Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (in full, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or simply Principia) was published on this day in 1687. Often described as the single most influential science book ever published, the Principia‘s theories of gravity and motion elevated Newton to biblical status even among his contemporaries:
Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in night;
God said, ‘Let Newton be!’–And all was light.
—Alexander Pope, “Epitaph”
In The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World(2011), Edward Dolnick describes Newton as “the first scientific celebrity” but also “one of history’s strangest figures.” Even at the nascent Royal Society, “a grab-bag collection of geniuses, misfits and eccentrics,” Newton distinguished himself in all ways:
No one would ever know what to make of him.… He would spend his life in secrecy and solitude and die, at eighty-four, a virgin. High-strung to the point of paranoia, he teetered always on the brink of madness. At least once he would fall over the brink.
In temperament Newton had little enough in common with the other men of the Royal Society. They all lived precariously between two worlds, the medieval one they had grown up in and a new one they had only glimpsed. These were brilliant, ambitious, confused, conflicted men. They believed in angels and alchemy and the devil, and they believed that the universe followed precise, mathematical laws.
In time they would fling open the gates to the modern world.
Two other recent books on Newton explore or expand upon his later years, when he was master of the Royal Mint. Thomas Levinson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter (2009) documents Newton’s successful pursuit of the notorious counterfeiter and confidence man William Chaloner, hanged for high treason in 1699. Philip Kerr’s novel Dark Matter(2003) imagines Newton going on from the Chaloner case to other, more deadly detective work.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.