“If it wasn’t for Newton’s discoveries we wouldn’t have the technology we have today,” our tour guide chided, directing his wisdom at someone who dared glance at their phone instead of examining the Newton family’s outdoor toilet. I immediately bristled: of course someone else would have got there. We wouldn’t still be getting around by horse and cart and communicating by letter.
We were exploring Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham, which was Isaac Newton’s birthplace in 1642 and childhood home. Here he returned in 1665, when Cambridge University was shut because of the great plague, and devised experiments that formed the foundations for his most important theories on motion and the nature of light. The Royal Society bought the house in 1942 and presented it to the National Trust to preserve it as a memorial ‘to England’s greatest scientist’.
Perhaps he was our greatest, but he certainly wasn’t our only scientist and his work arose in its time and context, because of what was being done around him. Newton spent many years arguing with other researchers who were thinking along the same sort of lines about gravity, for instance. In his book Isaac Newton James Gleick sets the context for Newton’s greatest work: Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
First, he was provoked by the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, to explain the transit of a comet that appeared in 1681. Then Newton had a fiery exchange with Robert Hooke, president of the Royal Society, which started with Hooke asking Newton to comment on his essay about the orbital motion of the planets. The young astronomer Edmond Halley “had been discussing planetary motion in coffee houses with Hooke and the architect Christopher Wren,” writes Gleick.
“Halley himself had worked out (as Newton had in 1666) a connection between an inverse-square law and Kepler’s rule of periods – that the cube of a planet’s distance from the sun varies as the square of its orbital year…Halley put the question to Newton directly in 1684: supposing an inverse-square law of attraction toward the sun, what sort of curve would a planet make? Newton told him: an ellipse. He said he had calculated this long before. He would not give Halley the proof – he said he could not lay his hands on it – but promised to redo it and send it along.”
And so he got to work on the proof, which he dispatched to Halley in London two years later, becoming the first of the three books that comprise Principia. Without provocation, and encouragement and questioning from Halley, Newton’s scientific ideas could have remained muddled and unpublished, like his alchemy, leaving someone else to come to it later on.
Inspired by the new film about Stephen Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything, Owen Jones wrote in the Guardian yesterday that science is about “building on and interacting with the work of others, an enterprise that stretches across the centuries…a great scientist is a team effort – as we all are.”
Whilst it’s fascinating to learn about an individual’s struggles and discoveries, their work doesn’t arise in a vacuum. Progress doesn’t depend on one or two people’s brilliance no matter how much we exaggerate their importance.