Monday, September 10, 2007

Sir Isaac Newton: A French Perspective

Isaac Newton’s first great work appeared in 1687—on Halley’s dime—under the title Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Its success was almost immediate, thanks to faithful Halley’s aggressive propaganda. The book was not an easy read, however, and Newton, who held most mere mortals in utter contempt, claimed he had intentionally overcomplicated his demonstrations to make his theory accessible only to a handful of experts. He perhaps did so, as well, as a slight to Robert Hooke, who, though hardly partial to mathematics, had also claimed to have discovered gravity. Such a claim outraged the irascible Isaac, who had nearly avoided publishing anything at all; Newton made himself the bane of Hooke’s existence until the latter’s death in 1703. The genius could prove to be as petty as he was cruel: appointed warden of the Royal Mint, Newton sent to the galleys and gallows every counterfeiter he could get his hands on. Ennobled in 1703, then president of the Royal Society and later a member of Parliament, the former hermit polished up his image, surrounded himself with a court of admirers, offered portraits of himself to his guests and directed all his bile towards poor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The latter, a great mathematician of German origin, had made the mistake of publishing a method for calculating the infinitesimal without giving credit to Newton. This quarrel, too, only ended with Leibniz’s death in 1716. Sir Isaac Newton loved no one but his mother, the only person who had access to his rare displays of affection. He died a virgin in 1727.

Mapping The Sky
Leïla Haddad & Alain Cirou

(Originally published in France
by Éditions du Seuil / Association française d’Astronomie)

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