From gravity to depravity: Isaac Newton was a scientific genius who saved the nation’s economy – but he also ruined careers, viciously feuded with friends, and was plagued with obsessive thoughts of sinful sex
- Patricia Fara writes about the final 30 years of Isaac Newton’s life
- He gave up his fellowship and moved to London to live a much more public life
- If Newton didn’t like you, he tried to destroy your life and your career
- Newton swore to abstinence, but was tortured by obsessive sexual thoughts
BOOK OF THE WEEK
LIFE AFTER GRAVITY: ISAAC NEWTON’S LONDON CAREER
by Patricia Fara (OUP £25, 288pp)
So who exactly was Sir Isaac Newton? Legend has it that he invented the catflap, although this is much argued over by historians.
In his year as an MP, he spoke only once in the House of Commons, either to ask for a window to be closed, or to ask for a window to be opened. Again, sources differ.
But the common view of England’s greatest physicist of the 17th century, and possibly all time, is of an ascetic workaholic holed up in his Cambridge college for 30 years, changing humanity’s view of the world for ever.
I did Newtonian mechanics in my applied maths A-level, and although some of it has since been superseded by relativity and quantum mechanics, what remains is a system of great elegance and beauty. F=ma, v=u+at — these are just two of his greatest hits.
Patricia Fara writes about the final 30 years of Isaac Newton’s (pictured) life, when he gave up his fellowship and moved to London to live a much more public, political life
Patricia Fara has already written a book about that Newton, the legendary Newton, and the giant brain pulsating within. Now she moves on to his final 30 years, when he extracted himself from his life of solitude, gave up his fellowship and moved to London to live a much more public, political life as Master of the Mint and President of the Royal Society.
How did this contemplative introvert seemingly change his personality to ‘thrive in high society and become extremely rich’, in Fara’s words? With determination and an eye for the main chance, it turns out.
Newton was not an easy man. If you were writing his obituary today, you would use the code phrase ‘He did not suffer fools gladly’. This is why he left Cambridge, where he had been overlooked for higher office, and headed for the bright lights.
London in the early 18th century was a vibrant, bubbling city full of people trying to get rich as quickly as possible. King William seemed to be the only person who didn’t have any money, because he was constantly fighting endless wars. So Newton was parachuted into the Mint to resuscitate the economy, and did so with some success.
I have to admit, I knew nothing of any of this. ‘Biographers often glide across those London years as if they were an embarrassment, an unfitting epilogue for the career of an intellectual giant,’ writes Fara. ‘According to standard accounts, Newton sublimated his own intellectual desires for the sake of his country by abandoning the intellectual life he adored and reluctantly devoted his great mind to rescuing the nation’s plummeting currency.’ And making a little for himself, of course. When he died in 1727, aged 84, Newton was worth £32,000, the equivalent of several millions today.
Fara said England’s greatest physicist (pictured) of the 17th century would ruin the lives or careers (often both) of people that he didn’t like
Gradually, a fuller picture emerges. Newton had no interest in literature or art, other than commissioning portraits and busts of himself. He did once go to the opera but walked out after the second act.
He had a Lincolnshire accent throughout his life. He was generous to friends and relatives, constantly handing out money, but a vicious feuder.
Fara describes him as a ‘serial slanderer: as soon he had vanquished one opponent, he moved on to the next.’
He used to play backgammon with John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, but they fell out over the ownership of astronomical readings that Flamsteed had made, and friendship swiftly declined to bitter enmity.
If Newton didn’t like you, he didn’t just seethe impotently. He tried to destroy your life and your career. Often he managed both.
Fara’s story is full of colour: her subject had an eventful life. When he was working at the Tower of London, where the Mint was located, the building was also a prison, the HQ of the Board of Ordnance and a zoo. The smell of the river was bad enough; the smell of the animals was worse. Newton never married and swore to sexual abstinence, but he was tortured by obsessive sexual thoughts. About men or women? Fara doesn’t know, and she’s too careful to speculate.
Newton (pictured) never married and swore to sexual abstinence, insisting he was a virgin all his life, but he was tortured by obsessive sexual thoughts
Gay activists often claim Newton as one of their own, but Fara just says, ‘Was Newton gay? is the wrong question to ask,’ and then explains why she is not going to ask it, let alone answer it. She does talk a little, though, about him being ‘plagued with thoughts of sexual sin’. One reason he hated Roman Catholics so much is that he thought the self-denial of their monks served only to inflame desire.
Too much privation, he warned, ‘brings men to a sort of distraction & madnesse so as to make them think they have visions conversing with ’em and sitting upon their knees.’ I bet he was breathing heavily when he wrote that.
Newton actually claimed to have been a virgin all his life, and we haven’t a clue whether that is true. There are many gaps in this story, because too much time has passed.
When she tells you about one or other cache of letters being burnt, you can almost hear her gnashing her teeth in frustration. But that’s the biographer’s burden in a nutshell. Fara, who is a historian of science at Cambridge, has been rather ambitious here.
Life after gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career by Patricia Fara (OUP £25, 288pp)
She is not just writing about Newton, she is painting a portrait of the age in which he lived, worked, schmoozed and manoeuvred.
To do this she structures her book around a painting by William Hogarth, executed after Newton’s death, in which a marble bust of the great man looks down on a drawing room full of his friends, associates and proteges. It’s a clever device that brings many otherwise disparate themes and stories together.
She also writes with an elegance and a wit you don’t generally associate with history books.
Of George I and George II she writes, ‘They enjoyed being soldiers, slept with other men’s wives, had few intellectual interests, ate too much and attended church out of duty rather than devotion.
‘Both Georges were also arrogant, obstinate and hot-tempered: when George II was angry, he kicked his wig round the room like a football.’ How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen.
In fact, the thought that came to me about two-thirds of the way through was this: did she actually like Newton?
There are pointed comments aplenty, and there’s no attempt to burnish the legend. In the end I felt she admired him wholeheartedly but didn’t care for him much.
This is the biographer’s other burden — coming to dislike the person you are writing about — but not the reader’s, not at all.
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