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Excerpt: 'Newton and the Counterfeiter'

by Thomas Levenson
Jul 26, 2009

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Thomas Levenson

The tower of Great St. Mary's catches what daylight remains as a young man passes the town boundaries. He has come about sixty miles, almost certainly on foot (his meticulously kept accounts show no bills paid to livery stables). The journey from rural Lincolnshire to the university has taken him three days. The walls of the colleges shadow Trumpington Street and King's Way, but at this late hour, Trinity College is closed to visitors.

The young man sleeps that night at an inn, and the next morning he pays eight pence for the carriage ride to the college. A few minutes later, he passes beneath the Gothic arch of Trinity's Great Gate and presents himself to college officials for the usual examination. Their scrutiny does not take long. The records of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity for June 5, 1661, register that one Isaac Newton has been admitted into its company.

On its face, Newton's entrance to Trinity could not have been more ordinary. He must have seemed to be yet another example of a familiar type, a bright farm youth come to university with the aim of rising in the world. This much is true: now nineteen, Newton was indeed country-bred, but by the time he set foot in Trinity's Great Court it was apparent that he was deeply unsuited for rural life. And he would prove to be a student unlike any the college had ever encountered.

Nothing in his beginnings suggested any such promise. On Christmas Day, 1642, Hannah Newton gave birth to a son, who was so premature that his nurse recalled that at birth he could fit into a quart jug. The family waited a week to christen him with the name of his father, dead for three months.

The infant Isaac was at least reasonably well off. His father had left an adequate landholding, including a farm whose owner enjoyed the grand title of Lord of the Manor of Woolsthorpe. For the time being, however, the inheritance fell to baby Isaac's mother, who was soon able to remarry up. Hannah's second husband, a local clergyman named Barnabas Smith, had a church living, a considerable estate, and admirable energy for a man of sixty-three; he would produce three children with his new wife over the next eight years. There was, it seemed, no place for an inconvenient toddler in such a vigorous marriage. A little more than two years old, Newton was abandoned to the care of his grandmother.

Of necessity, the child Newton learned how to live within his own head. Psychoanalysis at a distance of centuries is a fool's game, but it is a matter of record that, with one possible exception, the adult Newton never permitted himself real emotional dependence on another human being. In the event, his upbringing did not dull his brain. He left his home and village when he was twelve, moving a few miles to the market town of Grantham to begin grammar school. Almost immediately it became obvious that his intelligence was of a different order from that of his classmates. The basic curriculum — Latin and theology — barely troubled him. Contemporaries recalled that when, from time to time, "dull boys were now & then put over him in form," he simply roused himself briefly "& such was his capacity that he could soon doe it & outstrip them when he pleas'd."

In between such interruptions, Newton pleased himself. He drew eagerly, fantastically, covering his rented room with images of "birdes beasts men & ships," figures that included copied portraits of King Charles I and John Donne. He was fascinated by mechanical inventions, and he was good with tools. He built water mills for his own amusement and dolls' furniture for the daughter of his landlord. Time fascinated him: he designed and constructed a water clock, and made sundials so accurate that his family and neighbors came to rely on "Isaac's dials" to measure their days.

Such glimpses of an eager, practical intelligence come from a handful of anecdotes collected just after Newton's death, some seventy years after the event. A closer look can be gained in the notebooks he kept, the first surviving one dating to 1659. In tiny handwriting (paper was precious) Newton recorded his thoughts, questions, and ideas. In that earliest volume he wrote down methods to make inks and mix pigments, including "a colour for dead corpes." He described a technique "to make birds drunk" and how to preserve raw meat ("Immers it in a well stopt vessel under spirits of wine" — with the hopeful postscript "from whose tast perhaps it may be freed by water"). He proposed a perpetual motion machine, along with a dubious remedy for the plague: "Take a good dose of the powder of ripe Ivie berrys. After that the aforesd juice of horse dung." He became a pack rat of knowledge, filling page after page with a catalogue of more than two thousand nouns: "Anguish. Apoplexie. . . . Bedticke. Bodkin. Boghouse. . . . Statesman. Seducer. . . . Stoick. Sceptick."

The notebook contains other lists as well — a phonetic chart of vowel sounds, a table of star positions. Fact upon fact, his own observations, extracts cribbed from other books, his attention swerving from "A remedy for Ague" (it turns on the image of Jesus trembling before the cross) to astronomical observations. The mind emerging on the pages is one that seeks to master all the apparent confusion of the world, to bring order where none was then apparent.

Excerpted from Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson, copyright @ 2009. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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