One of the physicists in our book Ten Physicists Who Transformed Our Understanding of Reality (follow this link for more information on the book) is, not surprisingly, Isaac Newton. In fact, he is number 1 in the list. One could argue that he practically invented the subject of physics. We decided to call him the ‘father of physics’, with Galileo (whose life preceded Newton’s) being given the title of ‘grandfather’.
Newton was, clearly, a man of genius. But he was also a nasty, vindictive bastard (not to mince my words!). He didn’t really have any close friends in his life; there were plenty of people who admired him and respected him, and of course he had colleagues. But, apart from a niece whom he seemed to dote on in later life, and two men with whom he probably had love affairs, he was not a man who sought company. He was probably autistic, but lived at a time before such conditions were diagnosed or talked about.
One sort of interaction that he did seem to enjoy with other people though was feuds. In fact, he seemed to thrive on feuding with other scientists. He loved to argue with others, which is not uncommon amongst academics. He had strong opinions which he liked to defend; this is normal. But, Newton took these disputes to an extreme; if he fell out with someone he would do everything he could to destroy that person.
Although I am sure that he had many ‘minor’ arguments, he had three main feuds with fellow scientists. These three men were
- Robert Hooke – curator of experiments at the Royal Society
- Gottfried (von) Leibniz – the German mathematician
- John Flamsteed – the first Astronomer Royal
In each case, he did his level best to destroy the other man. Each of these feuds is discussed in more detail in our book, but in this blogpost I will give a brief summary of his feud with Leibniz.
The feud came about because Newton refused to believe that Leibniz had independently come up with the mathematical idea of calculus. It was a recurring theme throughout Newton’s life that he sincerely believed that he was special. He had deep religious views (some would say extreme religious views). As part of these views, he believed that he had been specially chosen by God to understand things that others would never be able to understand.
Thus, when he heard that Leibniz had developed a mathematics similar to his own ‘theory of fluxions’ (as Newton called it), he naturally assumed that the German had stolen it from him. There then ensued a 30-year dispute between the two men, with Newton very much the aggressor.
It escalated from a dispute to a feud, and culminated in the Royal Society commissioning an ‘official investigation’ to establish propriety for the invention of calculus. When the report came out in 1713 it came out in Newton’s favour. But, by this time Newton was not only President of the Royal Society, but he had secretly authored the entire report. It was anything but impartial. Leibniz died the following year, a broken man from Newton’s relentless attacks.
One should, of course, be able to to admire a person for their work but not admire them in the least for the person that they were. Newton, in my mind, falls very firmly into this category. His contribution to physics is unparalleled, but I don’t think he was the kind of person one would want to know or even come across if one could help it!
What is your favourite story about Newton?