A good friend of mine sent me a link to the article in Nautilus, written by Leonard Mlodinow. The title of the article is The loneliest genius. Read it here (with additional illustration of my choice) or follow the link to the Nautilus original. It’s about genius. And ideas. It’s about loneliness and belonging. It’s about Isaac Newton.
Isaac Newton spurned social contact—but his greatest work borrowed from the ideas of others.
Describing his life, shortly before his death, Newton put his contributions this way: “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 undiscovered before me.”
One thing Newton never did do, actually, was play at the seashore. In fact, though he profited greatly from occasional interaction with scientists elsewhere in Britain and on the Continent—often by mail—he never left the vicinity of the small triangle connecting his birthplace, Woolsthorpe, his university, Cambridge, and his capital city, London. Nor did he seem to “play” in any sense of the word that most of us use. Newton’s life did not include many friends, or family he felt close to, or even a single lover, for, at least until his later years, getting Newton to socialize was something like convincing cats to gather for a game of Scrabble. Perhaps most telling was a remark by a distant relative, Humphrey Newton, who served as his assistant for five years: he saw Newton laugh only once—when someone asked him why anyone would want to study Euclid.
Newton had a purely disinterested passion for understanding the world, not a drive to improve it to benefit humankind. He achieved much fame in his lifetime, but had no one to share it with. He achieved intellectual triumph, but never love. He received the highest of accolades and honors, but spent much of his time in intellectual quarrel. It would be nice to be able to say that this giant of intellect was an empathetic, agreeable man, but if he had any such tendencies he did a good job suppressing them and coming off as an arrogant misanthrope. He was the kind of man who, if you said it was a gray day, would say, “no, actually the sky is blue.” Even more annoying, he was the kind who could prove it. Physicist Richard Feynman voiced the feelings of many a self-absorbed scientist when he wrote a book titled, What Do You Care What Other People Think? Newton never wrote a memoir, but if he had, he probably would have called it I Hope I Really Pissed You Off, or maybe, Don’t Bother Me, You Ass.
Today we all reason like Newtonians. We speak of the force of a person’s character, and the acceleration of the spread of a disease. We talk of physical and even mental inertia, and the momentum of a sports team. To think in such terms would have been unheard of before Newton; not to think in such terms is unheard of today. Even those who know nothing of Newton’s laws have had their psyches steeped in his ideas. And so to study the work of Newton is to study our own roots.
Newton’s penchant for solitude and his long hours of work were, at least from the point of view of his intellectual achievements, great strengths. If his retreat into the realm of the mind was a boon for science, however, it came at a great cost to the man, and seems to have been connected to the loneliness and pain of his childhood.
He had come into the world on December 25, 1642, like one of those Christmas gifts you hadn’t put on your list. His father had died a few months earlier, and his mother, Hannah, must have thought that Isaac’s existence would prove a short-lived inconvenience, for he was apparently premature and not expected to survive.
More than 80 years later, Newton told his niece’s husband that he was so tiny at birth that he could have fit into a quart pot, and so weak he had to have a bolster around his neck to keep it on his shoulders. So dire was the little bobblehead’s situation that two women who were sent for supplies a couple miles away dawdled, certain that the child would be dead before they returned. But they were wrong. The neck bolster was all the technology needed to keep the infant alive.
If Newton never saw the use of having people in his life, perhaps that was because his mother never seemed to have much use for him. When he was 3, she married a wealthy rector, the Reverend Barnabas Smith. More than twice Hannah’s age, Smith wanted a young wife but not a young stepson.
One can’t be sure what kind of family atmosphere this led to, but it’s probably safe to assume there were some tensions, since, years later, in notes he wrote about his childhood, Isaac recalled “threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them.”
The lonely but intensely creative life he led as a boy was preparation for the creative but tortured and isolated life he would lead for most of his adult life.
Isaac did not say how his parents reacted to his threat, but the record shows that he was soon banished to the care of his grandmother. Isaac and she got along better, but the bar had been set pretty low. They certainly weren’t close—in all the writings and scribbles Isaac left behind there is not a single affectionate recollection of her. On the bright side, there are also no recollections of his wanting to set her on fire and burn the house down.
When Isaac was 10 the Reverend Smith died and he returned home briefly, joining a household that now included the three young children from his mother’s second marriage. A couple of years after Smith’s death, Hannah shipped him off to a Puritan school in Grantham, 8 miles from Woolsthorpe. While studying there he boarded in the home of an apothecary and chemist named William Clark, who admired and encouraged Newton’s inventiveness and curiosity. Young Isaac learned to grind chemicals with a mortar and pestle; he measured the strength of storms by jumping into and against the wind, and comparing the distance of his leaps; he built a small windmill adapted to be powered by a mouse running on a treadmill, and a four-wheeled cart he would sit in and power by turning a crank. He also created a kite that carried a lit lantern on its tail, and flew it at night, frightening the neighbors.
Though he got along well with Clark, his classmates were a different story. At school, being different and clearly intellectually superior brought Newton the same reaction then as it would today—the other kids hated him. The lonely but intensely creative life he led as a boy was preparation for the creative but tortured and isolated life he would lead for most—though happily not all—of his adult life.
As Newton approached the age of 17, his mother pulled him out of school, determined that he should return home to manage the family estate. But Newton was not cut out to be a farmer, proving that you can be a genius at calculating the orbits of the planets, and a total klutz when it comes to growing alfalfa. What’s more, he didn’t care. As his fences fell into disrepair and his swine trespassed in cornfields, Newton built water wheels in a brook, or just read. As Richard West- fall, a Newton biographer, wrote, he rebelled against a life spent “herding sheep and shoveling dung.”
Fortunately, Newton’s uncle and his old schoolmaster from Grantham intervened. Recognizing Isaac’s genius, they had him sent off to Trinity College in Cambridge in June, 1661. There he would be exposed to the scientific thinking of his time—only to one day rebel and overturn it. The servants celebrated his parting, not because they were happy for him, but because he had always treated them harshly. His personality was, they declared, fit for nothing but the university …
The full article appears in the Winter 2015 Nautilus Quarterly.
Leonard Mlodinow received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of California, Berkeley, was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute, and now teaches at the California Institute of Technology.
Excerpt from the upcoming book: The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow Copyright © 2015 by Leonard Mlodinow. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.