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Wednesday, 28 May
Is That All?

I've been reading James Gleick's biography Isaac Newton for the past couple days. I'm enjoying it well enough, if not as much as the much longer Genius, his previous biography of Richard Feynman; Feynman was, of course, colorful as hell, slyly pyrotechnic both in word and deed, a biographer's dream. The monkish, reclusive, devout Newton is himself naturally very fascinating, but as a literary figure, doesn't quite offer the same wealth of anecdotal material. But it's a minor deal, given Newton's simply stupefying output of ideas and calculations over his lifetime. Lest anyone need brushing up, here's a (wildly abbreviated) list of some things he did:

--Well, he invented calculus. "Heigh ho, I've got murderous gout; might as well invent a new mathematical system."

--He described the laws of motion. By comparison, I maintain (by which I mean, someone helps me) a website called "Izzle Pfaff." It's close, but I think he edges me.

--He figured out (and named) gravity. Not incidentally, while doing this, he happened to whip the hot piss out of perpetual rival Robert Hooke (the microscope guy) and managed not to get laughed out of town for gravity's apparent "action at a distance," which made people queasy all the way up until our own century.

--As a happy corollary to that, he fucked around a bit explaining planetary movement and the tides. Oh, he also defined certain essential qualities of mass, time and space. Uh, and invented his own reflecting telescope. Oh, and was an alchemical wizard. Unfortunately, he also nearly poisoned himself handling (and tasting) mercury, so that at least wins me some points. I've never done that. Sheesh, Newton! That was kind of a boner!

--He explained betting odds to Samuel Pepys; he corresponded with John Locke in secret about his very heretical biblical treatises (he hated the idea of the Trinity--kind of a big deal) that could easily have gotten him jailed; he made a virtual errand boy out of comet-lad Edmond Halley, who wrote the adulatory introduction to Principia and then cheerfully flogged it to anyone who would listen, which hardly mattered, since only a very few people could understand the fucking thing in the first place.

--And my personal favorite, when worried about the double-bind of understanding the human senses when those are exactly what we employ to, well, understand things, he took a large, blunt needlelike thing and shoved it into the corner of his eyeball socket and started gingerly pressing the tip around. By comparison, I once considered going to a laser show, but we had, as I recall, run out of pot.

Isaac Newton, ladies and gentlemen. Titanic genius, but he didn't play well with others, couldn't keep from eating the paste, and liked to poke himself in the eyes. It's sad to tarnish such a reputation, but that's the kind of hard-hitting reportage my tens of readers have come to expect from Izzle Pfaff.

Tomorrow: Michael Medved: Tortured Genius? Or Literary Colossus?

Book Club | Skot | 28 May, 2003 |

Note: Comments are closed on old entries.

Comments

tens of readers?

skot, everyone i know thinks you're fucking brilliant. and you're from seattle! surely there must be more than tens...

Comment number: 003015   Posted by: on May 29, 2003 12:07 AM from IP: 206.124.138.151

Yeah, he never counts me. He's got 11 readers, I think.

Comment number: 003016   Posted by: i on May 29, 2003 04:18 AM from IP: 141.156.167.246

Well, he invented calculus. "Heigh ho, I've got murderous gout; might as well invent a new mathematical system."

LIES! HATE SPEECH!

Comment number: 003017   Posted by: avogadro on May 29, 2003 07:26 AM from IP: 198.30.212.130

Skot, you left out using the Royal Society to browbeat his enemies and serving as master of the Royal Mint. (You use Izzle Pfaff to browbeat Caftan Guy, so the first part is a wash, but I don't see you holding high government office anytime soon.) More important, you left out the fact that his mercury poisoning came about during his alchemical experiments (as John Maynard Keynes famously said, Newton was not the first scientist but the "last of the magicians"). If you manage to turn lead into gold, I think we'll all agree that you are history's A-number-one champion paste-eating eye-poker.

Comment number: 003018   Posted by: Steve on May 29, 2003 08:27 AM from IP: 198.151.13.8

Skot, you left out using the Royal Society to browbeat his enemies and serving as master of the Royal Mint.

Yeah, I forgot to put that part in. He was a holy fucking terror--more than once he made sure that counterfeiters were executed. Not to mention his extended counterpunching with Liebniz. The boy wasn't someone to fuck with lightly.

(And I tried to imply that the mercury poisoning was a result of his alchemical diddlings; sorry if that wasn't wholly clear.)

Comment number: 003019   Posted by: Skot on May 29, 2003 08:43 AM from IP: 140.107.120.123

*I* caught the implication that the mercury poisoning was a result of his alchemy, that nice connecting adverb "Unfortunately" clued me in :)

Comment number: 003020   Posted by: Ryan Waddell on May 29, 2003 09:18 AM from IP: 206.47.252.98

Ryan, you seem to be under the mistaken impression that I have reading comprehension skills greater than those of the average cocker spaniel.

Comment number: 003021   Posted by: Steve on May 29, 2003 10:28 AM from IP: 198.151.13.8

He never got caught in a brothel, "explaining gravity?"

Comment number: 003022   Posted by: Bet on May 29, 2003 10:42 AM from IP: 205.242.228.7

He never got caught in a brothel, "explaining gravity?"

Actually, the poor bastard died a virgin, by all accounts.

Comment number: 003023   Posted by: Skot on May 29, 2003 10:53 AM from IP: 140.107.120.123

Probably best that he died a virgin. His pillow talk would have left a little to be desired.

"The Earth moved for me, did it move for you, Isaac?"

"Actually, if you had read the paper I published last month, you would know that was a physical impossibility. You see, for every action..."

Comment number: 003024   Posted by: KOTWF on May 29, 2003 02:20 PM from IP: 65.194.128.251

You left out that he made all his major achievements in the course of one year, when he was 23 (IIRC). I don't count alchemical doodling as a "major achievement," btw.

Comment number: 003025   Posted by: Adam Rice on May 30, 2003 06:15 AM from IP: 216.61.42.17

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