Newton's Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed

by David H. Clark and Stephen P. H. Clark
188 pp. - W. H. Freeman and Company, 2001

Reviewed in American Journal of Physics by Mark P. Silverman

Science - especially a science like physics - is exciting not only because of the heady concepts and strange truths that appeal to our intellect, but also because it attracts extraordinary people, geniuses even, whose eccentricities are fascinating to contemplate. Isaac Newton is one such personality - a genius whose name is linked to an entire continent in the world of physics ("Newtonian mechanics") as well as numerous individual laws, empirical relations, visual phenomena, and laboratory apparatus that constitute renowned landmarks on the scientific map.

Mention Newton's name and there is a good chance that anyone with even a rudimentary familiarity with physics will think of a gifted young man who, in a relatively short span of time, discovered the prismatic composition of sunlight, invented the calculus, and deduced the laws of motion and the law of gravity. Those who have read something further about Newton's life may also think of a troubled personality, a somewhat reclusive youth sensitive to criticism and in perpetual defense of his priority of discovery. However, for an absorbing account of the really dark side of a genius not merely troubled but allegedly treacherous, scheming and vengeful - in short, almost evil - Clark and Clark (father and son) will give you a good evening's entertainment and instruction in their short book Newton's Tyranny.

Apart from science historians, few physicists and physics students probably realize (or at least I have found it so) that Newton actually devoted a relatively small part of his life to physics research. His major discoveries were made when he was young, and his magnum opus, the "Principia", was published some years afterward when he was in his early 40s. During much of his life Newton's intellect focused on the exegesis of the Bible (which he undertook clandestinely because his Arian beliefs would have resulted in loss of his Lucasian Professorship), alchemy, and oversight of the Royal Mint, to which he was first appointed Warden in his early 50s and, subsequently, Master. In his early 60s, following the death of Robert Hooke, Newton also assumed the presidency of the Royal Society. The Isaac Newton portrayed by Clark and Clark is, for the most part, not the legendary young, reclusive, absent-minded scholar, but a mature and powerful British functionary and leading science advisor to the Crown. Imagine a contemporary American scientist serving jointly as the president of the National Academy of Sciences, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and science advisor to the President of the United States - and you will have an idea of the scope of Newton's influence.

The drama that unfolds in Newton's Tyranny is, in a nutshell, the conflict between Isaac Newton and the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. In the course of over 30 years of arduous labors, Flamsteed had measured - and was at the time still measuring - the positions of thousands of stars with a precision far exceeding anything undertaken before him. What interested Newton, however, was the Moon, in part (together with Flamsteed) because knowledge of the Moon's orbit might enable mariners to determine their longitude accurately, a navigational problem of the highest order. Primarily, however, Newton wanted to include a comprehensive theory of the Moon's motion in a new edition of the Principia, and for this he needed accurate data. According to the authors, Flamsteed had freely given Newton all the relevant and reliable lunar data he had, but Newton, ever suspicious, did not believe him - and thereby conspired to wrest the information from Flamsteed in a shameful and malicious way. I will not spoil a good story for the reader by recounting the fascinating details researched by the Clarks. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of the rest of my commentary, that Newton secured a royal order for the immediate publication of Flamsteed's observations - in effect, to have the State take possession of the data, contrary to the astronomer's own longstanding desire to publish a compendious three-volume catalogue of encyclopedic proportion only after completion of many more observations of stars and calculations of stellar positions.

For trying to thwart Flamsteed's own plans for his data and depriving the astronomer of the glorious reception he believed his anticipated monumental work would bring him, Newton fares rather badly at the hands - or pens - of the Clarks. Throughout their book, the authors miss no opportunity to depict Newton's character in the most unflattering terms - a character consumed by arrogance, jealousy, anger, rage, vengeance. It is in the last category of sins that Stephen Gray enters the story, for, as an amateur scientist and friend and admirer of Flamsteed, he finds that his contributions to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society are apparently no longer worthy of publication after Newton assumes the presidency. In this way, then, the Clarks accuse Newton of "suppressing" the scientific discoveries of Stephen Gray.

Although I enjoyed reading this book and learned much about the life and experiments of Gray who, as the eventual first recipient of the Royal Society's Copley Medal, did not do too badly after all, I did not find the Clarks' portrayal of Newton as a villain convincing. I am not so naïve as to believe that good scientists are necessarily good people, but nonetheless I have a certain affection for Newton precisely because he was, for all I have learned from other sources, a scientist with convictions and integrity. Indeed, there are relatively few 20th century physicists of the first magnitude who, when examined closely enough, compare as well. Heisenberg, who worked to put a nuclear weapon in Hitler's hands? Schrödinger, who appeased the Nazis by publicly proclaiming his "joy" over the Anschluss, rather than relinquish a comfortable professorship in Austria (which he was eventually forced to leave anyway)? Feynman, who has written boastfully of his mean-spirited pranks, exploitation of women and seduction of colleagues' wives? Einstein - alas, even Einstein! - whose marital infidelities and disgraceful neglect of his children in his private life stand in marked hypocritical contrast to his public persona as the grand world citizen urging humanity on to decency, brotherhood and peace? All of these men can be admired for their scientific accomplishments, but for probity and honor I believe Isaac Newton stands over them as if still on the "shoulders of giants".

The conflict with Flamsteed is not simply the vengeful act of a self-centered Newton trying to cheat a poor astronomer out of his data. In large measure, Newton and Flamsteed differed widely in their perceptions of Flamsteed's official position - and it seems to me, by the standards of today at least, that Newton's viewpoint is the more sustainable. To Newton, the Astronomer Royal was a civil servant, a scientist paid by the State to obtain results of use to the State. Is it not, then, almost a malfeasance of duty for a government scientist to refuse to relinquish data until such time as he can complete some personally conceived magnum opus? Think of this conflict in contemporary terms. How sympathetic would we be to a scientist working for NIST, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), or any of a number of other government agencies with responsibility to provide the public with critically needed information, if that scientist were to refuse to release that information until such time far in the future as suited his own personal agenda? Newton was no saint, and he certainly had his personal reasons for singlemindedly pursuing Flamsteed's lunar data. Nevertheless, the manner of this pursuit - via the communication channels available to him as an influential scientist and administrator - does not, in my view, justify the claim in the subtitle of the book that Newton suppressed his antagonists' scientific discoveries. Quite the contrary in the case of Flamsteed, he was trying - even if for his own somewhat venal reasons - to "liberate" those observations and make the work available for public use. In the case of Gray's discoveries, Newton may not have facilitated their publication, but he certainly did not - and could not - have prevented Gray from communicating his observations in letters to other natural philosophers, which was the usual manner of the day.

But don't take my word for this. Read the book yourself and let Clark and Clark take you back to a uniquely colorful place and time of extraordinarily talented scientists with all-too-human frailties.

About the author

Mark P. Silverman is Jarvis Professor of Physics at Trinity College. He wrote of his investigations of light, electrons, nuclei, and atoms in his books Waves and Grains: Reflections on Light and Learning (Princeton, 1998), Probing the Atom (Princeton, 2000), and A Universe of Atoms, An Atom in the Universe (Springer, 2002). His latest book Quantum Superposition (Springer, 2008) elucidates principles underlying the strange, counterintuitive behaviour of quantum systems.