase. 
After the publication of the Principia there is a complete change in his habit and way of life. ... With Pepys and Lowndes he became one of the greatest and most efficient of our civil servants. He was a very successful investor of funds, surmounting the crisis of the South Sea Bubble, and died a rich man. He possessed in exceptional degree almost every kind of intellectual aptitude - lawyer, historian, theologian, not less than mathematician, physicist, astronomer.
And when the turn of his life came and he put his books of magic back into the box, it was easy for him to drop the seventeenth century behind him and to evolve into the eighteenth-century figure which is the traditional Newton. 
... The breakdown probably lasted nearly two years, and from it emerged, slightly 'gaga', but still, no doubt, with one of the most powerful minds of England, the Sir Isaac Newton of tradition. 
In 1696 his friends were finally successful in digging him out of Cambridge, and for more than another twenty years he reigned in London as the most famous man of his age, of Europe, and - as his powers gradually waned and his affability increased - perhaps of all time, so it seemed to his contemporaries. ...
Magic was quite forgotten. He has become the Sage and Monarch of the Age of Reason. The Sir Isaac Newton of orthodox tradition - the eighteenth-century Sir Isaac, so remote from the child magician born in the first half of the seventeenth century - was being built up. Voltaire returning from his trip to London was able to report of Sir Isaac - 'twas his peculiar felicity, not only to be born in a country of liberty, but in an Age when all scholastic impertinences were banished from the World. Reason alone was cultivated and Mankind could only be his Pupil, not his Enemy.' Newton, whose secret heresies and scholastic superstitions it had been the study of a lifetime to conceal! ...
As one broods over these queer collections, it seems easier to understand - with an understanding which is not, I hope, distorted in the other direction - this strange spirit, who was tempted by the Devil to believe at the time when within these walls he. was solving so much, that he could reach all the secrets of God and Nature by the pure power of mind Copernicus and Faustus in one.

54 comments:

Anonymous said...

From 'gay marriage' to 'same sex marriage' to 'marriage equality'.

Are Americans really this stupid and fall so easily for the advertising gimmick?

BrokenSymmetry said...

If only William Blake had known.

Anonymous said...

One of historys more pleasing and symmetrical coincidences,is that on the day Newton was born,Galileo died.

Dr Van Nostrand said...


I always wondered about the story of the apple falling from which inspired Newton to ponder on gravity.
Apple and new knowledge- a litte too on the nose for a believing Christian like Newton.

Dave Pinsen said...

If memory serves, Newton was something of a hard ass as head of the mint, condemning a few folks to death for counterfeiting.

When I first read about Newton's later years, I thought they might make a subject for an interesting play: Newton At The Mint.

hot topics from 1997 said...

My Medieval Europe prof in college 20 years ago used to hit this theme pretty hard, esp. Newton's interest in numerology. Among her academic specialties was Andalusian stuff which was of course directly influential to semi-mystic Spinoza. A lot of other "Enlightenment" figures had one foot in the magical era.

Anonymous said...

Holy storm of posts, Batman!

Anonymous said...

Newton's apple seemed to me like a blatant 18th-century pop-history co-opt of Galileo's orange from earlier on. Also I don't think the forbidden fruit was styled an apple till even later than that.

dearieme said...

Cleverest chap in history by a country mile: leading mathematician, leading experimental physicist, and the greatest theoretical physicist of them all; plus he ran the Royal Mint to general satisfaction. Extraordinary.

That he was also a half-bonkers God-botherer just teaches how odd people are.

Anonymous said...

so he lost the best years of his life on magic...

Jeff W. said...

Newton predicted that Christ would return in 2060.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1422794/Newton-set-2060-for-end-of-world.html

I have read "Daniel and the Apocalypse" and I did not find within it any of the unorthodox, monotheistic beliefs that Keynes speaks of.

http://www.isaacnewton.ca/daniel_apocalypse/

Keynes was an irreligious man. I don't know if he was qualified to assess Newton's carefully thought out Christian belief system.

SFG said...

Dave: You got the death penalty for a lot of things back then besides murder,not just counterfeiting.

Never saw what was so bizarre about studying magic: it's not as if all that had been conclusively disproven at that point. People had believed in the occult for centuries. As for alchemy, well, who was to say you couldn't turn lead into gold? Nuclear theory was a few centuries off.

carol said...

Okay so it sounds like Newton went from believing Jesus was the son of God to not believing same, and was interested in all manner of sciency and quasi-sciency subjects. Sounds normal for someone of his capability.

Was Keynes shocked that Newton believed anything at all, besides his own glorious Self?

Anonymous said...

Don't try to frighten us with your sorceror's ways, Isaac Newton. Your sad devotion to that ancient Sumerian religion has not helped you conjure up the counterfeit dies, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the forger's hideout . . .

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that Steve. Fascinating.

pat said...

For those who wonder why the government grows so much it is instructive to read about Newton's career as a bureaucrat. He was very happy.

That's my experience too. Government workers are like contented cows. It hardly matters for most people, but for a Newton it's great loss for humanity.

A secure government position is like taking an addictive drug or playing video games in your parent's basement - not the best way to make your mark on history.

Albertosaurus

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am ashamed to note that I read this as an undergrad and seem to have forgotten it almost immediately after. About 10% seems to have survived in my picture of Newton, contra everyone else's picture of Newton. But the rest did not say what I wanted it to, what I hoped it would support, so I largely misunderstood or forgot it.

Sections of this jumped out of dead memory as I read it. I'll try to do a better job of holding onto the truth this time.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Newton's portrayal in the Baroque Cycle is phenomenal.

Anonymous said...

Steve, as of the time of this comment 3 of Ann Coulter's last 4 tweets are links to your posts.

https://twitter.com/AnnCoulter

Dr Van Nostrand said...

Newton's apple seemed to me like a blatant 18th-century pop-history co-opt of Galileo's orange from earlier on. Also I don't think the forbidden fruit was styled an apple till even later than that."

I dont know if the apple was officially(so to speak) the infamous fruit in Genesis in Newtons time but Im pretty sure the idea was floating around for a while

The selection of apple may be accredited to word play in Latin around the 5th century

The word for apple and evil happens to be the same in Latin- malum.

Coincidentally "malum" in Urdu means "I know" or "I have knowledge"

Apart from alchemy and other Hogwartds stuff, he was also quite obsessed with the Temple of Solomon and its dimensions.He looked forward to its being rebuilt ,yes that would imply the destruction of Al Aqsa.
No wonder Christian Zionists still have a hard on for him.

Well that and it compels religious Christians to point to him as proof that supremely religious individuals can be scientific geniuses contrary to how they are perceived today by the secular leftist elite

Anonymous said...

Newton was undoubtedly a genius, like all the great geniuses of history a bit of crazed thinking seems to be a requirement.

When I think of Keynes I don't see genius, only a well educated snake oil salesman.

Anonymous said...

It always makes for a better story if there is a really smart, beautiful woman involved... and there was.

Catherine Barton, Newton's half-niece and housekeeper during his London career, was apparently really something. She managed his social affairs, apparently was very popular with the Royal Society (Newton was president), and is considered to have been the mistress of Newton's life-long patron, the Earl Charles Montague, who got Newton the position as head of the Mint.

"Sometime after her uncle Isaac moved to London to become Warden of the Mint in April 1696 she moved there to live with him. She was known as a brilliant conversationalist, and attracted the admiration of such famous figures as Jonathan Swift and Voltaire. Her uncle Isaac was also fond of her..."



"The ‘famous witty Miss Barton’, as she was later dubbed in the Gentleman's Magazine, seems to have made a strong impression on men, who were captured by both her beauty and her intelligence."

Mark Plus said...

Newton probably suffered from a ravenous need for intellectual stimulation as a young man, and he tried to feed that appetite with whatever he had available. His older, intellectually ravenous contemporary John Milton similarly read a prodigious amount of classical literature and studied several modern languages in his youth.

The highly intelligent people we can observe today often spend much of their youth absorbing similarly useless information generated by the geek culture industry - learning to speak imaginary languages like Tolkien's Elvish, for example. The Big Bang Theory sitcom consciously references this behavior. It makes you wonder if the characters would have progressed farther in their respective careers if they consumed less geek culture and applied themselves more to learning useful things instead.

Anonymous said...

Ann Coulter has become awesome. I always found her so (Treason was basically a giant middle finger to the establishment left) but now she is awesome even from a paleocon perspective. Interesting that as the biological clock ticks towards zero she gets more and more brave in speaking out against future harm. Maybe the insidious ratio of political correctness makes it such that one does not speak truth to power lest one's offspring suffer for their father's or in this case mother's faults. Maybe Ann figures she won't be having any kids whose futures would be derailed by mom's unsparing truthfullness.

Admittedly, I've always been somewhat skeptical of the no kids no interest in the long thesis because I am a supporter of the Church. Perhaps we need to seperate materialistic inspired renunciation of children from idealistically inspired renunciation of offspring. Of course Coulter wouldn't fit into this classification scheme.

Anonymous said...

"Steve, as of the time of this comment 3 of Ann Coulter's last 4 tweets are links to your posts."

She talks the talk and walks the walk. She has so little to gain and so much to lose by linking Steve, yet she does. When I start to think that this life is a miserable absurdity, Coulter's bravery pulls me out of my funk. I dream of kissing her on her acerbic mouth.

Anonymous said...

Among her academic specialties was Andalusian stuff which was of course directly influential to semi-mystic Spinoza.

No it wasn't. And Spinoza wasn't semi-mystical.

Anonymous said...

We generally hear the argument regarding science vs religion as one of REASON/FACTS vs DOGMA/FAITH, but when it comes to most people, it's really a matter of Trust vs Faith.

I believe in evolution and in galaxies and light speed and theory of relativity and etc. I believe in modern medicine. But I must admit I don't know 99% of theory or data on them. I still don't know how E=MC2 works.
But I go along with that based on my Trust in scientists.

And I think most people are the same since they are also very limited in their knowledge and understanding and IQ. We just TRUST the scientists. Since science has produced so many positive things, this trust is surely warranted. Even so, most people who believe in science do so not out of understanding but trust, and in that sense, they have something in similar to religious people who stick to faith. A liberal might mock a conservative who clings to faith, but if you ask an average liberal about how theory of relativity works, he or she will be nonplussed. He or she will admit he or she believes in it on trust.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eU9hQ-wxvcY

Dawkins here talks about how religion can do harm to others--terrorist bombers, Crusaders, and etc committing violence against their victims--, but he doesn't discuss sufficiently of how religion can harm your own kind.

Conservatives in America are a good example of this. Most American Christian conservatives are peaceable people and mind their own business and don't interfere with other people worshiping different gods or not believing at all. So, they don't harm others.

Then, what is the problem? They hurt themselves. Their willful ignorance of science--especially biology and evolution that tie into other sciences--undermines their intellectual caliber, and that means conservatism becomes dumber and dumber and loses in the game of elite intellectual competition in science, math, and etc.

It's no wonder Silicon Valley and all leading institutions of science are filled with liberals and have few conservatives.

The main victim of the Christian Right is American conservatism.

Florida resident said...

A great mathematician, one of the authors of KAM diffusion,
was very fond of Newton as mathematician with great intuition,
and by extension, was very unjust towards Leibnitz.
So he (one of the KAM authors) supposedly said:
“Leibnitz has invented the notations,
with which people, who do not understand calculus,
can teach it to the people,
who will never understand calculus.”
-
The law of
gravitational attraction inversely proportional to the square of distance
was suggested earlier by Robert Hooke (1635-1703).
Hooke understood that
observationally established third Kepler ’s law,
"The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional
to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit,"
is a consequence of his gravitational law _for_circular_orbits_.
Hooke did not have the mathematical technique to prove it for elliptical orbits,
and Newton has provided that last proof.
So I personally would call it Hooke-Newton’s law of gravity.
-
But nobody is comparable with Newton
with respect to mathematical and physical intuition.

FirkinRidiculous said...

The Beeb aired a docudrama recently based on Keynes's characterisation, Isaac Newton: The Last Magician. It's available on YouTube .

Anonymous said...

http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/11/identity-family-marriage-conservative-values-betrayed

GOP goes the weasel said...

Another fruit on Newton.

John Derbyshire said...

If you don't want to read all 2,600 pages of the Baroque Cycle, just read my review.

I threw Cryptonomicon in for good measure.

Steve Sailer said...

Jaron Lanier says that the one story about the history of Silicon Valley that hasn't yet been told is the role of psychologically insightful women, the modern equivalent of Newton's niece and her equivalents running French salons, in putting together brilliant nerds at the social events the ladies organized. "Oh, Mike, I must introduce you to Phil, you two will have so much to talk about regarding inverted whamination [or whatever]."

Dennis Dale said...

After they've killed off the last WASP there'll be no one left worthy of eulogizing him.

But that won't stop the celebration. Party on! The New America, f--- yeah!

candid_observer said...

"I dream of kissing her on her acerbic mouth."

OK, that would be the precise point of TMI.

Vilko said...

Mark Plus wrote:
The highly intelligent people we can observe today often spend much of their youth absorbing similarly useless information generated by the geek culture industry - learning to speak imaginary languages like Tolkien's Elvish, for example. The Big Bang Theory sitcom consciously references this behavior. It makes you wonder if the characters would have progressed farther in their respective careers if they consumed less geek culture and applied themselves more to learning useful things instead.

I don't know if I can consider myself "highly" intelligent (in France in the 1970's they didn't tell you how you scored in IQ tests. Besides, I dropped out of college) but I do know that studying (and creating) imaginary languages helped me a lot in the real life (I was the French equivalent of a British chief police inspector for 32 years). Constructed languages helped me understand how languages work, and become fluent in English, which was a plus in my professional and personal lives. It kept my brain active, my mind curious. Now, as a retiree, I am the treasurer of a historical society and active in writing articles in brochures and a book we'll publish.

If I had stuck to law and other work-related subjects, I don't think I would have had as much fun as I had in my life. I'm not sure either that I would have earned more money.

I don't compare myself to real great guys like former French presidents Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, but they all had some seemingly useless hobbies. Giscard d'Estaing learned Chinese and studied psychoanalysis and French literature. François Mitterrand was an expert on French literature and history. Jacques Chirac was a genuine expert on Chinese and Japanese art, and he had studied Sanskrit as a hobby in his youth (while often pretending to be a Joe Sixpack type for political reasons).

My two euro-cents here: if you study something unusual, like Sanskrit or Klingon, you make your brain work. You are likely to be respected in the very tiny circle of people who share your hobby, which boosts your self-esteem, with little risk (if your fellow Klingon-learners take you for an idiot for some reason, you can just choose another hobby). If you choose not to share your hobby with anyone else, you still have intellectual satisfactions, for instance when you become able to write your diary in Klingon.

I don't suggest, incidentally, that everyone should learn Klingon or Sanskrit. High level crosswords and games like chess are probably just as good for the mind.

Anonymous said...

Steve, no offense, but if you could not post my previous comment using my real name, I'd appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

I think Keynes' surprise was due to his puzzlement over the fact that this father of modern science believed in God. It was often said that Newton's deterministic universe made belief in God impossible, but apparently not for Newton. As Mike Flynn has pointed out, enlightenment thinkers, religious or not, really saw science as a way of controlling nature, for them it was the new magic. And when you come down to it, that's how most of us think about science today. Newton really wasn't the last of a type at all.

SFG said...

"My two euro-cents here: if you study something unusual, like Sanskrit or Klingon, you make your brain work. You are likely to be respected in the very tiny circle of people who share your hobby, which boosts your self-esteem, with little risk (if your fellow Klingon-learners take you for an idiot for some reason, you can just choose another hobby). If you choose not to share your hobby with anyone else, you still have intellectual satisfactions, for instance when you become able to write your diary in Klingon."

You are a European and, further, a Frenchman. America is far more anti-intellectual. Not that your way is worse--I actually think it's better--but it would get a Yank in deep trouble.

Chicago said...

It's believed he had never engaged in sex in his entire life. Also, he was pretty vigorous in pursuing counterfeiters and getting them hanged when he was in charge of the Royal Mint.

Anonymous said...

"Jaron Lanier says that the one story about the history of Silicon Valley that hasn't yet been told is the role of psychologically insightful women, the modern equivalent of Newton's niece and her equivalents running French salons, in putting together brilliant nerds..."

I've known some of these, beautiful smart women who were killer exec recruiter head hunter types, skilled at building entire companies and in being able to talk to all kinds of nerds. Tribesmakers. It's almost a lost art. Their day seems to have largely passed in the new outsourced world where everyone's standing in line for dollars. It's a pity.

Old fogey said...

Many thanks, indeed, Steve for posting Keynes' thoughts on Newton's work. I find the comments fascinating. All readers toss out his interest in the occult and in faith and religion as worthless drivel. Newton was a man of genius. If, during the stage of Newton's life when he was most productive, when his brain was working on overdrive, these were the topics that fascinated him, we should think more than twice about the wisdom of tossing them aside as useless. Someday, through a reader more astute in religion and the occult than Keynes, we might learn that this aspect of his life was more important than his mathematics and his physics.

Gin Monter said...

If iSteve fans are ever in Scotland, they might want to check out the classic pub, Cafe Royal in Edinburgh. On the wall are many tiled mural art works of great inventors and scientists.

http://www.caferoyaledinburgh.co.uk/

Dr Van Nostrand said...


You are a European and, further, a Frenchman. America is far more anti-intellectual. Not that your way is worse--I actually think it's better--but it would get a Yank in deep trouble."

America seems to be more a nation of tinkerers than thinkers. Nothing wrong with that.
It is particularly desirable in the field of ideology.
Even the founding documents such as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were based on a trial and error process

And America itself is referred to an "experiment".

The reason why Americans never indulged in the horrors associated with Europeans,Chinese and Japanese in the past century is due to Americans tempering abstract theories ,even objectionable ones such as racism, with reason and good sense.

With good reason is racism more of a European disease than American.

David Davenport said...

The highly intelligent people we can observe today often spend much of their youth absorbing similarly useless information generated by the geek culture industry - learning to speak imaginary languages like Tolkien's Elvish, for example. The Big Bang Theory sitcom consciously references this behavior. It makes you wonder if the characters would have progressed farther in their respective careers if they consumed less geek culture and applied themselves more to learning useful things instead. ...

20th century popular science histories tend to make Newton's era too modern.

The culture young Isaac Newton grew up in didn't know what was real science and what was useless alchemy. Isaac N.and and Robert Boyle, Newton's closest approximation to a good friend, spent time and effort dabbling in alchemy when they were younger men. ( Chemist Robert Boyle of Boyle's Law. ). Newton and Boyle probably gave up on alchemy only after years of experiments with no tangible results

"Learning useful things" in young Isaac's time meant learning Trinitarian orthodoxy.

The lifetime macro-achievement of Newton, Boyle, and other members of the Royal Society, including Newton's adversary, peewee* Robert Hooke, was to progress from the superstitions of alchemy and astrology to real science.

The older Newton described himself as a Christian, although he did not believe in the Trinity - the Old Man, the Kid,and the Spook.


* The famous remark " ... I have stood on the soldiers of giants ..." attributed to Newton may have been a slap at Newton's adversary Robert Hooke, who wasn't much more than five feet zero tall.

Dr Van Nostrand said...

As for alchemy, well, who was to say you couldn't turn lead into gold? Nuclear theory was a few centuries off."

Good point.
The problem is that amount of energy that is expended in order to facilitate that reaction sort of defeats the purpose.
Same with synthetic/bio fuels.

Sid said...

A number of people are mistaken in seeing the study of magic as a medieval endeavor. People during the Middle Ages did not study magic as fervently as they did starting in the 16th century. The archetypal student of magic is Faust, and Marlowe wrote his Faustus towards the end of the 16th century. In all likelihood, interest in magic grew from the cracks the Reformation made in the European intelligentsia.

Similarly, scientific study as we know it codeveloped with magic. Scientists and magicians were both studying related subject matter: how to understand nature with the implicit aim of manipulating it thereafter. Francis Bacon was as interested in magic as he was in science. The difference is that magic is BS while scientific study has further opened the doors of understanding.

Melykin said...

When I read that Newton didn't believe Christ was the son of God my first thought was that someone is going to claim he was a Muslim. So I googled and sure enough, lots of crackpots are claiming he was a Muslim or at least influenced by Muslims. Of course there are also Muslims who claim they discovered North America.

BrokenSymmetry said...

"Steve, as of the time of this comment 3 of Ann Coulter's last 4 tweets are links to your posts."

John Derbysire's going to get jealous

BrokenSymmetry said...

Just a taster on how alien Newton's cast of mind appears to us in the 21st century. He was considered "singular" in his time (a good 18th-century term) but possibly for other reasons (his religious observances, or lack of, in the list may have been normal to his contemporaries).

http://www.listsofnote.com/2012/03/newtons-sins.html

Dr Van Nostrand said...


When I read that Newton didn't believe Christ was the son of God my first thought was that someone is going to claim he was a Muslim. So I googled and sure enough, lots of crackpots are claiming he was a Muslim or at least influenced by Muslims. Of course there are also Muslims who claim they discovered North America."

The most notorious Muslim claim is probably that Neil Armstrong heard the aazan(call to prayer) on the moon and converted to Islam.

Commited Christian Neil Armstrong(who mentioned to his guide when walking where Jesus walked in Bethlehem was more exciting for him than being on the moon) denied it on more than one occasion.One time in his church he went as far as to say "let us pray for our ignorant Muslim brothers" or something to that effect.

Anonymous said...

Science is alchemical experiments that succeeded.

Alchemy is scientific experiments that failed.

Anonymous said...

Greeks Hermetic writings (the Corpus Hermeticum [1]) saved much of the alchemic lore of the Egyptians as the Romans were stamping out Egyptian and Greek beliefs and practices. Much of the power of Egyptian alchemy came from the visible proof of table-top chemical reactions. The Egyptians were also well aware of drugs, trading (indirectly) as far as Indonesia for drugs.

The "magic spells" of Hermetics were substitution codes ("eye of newt and tail of frog...") for chemical reactions and medicines. Once memorized by the adept, if the adept proved worthy, he would be given the "code books". The rediscovery of these writings had considerable influence in Europe (Rosicrucianism, etc.) and probably contributed to the ideas of the Enlightenment. Some Hermetic writings and ideas:

"Where would matter be placed if it existed apart from God, who is infinite? ... Believe that nothing is impossible for you; think yourself immortal and capable of understanding all, all arts, all sciences, the nature of every living being... Men pull up the roots of plants and they determine the properties of their juices. They examine the natures of stones and they cut open those animals lacking the power of reason."

For a version of "Believe nothing is impossible" by Giordano Bruno (the guy people remember as being burned at the stake for believing the earth revolved around the Sun), see the end of this page, which extracts from "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition" [1], F. A. Yales. Bruno may actually have been burnt for paying too much attention to Hermetics, not his astronomy.

All this coded knowledge had to be scrubbed to see what was real and what was dross, what worked and what didn't. It must have been maddening. As commentors have pointed out, who was to say what was magic and what wasn't? The word science was still in the future.

Anonymous said...

Newton didn't rest on his laurels at the Mint. There's a good chance you have an invention of his in your pocket right now. Newton invented the ridges on the edges of coins to prevent theft ("clipping" or shaving a little silver off the edges, one coin at a time). See the US quarter or dime. (The nickle and penny don't have ridges.) Newton casts a real long shadow. Holy Batman, Newton!