Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Isaac Newton's Fan Club

Couple of weeks back I was in Washington DC visiting the world famous 'Library of Congress'. The LoC owes its existence to Thomas Jefferson. That Jefferson was one of the founding father's of America is America's fortune. Intellects like Jefferson are in a league of their own. Browsing through the gift shop I leafed through a 'Modern Library' edition of Jefferson's writings. As luck would have it I chanced upon a letter  (written in 1789) wherein Jefferson is asking his friend for portraits "three greatest men that have ever lived". The men are Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton.

Will Durant's "Story of Philosophy" has a very interesting anecdote in Voltaire's life. Voltaire exiled from France was living in England. Durant writes "Bacon's name was still in the air, John Locke had written a masterpiece of psychological analysis and Newton had just died". Voltaire recounts an argument he witnessed. A group of men were arguing as to "who was the greatest man - Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane or Cromwell. Some one answered that without doubt it was Isaac Newton. And rightly: for it is to him who masters our minds by the force of truth, and not to those who enslave them by violence, that we owe our reverence". Voltaire had attended Newton's funeral. Voltaire then proceeded to study Newton avidly and later worked to spread Newton's theories in France.

Studying Newton is no mean feat. Newton, like the intelligentsia of that period, wrote his magnum opus 'Principia Mathematica' in chaste Latin. The text was dense and abstruse by design to "avoid being baited by smatterers". Rebuffing those who wanted explanation for his theory on gravity Newton had responded "hypothesis non fingo" (I dont frame hypothesis).

Newton had many not so nice sides to him. He quarreled with Robert Hooke and most infamously tried to dupe Leibniz of his credit for formulating Calculus. Even Newton's famous quote, cited for humility, "If I've seen farther it is by standing on the shoulder of giants, is thought of as maligning Hooke. Hooke was short and a hunchback. Newton, the supposedly rational scientist, wasted many years dabbling in alchemy. But as Durant says of Voltaire, these faults were secondary and were not of his essence.

Its amazing that an American politician would idolize an English scientist (along with two English philosophers) 63 years later in a letter. As much as it speaks of the men themselves it also testifies to Jefferson's intellect to search for such high wisdom in an age when acquiring such knowledge exacted a premium from the seeker. Living in an age when knowledge and facts could be summoned at fingertips we lose the ability to appreciate such seekers. Confession, I googled several times to write this to get exact quotes.

William Wordsworth had celebrated Newton in his poem "Prelude" (written circa 1799, nearly 70 years after Newton's death):

The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

Newton was interred in Westminster Abbey where Kings and Queens were buried. The poet Alexander Pope wrote the verses for Newton's epitaph:

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said "Let Newton be" and all was light

Seeing that letter by Jefferson reminded me of how Newton was feted by poets and philosophers. In an  age when politicians and conquerors with armies were the ones to be celebrated Newton heralded the age of an intellectual celebrity. Its a road in which so many were to walk and in the 20th century give our own scientific celebrity Albert Einstein.

1 comment:

VarahaMihira Gopu said...

Remember Jefferson was a colleague of Ben Franklin, the ultimate polymath of his time. He hosted Alexander von Humboldt, Joseph Priestley, was in regular communication with Erasmus Darwin and contributed several ideas to the world of scientific and economic philosophy.

Newton owed a great deal to Descartes - whom he mocked for his theories on motion - Galileo, and other geniuses who preceded him.

Jefferson was not the only one. Rutherford Hayes, a later President, came up with an independent proof for Pythagoras' theorem. Napoleon was a mathematician. Frederick of Prusssia managed to introduce the potato to Germany.

Tilak proposed original theories on Aryans. Rajaji dabbled with translations, wrote "Thinnai Rasayanam" etc. in Tamil. Not quite the same, but I find few Indian politicians who came close.