Isaac Newton’s forgotten years as a cosmopolitan Londoner

Newton is often remembered as an isolated thinker. But in actuality, he lived a larger life in the heart of Britain’s biggest city.

Oxford University Press
“Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton's London Career” by Patricia Fara, Oxford University Press, 288 pp.

Many of us tend to like our geniuses as neatly lovable caricatures. And when it comes to Isaac Newton, we tend to envision a virtually disembodied intellect who was inspired by a falling apple to revolutionize physics from the quiet of his study at Trinity College. 

But even when Newton was performing his intellectual feats at Cambridge in the 1680s, he was eager to move on to a new life. Patricia Fara, historian of science at Cambridge University, seeks to chronicle that period in “Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton's London Career.” In this book she presents Newton as “a metropolitan performer, a global actor who played various parts.” 

Here we have not the familiar – and almost inhuman – Newton who produced his great “Principia Mathematica” in 1687, but rather a worldly, cosmopolitan Newton: master of the Royal Mint, president of the Royal Society, member of parliament, speculator on the market, prominent man-about-town. 

In many ways it’s a startling portrait, and it’s clearly intended to be. Fara is a pleasingly lively historical guide – not just to Newton’s London life, but also to the London of those decades. It’s the London of Queen Anne and William Hogarth and most of all John Dryden, and their presence wonderfully hovers over everything here. 

We see Newton become preoccupied with straightening out the complicated mess he’d inherited at the Royal Mint. We see him working the stock market – not always successfully, which seems at first odd about somebody who invented whole new kinds of calculus at will. And Fara’s lengthy digressions are as fascinating as her main subject – particularly the mini-biography she provides of Newton’s relative and fellow thorough-going London creature John Conduitt. 

Fara is perfectly aware of the dark shadows lurking everywhere in the period she’s studying, particularly the slave trade, which was eventually abolished in England – but not in its colonies –  in 1722. “Newton knew that the country’s prosperity depended on the triangular trade in enslaved people,” Fara writes, “and when he was meticulously weighing gold at the Mint, he must have been aware that it had been dug up by Africans whose friends and relatives were being shipped across the Atlantic to cultivate sugar plantations, labour down silver mines, and look after affluent Europeans.” She neither condemns nor lauds Newton, but there’s no avoiding the fact that her Newton isn’t a particularly likable guy. 

Like its famous subject, the book has nagging little flaws. On the purely textual level, the entire thing could have benefitted from one final sweep of the proofreader’s eye; lines like “He openly abhorred Catholicism openly” happen more often than is comfortable. And on the production level, there’s a graver issue. Fara declares at the onset that her book is about two things: Newton’s three decades spent in London, and William Hogarth’s 1732 painting “The Indian Emperor. Or the Conquest of Mexico” – which is shown at the beginning of the book in a murky, blurry black-and-white reproduction that’s completely useless. Readers have to page over to the middle of the book to see it in color, and even then, there are no detail panels. 

But on balance, the sheer energy of the book shines through, giving readers a messier and more thornily human Newton than the cartoon renditions to which he’s so often reduced. The period covered by “Life After Gravity” has been examined in depth in some of the superb Newton biographies that have appeared over the years; the two best are Richard Westfall’s “Never at Rest'' and Gale Christianson’s “In the Presence of the Creator.” But the greater focus here, like scrutinizing an antic Hogarth painting, yields marvelous and rewarding detail.

So, what was he really like? As Fara writes, “The only honest answer is that nobody knows: even when he was still alive, impressions that conflicted with each other could all claim validity.” As she shrewdly notes, all anecdotes – whether of an absent-minded scientist or ruthless government official – were crafted by people who wanted to reinforce the Newton they knew, or the one they wanted to believe existed. “Life After Gravity” doesn’t aspire to being a definitive portrait – rather, like Hogarth’s painting, it tries to convey a little world.

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