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Newton's War

June 28, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 26

NEWTON'S DARKNESS: Two Dramatic Views , by Carl Djerassi and David Pinner, Imperial College Press, 2003, 184 pages, $15 (paperback), (ISBN 1-86094-390-X)

Almost everyone knows about Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727), the great scientist who discovered the laws of motion, calculus, and the law of gravity. But few people know about Newton the fascinating and flawed man.

Newton carried on bitter lifelong feuds with two other scientists, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz, over credit for the discovery of the law of gravity and of calculus. Yet he maintained warm friendships with many of the most famous figures of his time, including philosopher John Locke, diarist Samuel Pepys, architect Christopher Wren, and astronomer-mathematician Edmond Halley.

During his years at the University of Cambridge, Newton was a quintessential loner and the prototype of the absentminded professor. However, during the second half of his life he became an able government administrator, member of Parliament, and famous public man. His investigation of optics and his articulation of the laws of motion precipitated a scientific revolution. Yet he experimented with alchemy for many years, even though it was already in disrepute.

Perhaps more is known about Newton than any other historical figure in science. He wrote an estimated 4 million words, much of it on theology, but only about 1 million words on scientific and mathematical subjects. There are many firsthand accounts from people who knew him at different stages in his life. Despite this wealth of material, or perhaps because of it, interpretations of his life and work vary considerably.

One of the newest of these interpretations is depicted in "Newton's Darkness: Two Dramatic Views." This book is actually a pair of plays: "Calculus (Newton's Whores)," by Carl Djerassi, and "Newton's Hooke," by David Pinner. As the overall title indicates, these plays focus on Newton's more dubious side. Djerassi and Pinner both present Newton as a great man of science and as a human being, a person stimulated by discovery and thrilled by recognition but someone who is also simultaneously confident and insecure, arrogant, manipulative, and downright unethical.

Djerassi, a Stanford University emeritus chemistry professor, is one of the great chemists of our time. He has devoted his creative life over the past 20 years to writing novels, plays, poetry, and memoirs. He has endeavored to humanize scientists and explain science to the general public through a genre he calls science-in-fiction, as opposed to science fiction. His stated purpose is to "smuggle" science to the public. He strives to explain science, scientists, and their behavior by dealing with difficult questions, such as: What is discovery in science? Why does it matter for a scientist to be first?

Djerassi's writing is used to promote science literacy. I make a distinction between scientific literacy, or knowledge of a particular field, and science literacy, which refers to a broad appreciation and understanding of science and its practitioners. Science literacy is an understanding of what science is capable of achieving and, more important, what it cannot achieve. Science literacy enlightens and enables people to make informed choices; to be skeptical; to reject shams, quackery, unproven conjecture; and to avoid being bamboozled into making foolish decisions. Science literacy is enhanced through art, when science and scientists are presented in ways that show both the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful dimensions of science and of human nature.

The plays in "Newton's Darkness," in fact, have contributed to my own science literacy. When I learned calculus as a student, I was vaguely aware of the conflicting claims to its invention. But they didn't seem important. I had no idea of the extent of Newton's involvement in the conflict, which is driven home so forcefully by these plays. Knowing how much the discovery meant to the people involved has underscored for me the importance of the discovery itself and what it has meant to science.

Portrait of Isaac Newton, painted in 1702 by Godfrey Kneller, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Portrait of Isaac Newton, painted in 1702 by Godfrey Kneller, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Pinner also combines art and science. His son Dickon is a physicist, and he credits Dickon with the idea for a play about Newton and Hooke and for guidance in writing it. Pinner is a veteran British actor, director, novelist, and playwright, who has been visiting associate professor of drama at Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y., for the past 10 years. He has had 18 plays produced on stage and many more on radio and television.

In their introduction to "Newton's Darkness," Djerassi and Pinner say dialogue is the most human form of discourse, and the fictional conversations in the plays demonstrate the advantage of dramatic license that the playwright has over the biographer. The ego-rooted rivalries between Newton and Leibniz and between Newton and Hooke are exposed through thunderous exchanges full of deception, hubris, coyness, and manipulation that cast darkness on Newton the man, but not on his science.

Newton's story is a perfect vehicle to depict a political side of science. The dispute between Newton and Leibniz was carried out mostly by proxies, with Newton's supporters determined to claim the glory for England rather than have it fall to Germany. Most biographers agree that Newton and Leibniz developed calculus simultaneously and independently, and it's clear that Newton acted unethically in claiming sole credit. As president of the Royal Society, Newton not only stacked an investigating committee with his supporters, he wrote the committee's report!

Djerassi and Pinner thus see a deeper, universal moral dilemma. In "Calculus," Djerassi uses a play-within-a-play structure. His "playwright," Scottish physician and author John Arbuthnot, a Newton contemporary, says: "What purpose is served by showing that England's greatest natural philosopher is flawed? We need unsullied heroes." But as Djerassi and Pinner state in the introduction: "At stake is an issue that is as germane today as it was 300 years ago: A scientist's ethics must not be divorced from scientific achievements."

In "Newton's Hooke," Pinner has Hooke confront Newton over an alleged affair between Newton's beautiful niece, Catherine Barton, and Charles Montague. Barton served as Newton's housekeeper and hostess in his later years, while Montague got Newton his appointment as director of the king's mint. Hooke claims Newton knew of the affair, which was carried on in Newton's own house. He accuses Newton of a great hypocrisy, given Newton's Puritan morality. However, some biographers contend that Barton and Montague's relationship was platonic and point out that Montague obtained the appointment for Newton before he met Barton.

The plays depict Newton as a real person wrestling with his shortcomings and inconsistencies. Using more dramatic license, Pinner has Newton tell his niece, "Robert [Hooke] found a kind of peace here--in that he ... sees each and every person as an individual and as a light in themselves. Whereas, tragically, I see more humanity in the mountains of the moon than in mankind."

The "great man" approach to history confers a sort of secular sainthood on towering figures like Newton, stripping them of their humanity and robbing the rest of us of role models. In the same way, too many people see scientists as a sort of separate race whose activities are incomprehensible to everyone else. But if scientists are seen as real human beings, perhaps the science will seem a little less daunting.

Newton did not invent the concept of gravity when an apple supposedly landed on his head. Newton himself told the story of starting to think about gravity while sitting in an orchard and seeing an apple fall from a tree. The fellows of the Royal Society discussed gravity at great length though. Hooke admitted he didn't have the mathematics to prove the law of gravity and challenged Newton to tackle the problem. Later, Hooke claimed he had discovered the law of gravity, along with several other bogus claims of discovery. So Newton's bitterness toward Hooke was not entirely misplaced.

Science is collaborative, even in the case of a lone genius. Newton coined the phrase, "We stand on the shoulders of giants," though this may also have been a slight to Hooke, who was short.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Newton's discoveries changed the world. Calculus allowed Halley to determine the orbits of comets and predict their return, robbing them of the awe and terror they had inspired. Romantics of the 19th century, revolting against what they saw as "cold rationality," denounced Newton for explaining some of the great mysteries of the universe and robbing them of their power.

Newton's laws inspired the search for laws in other fields. For example, the birth of the science of economics was based on the collection of data such as population, national income, shipping tonnage, and coinage in circulation. By 1776, the Age of Reason was in full flower and the Declaration of Independence of the American colonies justified revolution by calling on "Nature's Laws." It's no wonder that scores of biographies of Newton have been written and more appear every year. Yet these plays still offer new insights into his character and the nature of science.

I highly recommend reading "Newton's Darkness: Two Dramatic Views." Or better yet, go see the plays. I saw "Calculus" last year in San Francisco and was captivated by the spirited dialogue and by the forceful portrayal of each character by professional actors. While there is much to be gained by reading a play, seeing it has a much greater impact. I urge everyone, particularly members of the American Chemical Society, to encourage the presentation of these two plays and Djerassi's other plays on college campuses and by local theater groups ( There is hardly a better way to promote science literacy than through the mingling of science and art, as accomplished in these plays.

Bassam Z. Shakhashiri is a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he holds the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea and directs the Initiative for Science Literacy. His annual "Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri" is in its 35th year and is presented on PBS and cable stations (


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