Skeptical and Natural Philosophy

Francis Bacon and the Scientific Revolution

Was Newton an eccentric personality?

According to historical anecdotes and gossip, the answer would have to be yes. There is evidence that Newton (1642–1727) was eccentric and did not interact well with others. His main quirk was his secretiveness about his work. He did not even communicate the success of his early research to others until 1669. To this day, it is not clear when he did what or which recorded intuitions correspond to what publications. After he got the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, except for three or four weeks a year, he spent 26 years in Cambridge, lecturing on optics and elementary mathematics. That is, his life was somewhat sheltered.

Part of the reason Newton hated to publish was that he did not like the controversy that was always likely to follow. When in 1684 the Royal Society appointed a committee, led by Edmund Halley (1656–1742), to remind Newton of his commitment to publish Principia Mathematica, Halley had to persuade him to include the third book, which contained the application of his system. Newton at first wanted to suppress that work because he had heard that Robert Hooke (1635–1703) claimed to have had the same system before him. (Indeed, when Newton had related his discoveries about the decomposition of light, or what the components of light are, to the Royal Society in 1672, Robert Hooke and others disagreed with part of how he explained his findings. Newton refused to discuss the matter or publish his work until after Hooke died.) The Principia manuscript was finally delivered by a Dr. Vincent, husband of Miss Storey, at whose house Newton had lodged in his teens. Apparently she had been the sole romantic interest in his entire life.

Biographers relate that Newton had a psychological breakdown from 1692 to 1693, following unsuccessful attempts to get a prestigious and lucrative government position through the efforts of his friend Charles Halifax. Newton wrote to Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) that he was “extremely troubled at the embroilment” he was in and that he would have to withdraw from Pepys and his other friends. He then wrote to John Locke (1632–1704), apologizing for “being of the opinion that you endeavored to embroil me with women.” Locke was kind and reassuring and Newton apologized further, claiming overwork and lack of sleep. Apparently, there had been no basis in fact for Newton’s belief in having been “embroiled.”

Newton did have an embroiled dispute over whether he or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) had first invented the theory of “fluxions” or the differential calculus. Through his office as President of the Royal Society, Newton exerted influence over the investigation of the matter, which was finally resolved to credit him with the discovery, although it misrepresented the time sequence of correspondence on the subject between Newton and Leibniz.

Newton did no further scientific work after his position as Warden of the Mint. He referred to natural philosophy as a “litigious lady” and mentioned “another pull at the moon.” He was apparently preoccupied with occult readings of biblical prophecy and alchemical theories, although the nature of these endeavors is still unclear because he often wrote in code. Some contemporary scholars now think that these occult studies were Newton’s main interest and that the greatness of his scientific achievements was largely the result of “hype,” after the fact. Newton’s reluctance to publish or even continue his studies after he became Warden of the Mint might be less a matter of psychological instability than is often assumed.


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