Glory or Gravity? | History Today - 11 minutes read
Thanks to funding from the football pools, Eduardo Paolozzi’s massive bronze statue of Isaac Newton looms over the courtyard of the British Library. Soon after it was unveiled in 1995, complaints began pouring in. Some were essentially toilet-humour, but protesters also objected that Paolozzi’s technological giant deliberately echoed a striking print by William Blake, who – rightly or wrongly – has gained a reputation of being hostile to Newton. Blake’s naked, muscular Newton appears to be sitting underwater on a rock while he confines God’s created world within a geometrical diagram. Despite the ambiguities of this depiction, staunch Newtonians resented any whiff of criticism being directed towards the man celebrated as the nation’s greatest scientific genius.
Newton’s entire life is shrouded in legend, making it hard to recognise that he has not always been universally admired. During the 18th century, while Blake was growing up, Newton’s superhuman status had not yet been established. Looking back, it can feel as if Newton were destined from birth to revolutionise the cosmos, but for many of his contemporaries he was an eccentric academic with a foul temper. Even the famous anecdote about being inspired by a falling apple only became popular a century after his death. Newton was in the process of being elevated to his pedestal and only the most optimistic of fans could have foreseen that, a quarter of a millennium later, he would still be remembered for Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687).
For decades after its publication, sceptics savaged Newton’s theories on several grounds. Contrary to common belief, there was no overnight conversion to his notion that gravity extends out ineluctably through empty space. Even the most dedicated of Newton’s followers repeatedly chipped away at his original formulation, which was very different from the version of Newtonian physics in use today. Yet at the same time, they boosted his reputation with almost religious fervour: as well as successfully concealing awkward evidence that might detract from his magnificence, such as his obsessive alchemical research or his unorthodox theological beliefs, they also seized every opportunity to advertise his achievements and suppress opposing voices.
Unlike Blake, the artist William Hogarth was unambiguously a Newtonian devotee who included several subtle references in his pictures. In one of his conversation pieces, The Indian Emperor, a marble bust of Newton stares out into space from the mantelpiece while a royal governess bids her daughter pick up a fan that gravity has pulled down to the floor. More surprisingly, Hogarth also campaigned for Newton in a small etching designed as the frontispiece of a pamphlet about Hebrew points, those small marks added as guides to meaning and pronunciation. The artist’s verbal pun – ‘Frontis-Piss’ – reinforced his visual joke about the stream of liquid cascading down from a witch perched on the moon to drench a swarm of rats, while leaving unscathed Newton’s telescope and Principia.
Satires are historically valuable because they reveal events as they are unfolding. At the time, nobody knew what lay ahead – but, unlike now, it made sense to feature Newton in the context of Hebrew punctuation. One loyal Newtonian wrote to a colleague explaining Hogarth’s imagery by describing how the cabbalistic disciples of ‘the old black Diogenes Hutchinson [were] a parcel of rats …gnawing Sir Isaac’s books … and above, Mother Mid-night drowns ’em in a deluge’. That comment was presumably immediately comprehensible to its recipient, but now requires some unravelling.
Hutchinson vs Newton
There were several Greek philosophers called Diogenes, but the one from Apollonia who flourished during the fifth century BC insisted on the primacy of air, which was – along with fire, earth and water – one of the fundamental elements making up the terrestrial sphere of the Aristotelian universe. Air, Diogenes believed, was intelligent and the source of all life, a creed that in the eyes of Newtonians and other cynics made him a natural precursor of John Hutchinson (1674-1737), one of Newton’s most belligerent adversaries. After his death, a small coterie of like-minded allies circulated letters in a clandestine correspondence network to form a fierce anti-Newtonian sect. The influence of the Hutchinsonians lasted into the 19th century.
Newton never saw Hogarth’s mocking image, but he was still alive in 1724 when Hutchinson, an avid but idiosyncratic fossil collector, published a hatchet job with a deliberately provocative title – Moses’s Principia, shown in Hogarth’s etching lying to the left of Newton’s own Principia. Like other religious critics – Bishop Berkeley, for instance – Hutchinson condemned the use of mathematics for deciphering God’s laws, accusing Newton of having woven a ‘Cobweb of Circles and Lines to catch Flies in’. According to Hutchinson, Newton approached knowledge the wrong way round: instead of trying to learn about God by measuring the world, he should peruse the Bible for its concealed information about nature. Divine truth, insisted Hutchinson, could only be derived by retrieving and studying the original unpointed Hebrew version of the Bible, which had been directly dictated by God before being corrupted over the centuries by translators and interpreters. Although he has now been airbrushed out of history, Hutchinson was sufficiently prominent for Hogarth to be confident that his caricature would be understood.
While Blake was never one of Hutchinson’s followers, they both tried to perpetuate an older, mystical view of language that was under challenge from the philosopher John Locke and his scientific followers in London’s Royal Society. As Blake put it contemptuously: ‘The Horse of Intellect is leaping from the cliffs of Memory and Reasoning … it is also called the Barren Waste of Locke and Newton.’ Locke insisted that words have no intrinsic meaning in themselves, but are merely symbols settled upon by common consent. For example, the label you give to a lump of shiny metal is irrelevant provided that everybody agrees to describe it with the arbitrary label gold: no essence of goldness is captured within those four letters.
In contrast, Hutchinson emphasised the metaphorical and spiritual resonances of terms such as light, whose significance shimmers between the beams emanating from the physical sun, human understanding and the divine illumination shining out from the fountainhead of God. Glory was similarly multivalent, denoting simultaneously the magnificence of God’s splendour and the power He exerts over the world, both physical and divine. An expert in both linguistics and theology, Hutchinson reinterpreted biblical texts by removing the patina of points that had accumulated over repeated renditions. The results of his research reached wider audiences through the renowned Hebrew lexicon compiled by John Parkhurst, a Cambridge specialist who tried to make the results of scientific experiments compatible with scriptural texts.
Hutchinson and Newton were both devout religious scholars who believed that questions about the natural world and about God were inextricably linked. Even so, they reached diametrically opposed conclusions. As if preaching from a pulpit, Hutchinson proclaimed that ‘the Heathens may take back their Idols of Projection, Attraction, Gravity, Elasticity, &c.’. Instead, he envisaged the glory of God pervading and controlling the universe as a sort of divine energy operating an immense perpetual motion machine driven from the sun by three circulating fluids – fire, light and spirit – analogous to the Holy Trinity.
In Hutchinson’s view, Newton doubly sinned by dissecting the universe mathematically and by adopting Arianism, a heretical doctrine that denied the three-part nature of God and the divinity of Christ.
Hutchinson died after injuring himself on a horse in Hyde Park, but his remaining papers were published under the title Glory or Gravity. His convoluted prose was pretty impenetrable, but a small group of Hutchinsonians explained his ideas more clearly; collectively, their works influenced the followers of John Wesley and helped to consolidate High Church Anglicanism under a Tory monarch. Their major strongholds were in Edinburgh and the University of Oxford, where prominent members included the provost of Oriel College and the future Bishop of Norwich. Although prudently denying their allegiance to Hutchinson, this covert coterie disseminated anti-Newtonian propaganda that eventually found its way into the Encyclopædia Britannica. In the face of their well-founded criticisms, even self-professed Newtonians were forced to modify their ideas, so that Newtonianism diversified rather than retaining any unique identity. A hundred years after his death, Newton would have strongly objected to some of the concepts being circulated under his name.
The most systematic Hutchinsonian author was William Jones, an Oriel graduate and curate of Nayland, a small village in Suffolk. Writing to a fellow closet Hutchinsonian, Jones boasted smugly about his subversive success: ‘Gentlemen of the Newtonian side … begin to be alarmed about me at Cambridge, & are putting people on their guard.’ A pamphlet ally of Edmund Burke, Jones’ bills for mathematical instruments were picked up by the Tory Earl of Bute. Like other High Church Trinitarians, he repudiated the value of reason for deciphering God’s creation, arguing that human beings could not fathom that divine mystery from their limited vantage point. In one of his books on natural philosophy, Jones articulated the fundamental impossibility of scientific certainty: ‘An experiment in nature, like a text in the Bible, is capable of different interpretations, according to the preconceptions of the experimenter.’ He also published successful theological works and played a significant role in the London-based Hackney Phalanx, a Tory High Church charitable organisation.
Hogarth had shown the Hutchinsonian rats being washed away in a deluge, but their objections to Newton’s concept of gravity had a long-lasting effect. Jones’ most ingenious rhetorical strategy was to compile an imaginary conversation made up of extracts from eminent Newtonians that blatantly contradicted each other. ‘Gravity is the most simple of causes’, says one – yet others maintain that it is not a cause but an effect. The final interlocutor clinches the Newtonians’ self-destruction by pronouncing that ‘attraction will always be occult’, the ultimate insult for a theory claiming to be rational and open to experimental testing. Newtonian reviewers could only retaliate by spluttering vacuous protests that any model constructed without Newtonian building blocks ‘is absolutely wrong’.
Into the æther
The nature of gravity remained an intractable problem until the early 20th century, largely because the notion that objects are endowed with an active gravitational power flatly contradicts traditional Christian doctrine. The conventional two-tiered universe contained inert, brute matter that was totally different from any sort of spirit or life bestowed by God. Just as billiard balls remained stationary on the baize until nudged by a human-held cue, so too an apple or an atom or the sun was incapable of exerting an attractive force. Stuff and spirit were fundamentally different: things were unable to think or to act independently. Many self styled Newtonians agreed with the Hutchinsonians that attributing power to matter would lead straight to atheism.
Heavily troubled by this impasse, Newton put forward a tentative solution, cleverly disguising it as a question at the end of his book about optics rather than setting it out as a firm assertion in his Latin book on gravity. Let us suppose, he wrote cautiously, that a giant invisible cloud swirls through apparently empty space transmitting gravity rather like air carries sound. This hypothetical spirit or æther was, he proposed, composed of minute particles that repelled each other but attracted the atoms of ordinary matter. Although they were impossible to weigh, see or smell, their presence could explain how the universe is tied together.
For well over 100 years, committed Newtonians pursued this undetectable æther that would vindicate the mathematics of gravity by giving it physical reality. Postulating that it might be affected by the earth’s rotation, they set up delicate experiments in the hope of forcing it to reveal its existence. They only began abandoning the æther after 1905, when Albert Einstein rewrote the laws of physics to show that this hypothetical entity was unnecessary for explaining how gravity works. What fun Hogarth might have had with such a conveniently untraceable substance.
Patricia Fara is an Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Her most recent book is Life after Gravity: The London Career of Isaac Newton (2021).
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