Three in one, and all alone

On Saturday I was in Cambridge, with the Cambridge Science Festival in full flow. I was there to be a panelist for an event called Can You Make A Difference? but during the afternoon I also took in the play Let Newton Be!, written by Craig Baxter and put on by the Menagerie Theatre Company in the lovely surroundings of Downing College and its Howard Theatre. Now, since representations of Newton are right up my street, it seems only sensible that I should share some comments.

The play was performed by three actors, each of whom portrayed different aspects of Newton as well as various other characters, including Newton’s college roommate, Halley, Leibniz and others. To quote from the play’s blurb online:

Using only the words of Newton, and those of his contemporaries, we see him as farm boy genius, secretive scholar and wiley politician.  Above all, here is Newton as a human being – unique, comical, and relentlessly driven by his own curiosity.

So, there were three Newtons with two functions. On the one hand, they represented Newton at different ages: the young Newton, ‘Isack’, was played by a woman (Kate Malyon), the middle-aged ‘Newton’ (William Finkenrath) and the established ‘Sir Isaac’ (David Meyer). On the other hand, they were intended to reveal different aspects of his personality: wonder, idealism and passion; dedication to work and the life of the scholar; and the public figure, mindful of his reputation. Because of this dual function, this had the effect of identifying particular traits or interests with different periods of Newton’s life, despite the fact that the three Newton’s were also speaking to each other as a means of depicting internal tensions and varying motives.

Apart from the introductory scene, the play was straightforwardly chronological. This, in theory, allowed the audience to understand that, for example, the young Newton could act as a sort of conscience to the old Newton, a reminder of his original interests and intentions. However, the words spoken – which came from Newton’s published works, letters to, from and about him and the biographical writings and notes collected by John Conduitt and William Stukeley (all available at the Newton Project here) – were not chronologically faithful. For those very familar with the sources, this became a little confusing and distracting – I’ll admit that I am not a typical audience member, but it did seem a little odd to have the mature speculations of the Queries in Opticks voiced by young ‘Isack’. It also, of course, obscured the fact that the early stories were recollections of the aged Newton, or old acquaintences of the now-famous man, rather than records of the boy himself.

Baxter’s Newton – as Patricia Fara pointed out in a discussion after the play – was, of course, a 21st-century Newton. The playwright was, in the tendency I reflected on in my post on Newton and alchemy, particularly interested in ‘revealing’ Newton as a man obsessed with alchemy and religion, often to the exclusion of his more obviously ‘scientific’ interests. Likewise, he presents what we would expect in terms of an analysis of a complex individual that reveals conflicts and angst – and we do expect our geniuses to be properly tortured, caught between grappling with life and being granted ecstatic glimpses of Truth. This is in obvious contrast to some earlier versions of Newton that preferred to depict him as an exemplar of virtues like patience, calmness and humility. One of my favourite parts of the play threw out a series of quotes from the early accounts of Newton, by friends and enemies, that completely contradicted each other: meek and mild? impatient of contradiction? We know which version we think more likely today! Certainly, it was good to have the net spread wide in terms of Newton’s work and to see a bit of real theology (Arius got a name check, and trinities were a theme for the whole production), some genuine quotes from alchemical manuscripts and an introduction to the philosophical discussions with Leibniz (actually in Samuel Bentley’s words, not Newton’s), as well as a brief guide to optics, fluxions and universal gravitation.

Fara was, as her book on Newton might suggest, particularly pleased that the play avoided the obvious myths and quotes. There were no shoulders of giants, no uneaten chicken, no boys on the seashore before oceans of truth, and no apple. However, in my view, removing these older tropes made the way for the kind of modern myth of genius outlined above. While Fara, and probably everyone in the audience, was glad that this was not the kind of play that tried to dramatise scientific work in made-up conversations, which can too easily seem contrived, the decision to have three actors who were principally versions of Newton made the brief appearances of other characters more or less disappear. Newton was, therefore, and as always, left as a man and his mind alone together.

Baxter admitted that his three Newtons were a means of dealing with the problem that we have all been left by the biographical accounts – how to account for the transformation of “the solitary, silent, thinking lad” into the Master of the Mint and the President of the Royal Society. His means of dealing with this problem only exacerbated it. The answer to Newton’s transformation has to be in his relationships with other people: friends, patrons and followers. Likewise, we need to understand their motivations in befriending, supporting and generally dealing with someone who was, surely, a fairly difficult man. Halley appeared, but only to be more or less ignored by Newton. The Earl of Halifax was mentioned as having got Newton the job at the Mint, but we are given no understanding of why he did this and whether he knew Newton personally. Fatio de Duillier did not appear at all, and nor did family members or young acolytes. These people and others were responsible for encouraging Newton and perhaps for making him desire a public life. Likewise there must have been more than the achievement of Principia to make them think that Newton would be an asset in London. Instead we are left with Newton, alone with his various selves, and are none the wiser as to how the scholar who wants to be left alone with his studies was transformed into the London gent whose conversation, just occasionally, passed close to wit.

About Rebekah Higgitt

Rebekah Higgitt completed a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London in 2004 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. She was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 2008 and 2013 and is now a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her research and publications have mainly focused on scientific institutions, scientific biography, history of science and the relationship between science, government and the public in 19th-century Britain. She became Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland in August 2020 and is currently also Acting Keeper of Science & Technology.
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26 Responses to Three in one, and all alone

  1. Jai Virdi says:

    The play is coming to Toronto next month and I’m actually excited for it! My department sponsored Craig Baxter’s play, “Re: Design,” about the correspondence between Darwin and Asa Grey, and it was pretty incredible.

    So, thanks for your review! Time to purchase my ticket 🙂

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Yes – definitely worth going to! I realise that I’ve not reviewed the production at all, which in some ways is a complement – it served the text well. I think the actors did a terrific job with both a complex text and a lot of on-stage business, and defining their different roles. The staging made use of the idea of threes (three screens, three wheeled-chair-type-thing, set of three boxes etc), and provided things for the actors to do that, for example, allowed one to be centred while the others were busy, or showed frenetic activity of the working (often hands-on) Newton, or helped shape scenes. That said, for a small stage it was sometimes a little too busy, and the three-wheeled-chair-type-thing (sometimes a wheel-chair, sometimes a lecturn, sometimes a laboratory etc) was a little tricksy. The actors had had to work really hard to make its use look simple, and sometimes it distracted them and the audience.

      Hope you enjoy it – would be good to hear your views! I hope I get a chance to catch the Darwin one someday.

  2. Thony C. says:

    Becky you mention something in passing that has puzzled and annoyed me for years. You write:

    Fara was, as her book on Newton might suggest, particularly pleased that the play avoided the obvious myths and quotes. There were no shoulders of giants, no uneaten chicken, no boys on the seashore before oceans of truth, and no apple.

    Now all modern books on Newton agree in claiming that the apple story is a myth, why? They usually say something along the lines of “modern historians believe that the apple story is a myth”. Who are these modern historians and why do they think this? I personally find that the apple story in its correct form is perfectly plausible and believable. Its source is the only two personal accounts of Newton as a private person by two people who knew him, Catherine Barton and William Stukeley, both claim Newton as the direct source of the story. According to them the young Newton was sitting in his garden in Grantham when he saw an apple fall to the ground. This led him to speculate whether to force that cause the apple to fall is the same as the force that prevents the moon from flying off at a tangent as it should according to the law of inertia. He then did the calculations and found that it wasn’t because the data he was using was incorrect; we know he did the calculations because they still exist. So why is the story a myth? It is exactly what is at the core of the universal theory of gravity and it’s also exactly the type of linear thinking that characterises scientific discovery. It is neither by nature a fantasy nor implausible so why reject it?

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      I just came across this great page on the different early versions of the story. You are right the the story originates with Newton, but it is also right to say that there is myth-making at work.

      1st myth: the old popular image of the apple falling on Newton’s head. ‘Nuff said there.

      2nd myth: the idea that he immediately did his calculations, and that existing manuscripts date to 1666 is, I think, wrong. I don’t have the references to hand at the moment, but it’s certainly not part of the story that Newton told the Conduitts, Stukeley or Pemberton.

      3rd myth: is the myth that was being created by Newton himself, making retrospective sense of events that happened over four decades before. I think most scholars think he was over-emphasising the completeness of the idea that came to him at this momement.

      Have a look at this page and the ones before, plus references, in Westfall’s biography of Newton. He seems convinced that “the story does not survive comparison with the record of his early work in mechanics”. I’m not going to argue!

    • James Sumner says:

      I agree with Becky on why most HoS scholars mistrust the apple story. It fits the pattern for “flash of inspiration” myths. There are plenty of later historical cases with better surviving documentary evidence (determination of the composition of water, conservation of energy, abolition of the cosmic aether, etc) where the “flash” turns out to have been messy, protracted and complicated. The work of condensing it down to a single simple point comes later – typically, I’d say, 5 to 50 years later, depending on the circs – when the significance of the achievement becomes clear in hindsight, and people start to demand inspiring stories and useful teaching aids.

      That said, the apple story does seem to provoke profound irritation, in a way that most inspiration/invention stories don’t. I can remember the exact circumstances in which I first heard a professional HoSer take a swipe at it. Simon Schaffer, Part 1B HPS lecture, some time around the end of 1996, halfway through a capsule biog of Newton: “This process was nothing to do with fruit.” It was as though he didn’t even want to be caught using the word “apple”.

      The chief reason for this special loathing is probably the obvious one: the story has become one of the field’s most overworked clichés. This is a shame because, as Thony points out, it’s a nice explanatory tool (as most invention/discovery myths are).

      Provided, that is, it’s used as originally intended. Thony describes the Conduitt (apple/moon) version, which is a beautiful demonstration of what was new in universal gravitation. The Stukeley version (apple and earth mutually attracting) is not so elegant, but does express the novelty. In popular sources, though, the story is routinely pruned back beyond the bare essentials: “Newton saw an apple falling from a tree and discovered gravity.” This version makes no sense, but has proved astonishingly durable – and probably springs unbidden into a lot of people’s minds when you say “I’m a historian of science.”

      • Will Thomas says:

        I’d like to reduce the apple question to: “was there a damn apple, or wasn’t there?” Thony’s point appeals to me, just because it seems like such a weird thing to make up, that even if “it all” didn’t come in a flash, that it at least prompted some line of thought to the point where the apple stood out in Newton’s memory. It seems to me that historians almost seem to have more of a stake in the apple not being there, than others do in it being there, because it makes us look more serious or something.

        That said, the symbol the AIP History Center sometimes uses used to bug me quite a bit.

      • Thony C. says:

        James’ reference to Simon Schaffer’s fruit aversion reminded me of the I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again Newton’s Diary sketch. James and Becky might just know what ISIRTA was but for Will’s benefit I will explain. ISIRTA was a legendary radio precursor of Monty Python’s Flying Circus staring amongst others John Cleese. I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue still much loved on BBC Radio 4 is a successor to ISIRTA and originally featured ex members of the ISIRTA cast. The sketch went as follows.

        Newton’s Diary:

        June 3rd “Today I sat under a plum tree, a plum fell on my head, did not discover the law of gravity”
        June 4th “Today I sat under a pear tree, a pear fell on my head, did not discover the law of gravity”
        June 5th “Today I sat under a cherry tree, a cherry fell on my head, did not discover the law of gravity”
        June 6th “Today I sat under a orange tree, a orange fell on my head, did not discover the law of gravity”
        June 7th “Today I sat under a banana tree, a banana fell on my head, did not discover the law of gravity”
        June 8th “Today I sat under a apple tree, an apple fell on my head, discovered the law of gravity”
        June 9th “Today I sat under a pomegranate tree, a pomegranate fell on my head, did not discover the law of gravity”
        June 10th “Today I sat under a pineapple tree, … (fade out)

    • Thony C. says:

      James and Will have perfectly encapsulated my feelings on the subject. It’s very clear that the version of the story that I had served up to me at primary school (some time before the second ice age) that Newton was hit on the head by a falling apple and discovered the law of gravity in a flash of brilliant or even genial inspirations is a myth and a load of old cobblers. However I feel that modern historians go too far in their total rejection of the idea that Newton was set on the trail that eventual led to his formulation of the universal law of gravity by watching an apple fall.

      All of my best ideas come in small bursts of inspiration, working them out can sometimes take years but there is almost always something that triggers the process and I don’t think that I’m unique in this.

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        If you read Fara, and others, the choice of apple does not seem quite such a weird thing to make up. It carries resonances most obviously with the apple and Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden (she says Milton is the first to associate this specifically with an apple, rather than any other fruit). There are also classical associations like Paris’s golden apple and Hercules’ tree with golden apples and serpent around the trunk. Perhaps most pertinently, she points to the conscious Englishness of the idea of a garden with apple trees (cider was the patriotic drink).

        Aside from such associations (to which Newton would not have been blind), to me it is, as James says, such a good explanatory tool that I can’t help feeling that Newton was, like Watt and others, making use of the story for just that reason. He must have told the story on more than one occasion – though only four decades or so after the event – to people who were not mathematicians themselves, and found it a particularly good way to explain the theory.

        Historians have also insisted on pointing out the story as a myth because it not only overemphasises the completeness of Newton’s idea in 1666, but also de-emphasises Newton’s debt to other scholars in developing his mathematics. Given the quarrel with Leibniz, Newton was always undoubtedly keen to make it look as if he developed his ideas early and alone.

        Historians rightly have a stake in questioning what has become a myth (even if it started with reality), because of these points and because it links so completely with all the other mythological Eureka moments. If this one provokes more irritation that others, this is only because of the simplistic version and because it is by far the best known. Remember that wood from “the true tree” went up in a Space Shuttle recently – and it is worth commenting on with the religious relic status of objects associated with the great men of science. I don’t think any of this is historians trying to look serious – it’s doing our job!

        Having said all that, I don’t think that historians totally reject the idea that an apple might have inspired Newton, setting of a (perhaps long) train of thought. Even Schaffer’s comment above, if remembered rightly by James, only says that the “process” of developing the theory of universal gravition had nothing to do with fruit. Likewise, Fara says “we can never know” about the apple, but for her (and me) it is the way that the story took off and has been used subsequently that is really interesting.

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        Something else that has just occurred to me – I think that when I’ve written about this in the past, and when reading about it in Fara, Yeo and others, it has always been “the apple story” not “the apple myth”. It has certainly not been rejected outright by historians, but it is a story that runs and runs….

      • Thony C. says:

        If you read Fara, and others, the choice of apple does not seem quite such a weird thing to make up. It carries resonances most obviously with the apple and Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden (she says Milton is the first to associate this specifically with an apple, rather than any other fruit). There are also classical associations like Paris’s golden apple and Hercules’ tree with golden apples and serpent around the trunk. Perhaps most pertinently, she points to the conscious Englishness of the idea of a garden with apple trees (cider was the patriotic drink).

        Apples can of course, and in the flow of history have, symbolize a whole universe of things some real and some abstract, however sometimes an apple is just a falling object.

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        Sometimes an apple is just an apple, but my point was that if it was just a story then there were good reasons why it would have taken the form that it did. We’ll never know. Perhaps Newton happened to see an apple – in a tree, in a bowl – and just thought about it falling. Perhaps he watched something far less poetic fall, but thought apple would sound better. Perhaps he made it up as a useful explanatory tool.

      • Thony C. says:

        and my point is that historians think round far too many corners. Why can’t Newton’s very simple, very realistic and totally plausible story be true, which after all is the simplest and least abstruse explanation?

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        For me, the simplest explanation is that the story is a story!

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        Final thought from me on this (probably). It has occurred to me again that the story could well have been created by the clever Mrs Conduitt. It makes sense to me that she would have been a better ‘science communicator’ than her uncle. The original version of the story is among John Conduitt’s papers but it is on a separate sheet and in Catherine’s handwriting. She was certainly in contact with Stukeley, Pemberton and Voltaire – the latter acknowledges her as a source. Stukeley says he got it directly from Newton, which could be a little embroidering of truth. Or who knows, perhaps Newton like Conduitt’s idea and started repeating it!

        Have I taken this too far?

      • Will Thomas says:

        Taken it too far? No, I think it’s all in good fun. To my mind, the key for history-writing is simply to state the original version of the story, the provenance of the story, and then to leave it at that. No one imagines the apple/no apple question can ever be solved.

        All this business about the symbolism of apples, and the role of Mrs. Conduitt, seems to me to be trying to place some sort of probability function on the reality of the apple story, and that by compounding circumstantial reasons why it could be simply a made-up legend, it nudges the probability closer to a “no apple” possibility. Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t, and maybe trying to weigh the probabilities is part of historians’ job and maybe it isn’t, but I think to Thony and me, once we get to this point the exercise starts to smack of “we doth protest too much”.

        Of course, I would view the John Ford, “when fact becomes legend, print the legend” as antithetical to the historian’s task!

        And, of course, examining the role of the apple story in history is fully legitimate as well.

      • Thony C. says:

        Whether you have taken it too far or not is of course a purely subjective judgement as long as you maintain that your proposal is purely speculative. If you were to start claiming, which I very much doubt that you would, that your version of events is in someway factual or correct then you would have taken it too far.

        On the subjective level you have actually produced a wonderful example of what I regard as a historian taking it too far by multiplying unnecessary hypotheses. What reason is there for believing that Stukeley was lying when he claimed that he had the story, which actually differs from the CB version, directly from Newton? None whatsoever! So why introduce this totally extraneous fantasy? The facts as we know them is that Newton, in his old age whilst reminiscing, told two similar versions of the same story to Stukeley and CB who both recorded it in their memories of Newton.

        One could just as easily and in my opinion implausibly say that CB had the story from Stukeley!

  3. James Sumner says:

    Some years ago, I came up with the not-altogether-serious concept for a playlet entitled The Triad of Galilei. This would have featured a Brechtian triumphalist proto-modern Galileo, a Mario Biagioli courtly wire-puller Galileo, and a Public Understanding of Science elementary-physics-concepts Galileo (represented, of course, as a female Johnny Ball enthusiast in a bad crêpe beard), stuck in a room and annoying each other for eternity. Development was halted at an early stage after Sam Alberti pointed out that I probably already knew everyone who would be remotely impressed by this, and that staging it would be more complicated than explaining it to them in the pub.

    Good to see the multiple-facets-through-multiple-representations device being put to more sensible and sustained use!

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      I love it! Please can we?! I’m prepared to do the crêpe beard. You could be Brecht-Galileo, perhaps, and surely Sam’s arm could be twisted for Biagioli-Galileo? I’m looking forward to a pub-full of impressed people! 😀

    • Thony C. says:

      At a conference in 2009 in Weil der Stadt to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova three historians of science presented a dramalet in the form of a dialogue (based on original texts) between Galileo and Simon Marius about who had discovered what first with the telescope. The dialogue was interrupted by the entrance of Thomas Harriot pointing out that in terms of telescope discoveries both of them were Johnny come latelys.

      Very amusing but really only accessible to a very specialist audience.

      • James Sumner says:

        Three-handers seem to have become the convention for HoS drama. Robert Marc Friedman’s Remembering Miss Meitner was built around the cast from an established production of Copenhagen: the Bohrs became Meitner and Hahn, while Heisenberg was Siegbahn.

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