Learning and Teaching

Private Scholar & Public Servant

Work by Hand & Brain

Calculation and Controversy

Glory and Gravity

Making Sense of Motion

From Library to Laboratory

Duty and Dominion

Footprints of the Lion

Cambridge Unviersity Library

Previous Exhibitions

Newton lectures

Opening times and map


A little before his death, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is supposed to have remarked,

'I don't know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.'

Newton's image of his life's work as a form of childish play was a powerful and enduring one. Along with many of the other tales that collected about him when he was an old man, this saying used personal modesty and understatement as a means to bring home the magnitude of Newton's achievements. It suggested that they were somehow the natural products of genius rather than the fruit of hard mental, and sometimes physical, labour. Another example of this kind of story is the apocryphal account of the fall of an apple in the garden of Newton's family home in Lincolnshire. It again hints that Newton was not like other men and that he possessed a remarkable, intuitive understanding of nature and its laws.

This exhibition has several purposes. The first is to provide an opportunity to display some items that the University Library has recently acquired from the Macclesfield Collection, which was the last major holding of Newton's manuscripts and papers to remain in private hands. A more important aim, however, has been to show the way in which this acquisition complements existing collections in Cambridge libraries and thus how it can help us to understand Isaac Newton. Newton's life, thought, and publications have frequently been written about; the intention of this exhibition is not only to discuss his work but also to examine how he worked.

Anecdotes about picking up pebbles on a beach or watching apples fall from trees were designed in part to obscure the endeavour required for Newton's discoveries. They distanced his ideas from criticism by taking them into the realm of inspiration rather than showing how they developed as a result of tenacity and sustained effort in the face of a problem. The stories of Newton's genius paradoxically conceal what it was that he achieved by removing it from any human context.

In order to appreciate Newton's originality and the success of his ideas, it becomes necessary to discover how he came to formulate his thoughts and how he provided proof to his contemporaries that his strange ideas were so often right. This involves removing him from the world of myth, into which his followers assiduously tried to introduce him and where he clearly felt at home by the end of his career. By placing Newton instead in the world of work, it is possible to see how he became a mathematician and natural philosopher through reading and practice, and how, once he had become one, he exceeded the bounds of all but a handful of his contemporaries, through the diversity of his interests as well as the determination with which he pursued them.

In one sense, at least, the anecdotes about Newton may be right. In his early career, Newton's working environment was unusually solitary. Later in life, once he had become both a public figure and a servant of the state, Newton had a reasonably wide circle of acquaintance. He became an attraction sought out by intellectual tourists and curious laymen in a way that had been inconceivable when he was a Cambridge don incapable of holding an audience in his lectures. As a young man, however, Newton knew few people even in the small town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, where he grew up, or the large village of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied and worked.

Newton initially discovered a world not by exploration or from travellers' tales but through reading and the emulation and extension of what he read. His first, great master was René Descartes and he only emerged from the Frenchman's shadow once he was past his fortieth birthday. Yet the pattern of Newton's reading changed as he grew older. At first, he studied a small number of mathematical and philosophical works very intently. What prompted him to do so is unclear, but the depth of thought that he applied took him further than the conclusions of his authors, although not at first beyond their assumptions. Later, partly as a result of being able to afford more books, he seems almost to have developed the habit of trying to read himself out of any problem that confronted him. This was certainly true of his approach to the theological issues that puzzled him and in many ways it also represented his first entrance into chemical experiment. By the 1690s, he even seemed to be searching for the elusive cause of gravity in the writings of the earliest philosophers.

It would be a mistake to assume that Newton was simply bookish, despite the role that books played in his life. Many of his experiments and observations may have begun life in his reading but it was his outstanding ability at the manipulation of glass prisms and lenses and of metal mirrors that made them a fruitful means of philosophical investigation. More than that, Newton was committed to writing as an active pursuit that helped him to solve questions rather than merely to publish books. Writing introduced Newton to a wider world, through the first correspondence that he developed with John Collins from 1669. But as well as providing new opportunities, correspondence and publication eventually threatened Newton's independence. They promised constantly to pull him away into unproductive talk or controversy, and in the end they largely won him over to these pursuits.

Newton was too reticent ever to be the darling of a literary world, but he could defend his honour with unparalleled cunning and ferocity. Yet although publication helped to create Newton's fame, secrecy defended it. Newton consistently concealed his methods until they had produced definite results and hid his assumptions from investigation by others until they had proved that they could be trusted.

One of Newton's younger contemporaries, the Swiss mathematician Johann Bernoulli, once ruefully remarked that he could identify Newton's hand in a solution to a mathematical problem in the same way that he could identify a lion by its footprint. The traces that allow us to reconstruct part of Newton's world of work consist of the evidence that he left behind of his reading and writing, and through them of his methods and practices. Newton's manuscripts are often hard to interpret, not least because of the difficulty of determining their exact date and hence of understanding their relationship to each other. But they provide a sounder platform from which to regard him than the shifting sands of a mythical beach.

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