Isaac Newton was a profoundly strange man.
Even when one accounts for his enduring greatness—and the truly great are often truly strange—Newton’s strangeness is of a class of its own.
Some time in 1665 or 1666 Newton decided he wanted to know how the human eye processes light, and what the anatomy of the eye has to do with how we perceive light. Always a meticulous taker of notes—but with a propensity to promptly lose them—Newton wrote down what he did next: “I took a bodkin and put it between my eye and the bone as near to the backside of my eye as I could. And pressing my eye with the end of it so as to make the curvature in my eye, there appeared several white, dark and coloured circles.”
A bodkin is a thick, long needle with a sharp point, not unsimilar to knitting needles, and Newton, one of the most brilliant men of that or any other age, thought nothing of shoving this between his eyeball and socket and giving it a good wiggle.
Newton, who was unharmed by this probing, would eventually use the results of this experiment and several others to write and publish his second great book Opticks in 1704. Opticks along with the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica—affectionately called the Principia by nearly everybody but the most repulsive bores—unleashed a new era in human enquiry. The Principia, in particular, is astonishing in scope. As one scientist has explained it, the Principia seeks to explain how everything from a “pea on a plate to the planet Pluto” moves.
For many scientists, philosophers and thinkers, Newton’s publishing of the Principia was like finding the lost instruction manual to how much of the universe operates. In giving us the fundamental laws of motion and the concept of gravity, the Principia told us how everything, especially the planets, moves. While Newton remained a deeply religious man—though in ways that much of mainstream religion frowned upon—his work in the Principia, in a sense, set science and religion on divergent paths which have since never crossed, and only grown farther apart with each discovery.
Yet, the bulk of Newton’s scientific output had nothing to do with the things he is most remembered for—optics, gravity or calculus. Instead, Newton spent years upon years investigating the most arcane, pseudoscientific theology and alchemy. He wrote books and papers on interpretations of the Bible, the end of the world, and errors in biblical interpretation.
His notes and papers suggest prolonged alchemical investigations into things such as the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life.
How, then, does one even begin to understand Newton? What are the roots of this erratic brilliance? How do you solve a problem like Isaac?
Grantham is almost exactly 1 hour by train north of London, some 180km away in beautiful Lincolnshire county. I had never heard of Grantham before. But many people, I was later told, live in Grantham and work in London, thanks to the excellent train connectivity.
There is also, it turns out, much more to Grantham than just idyllic suburban living and low real estate prices.
The British Isles are typically dense with history. A king has slept in every village, a battle has been fought in every valley, and there’s a Nazi bomb crater in every backyard. Grantham, however, is extraordinarily gifted history-wise.
According to some records, The Angel and Royal pub (now called the Best Western Angel & Royal Hotel) on the high street is the oldest continuously functioning public drinking house in England, opened some 800 years ago. The first diesel engine in the world was made in Grantham in 1892. The first female police officer in England with the power of arrest was Grantham girl Edith Smith in 1915.
Helping me make sense of all this local history, and of Newton’s brief but important stay in Grantham, are John Down and Jayne Robb. Robb runs the local Grantham Museum while Down is something of a local historian and the local point person when it comes to dealing with all matters Newtonian.
The museum and town centre are a brief 7-minute walk from the Grantham railway station. I stride out of the station and turn left through a pedestrian walkway that somehow smells of good quality chorizo. I would have preferred to first visit Woolsthorpe Manor, around 13km from Grantham. This is the house where Newton was born in 1642. But the manor and visitor centre close every October till summer. So I decided, instead, to come straight to Grantham where—oh the delight—the temperature is just one degree above zero. After all, this is where Newton went to school, and this might be where the seeds of his brilliance and strangeness were first planted in him.
A few days before I arrived, I had sent an email to the enquiry address on the Grantham Museum. Down later wrote back and offered to meet me at the museum. I arrive 40 minutes before, and pop into a Costa Coffee outlet for a warming cup of tea. When I exit, I realize that the coffee shop is attached to the Isaac Newton Shopping Centre (brand logo: an apple).
Grantham seems to have weathered recent economic troubles better than most small cities and towns in the UK. Yes, the coffee shops are manned by English people—a sure shot sign of local economic sluggishness—but the high street seems safe, so far, from the betting shops and fried chicken outlets that seem to proliferate in some of the UK’s more unfortunate cities and towns.
“Being so close to London has helped the local economy,” Down tells me as we sit on sofas by the tiny museum café.
Down is a short, compact man with calm, intelligent eyes that seem to thoroughly process everything I say. He is a mechanical engineer originally from Leeds who settled down in Grantham 30 years ago.
Two years ago, when the UK economy stood on the precipice, the local administration decided to shut down Grantham Museum and save money, local volunteers went up in arms. Eventually, some 200 of them mobilized to keep the museum running and find new sources of funds. These efforts culminated in the first Gravity Fields Festival held in Grantham in September. The festival comprised a series of lectures, shows and cultural events to mark the town’s most famous son: Isaac Newton. Thanks to his engineering background, Down was one of the people who helped brush up the locals on their Newton’s laws.
For about five years, from the age of 12 to about 17, Newton studied at The King’s School, a short walk from the museum. It is here, I suspect, that Newton first ran up against a number of formative influences.
First of all, there was the schoolyard bullying. Newton was perhaps more susceptible to this than other children, thanks to a condition that Robb is almost certain he suffered from.
Robb is one of those 200 volunteers and the museum’s only full-time employee. A bundle of energy and an unabashed Newton evangelist, Robb suggests Newton’s strangeness was rooted in a medical disorder: Asperger’s syndrome.
There is now a growing consensus that Newton may have suffered from this form of autism, and Robb, who has a master’s degree in autism, believes that this explains so much of his unique personality: “Autistic children tend to have poor social skills, they love solving problems and can spend hours focusing on small details. They often have trouble with sexual relations.” (Newton never married, and probably never had any relationships. There are unsubstantiated rumours that he may have been engaged for a while.)
Before I have a look around the museum, Robb, Down and I spend many minutes having a freewheeling chat about Newton and his legacy. We do this in front of a glass case with a standing model of a man inside. The man is unmistakably Newton. He is one of a select group of scientists that includes Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking who are instantly recognizable. In Newton’s case, this is probably due to the luxuriant wig and the long, almost beak-like, nose.
The mannequin holds an apple in one hand and a walking stick in the other. At his feet are another apple…and a fluffy white cat doll.
Robb noticed my puzzled look. “Did you know Newton also invented the cat flap? He did that when he was living on his farm at Woolsthorpe.”
Newton grew up in a prosperous agricultural family that seemed to have done well for itself. His house, Woolsthorpe Manor, is the kind of building that would easily house a decent-sized bed and breakfast. Newton’s father died before he was born and his mother would later remarry and move away, leaving little Newton in the care of his grandparents. Newton is believed to have maintained a deep dislike for his stepfather, a priest. When he was 12, Newton moved to Grantham for his schooling. He stayed with a William Clarke, a prominent townsman and the town apothecary.
Who knows? Perhaps it was watching Clarke mix and make potions that first sparked Newton’s later fascination with alchemy.
Inside one display case at the Grantham Museum are a number of Newton memorabilia. The most important object—and the most expensive in the museum’s holdings—is a third edition of the Principia. Next to this is a plaster cast of a carving from the school that reads “I. Newton”. Nobody knows if this is authentic. But it was customary for students to carve their names into school furniture. Newton’s name appears in several locations all over the school.
After my museum visit, Down takes me on a walking tour of Grantham. We walk up to the parish church of St Wulfram’s with its towering spire. The school sits right across a narrow road from the church. Newton no doubt peered out at the church and the spire every day he went to school.
“Maybe this is what made him such a religious man,” suggests Down. Maybe. And maybe it was his deep disdain for his priest stepfather that made Newton so sceptical of traditional Christian views. For instance, while Newton was a devoted reader of the Bible, he was a monotheist who rejected the established idea of the holy trinity—the idea that God existed as father, son and holy spirit.
Yet, ironically, in June 1661, Newton was admitted to Trinity College in Cambridge. By all accounts he was not a particularly distinguished student to begin with.
Cambridge, like Grantham, is a comfortable 1-hour train ride from London. And it is a trip well worth making. This is one of the great university towns of the world. It is virtually impossible to find something in Cambridge’s illustrious history that will not excite the visitor. The electron was discovered here. So was hydrogen and electromagnetism. The structure of DNA was unravelled here. Graduates of Cambridge have won over five dozen Nobel prizes.
Still unimpressed? Then go for the beautiful scenery, the beautiful, young people, the good food, the culture and the bookshops. Just go.
I went earlier this month. And marched off straight away to Trinity College. There I asked one of the hatted “porters”—think more butler and less Citu (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) operative—to show me all the “Newton” places.
First, he escorted me right out of the main gates and pointed at a bay window on the left side of the gate as you enter. In front of the window, there is a small lawn with a tree in it.
This window, the porter told me, is part of the original rooms in which Newton lived. The tree outside is a direct descendant of the apple tree in Woolsthorpe. The same tree that gave Newton one of his great moments of epiphany (there is yet another descendant of this tree inside The King’s School compound in Grantham. The original at Woolsthorpe Manor no longer exists after being damaged in a storm). But because neither the window nor the tree is marked with plaques, most tourists walk by oblivious.
Much of Trinity College is closed to visitors. Except, thankfully, for the college chapel and the Wren Library.
The chapel is divided into two parts. The first is an ante-chapel with statues of prominent alumni, and the second is the chapel itself that houses the seats and the lectern. Newton’s statue, without the exuberant wig, is the tallest and most spectacular in the ante-chapel.
Reaching the library involved exiting out of the college quadrangle and walking back around the entire complex. Inside the library, there is a display case with Newton’s walking stick, a lock of his hair, and his personal copy of the first edition of the Principia.
On the way out of the library, I stop for a moment and look out. It is quite spectacular. The river Cam, a narrow strip of water pockmarked by the light drizzle, winds through the campus. Trees, leafless and wintry, wait patiently for better weather.
I am reminded of something a tourist guide told me during a previous visit to Cambridge: “There are two types of people who come to Cambridge: People who study there, and people who wish they had.”
Due to this, some of Newton’s brightest work, however, happened not during his stay in Cambridge but during a brief two-year interregnum back at Woolsthorpe.
This period was arguably the most fecund in Newton’s thinking life. When he came back to Cambridge in 1667, Newton was ready to publish some of his most important work on optics and gravity.
Over the next 30 years or so Newton not only bloomed as a remarkably productive scientist but also as an eccentric. He made enemies of many other scientists and got into a heated rivalry with German scientist Gottfried Leibniz over who invented calculus first. But, in any case, by the end of the 17th century, he was the pre-eminent scientist on the continent.
Newton would play two more roles in his career. The first, as a member of parliament, was utterly unremarkable. The second, as master of the mint, was more impactful. This job, as overseer of all coinage, was supposed to be a perfunctory one—reserved for important people in their old age. Newton took to it with typical enthusiasm. So intent was he on catching counterfeiters that Newton went undercover in London’s seedy pubs and bars to trace shady money.
By the time Newton died in 1727 in Winchester, where he lived with a beloved niece, he had greatly diverted his talents towards occult topics and biblical interpretation. But he had left much of this work unpublished for fear, no doubt, of ridicule.
Utter strangeness notwithstanding, Newton had changed the way man saw his own world.
Back in Grantham, Robb is already planning the next Gravity Fields Festival in 2014. “Please tell everybody to come,” she tells me. “There is so much more to this man than just an apple falling from a tree.”