Who’s missing in modern academia: solitary geniuses or something much more significant?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 10 December 2013.

1974 portrait of Isaac Newton as solitary genius.

When Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, was quoted in the Guardian on Friday as saying “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job” because he would not “be regarded as productive enough”, it prompted much nodding and retweeting from academics.

Coming as it did on the tail of British academics’ rush to complete submissions to the REF (Research Excellence Framework), in a term that has seen two strikes over fair pay in Higher and Further Education and at a time when there are reports of long working hours and other pressure on academics affecting wellbeing , it is hardly surprising that there was sympathy toward Higgs’s negative judgement of today’s focus on “productivity” and publication.

When Higgs was quoted as saying “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964”, many academics undoubtedly heaved a sigh and got back to the marking, teaching preparation, grant application, or whatever other non-research-related activity they were currently engaged in.

It seems, though, that Higgs’s comments struck a wider chord, perhaps because of the extent to which they conform to the stereotype of the solitary scientific genius. His “peace and quiet” of 1964 (aged 35) brings to mind Newton’s escape to his Lincolnshire family home in 1666 (aged 24), and it is contrasted in the article with “expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers”. This is the kind of thing we want to hear our science Nobel winners saying.

Teaching, which takes up a huge proportion of most academics’ time, is not mentioned in this piece. I have no idea what kind of a teacher Higgs was, but Isaac “lecture to the walls” Newton clearly would have been a flop on Rate my Professor and a liability for a university anxious about its position in the National Student Survey. He would probably have been just as problematic for REF. Although he was to go on to have a staggering impact (or Impact), Newton was famously, for much of his life, reluctant to publish.

In many ways Newton and his mythology became a model for how we think of genius, particularly in the physical sciences. Stories of his youthful moment of inspiration, his forgetfulness, his oddness, his solitariness and his immersion in his work abound. Yet he was also someone who learned not just from books but also from his Cambridge tutors and colleagues and wide correspondence, who made his approaches to the Royal Society with scientific papers and the gift of his reflecting telescope, and who went on to become an MP and to lead the Royal Mint and Royal Society.

Science is profoundly collaborative, relying on communication to peers and students, and collaboration with colleagues and a whole range of other “stakeholders”. It goes without saying that there have, always, been many people doing scientific work who not only put up with but also thrived on all those other activities. Science would not have developed without them.

While there are some, perhaps-justified, fears about modern academia effectively losing the insights of the next Newton, it’s worth recalling the circumstances in which many of the well-known figures in the history of science conducted their work. While they may not have been writing grant reports of marking exams, they were likely seeking patronage, carrying on journalistic careers, undertaking the duties of a doctor or a vicar, teaching, family business or otherwise making a – usually non-scientific – living.

Those who really were excluded were not solitary geniuses who could not find sufficient time for thinking, but those who were, as a result of class, geography, race or gender, never likely to have the opportunity to begin an education, let alone contribute to the established scientific societies and journals. And this affected the science that was done: ample research shows how the norms, assumptions and interests of elites have shaped supposedly value-free science.

Science and academia today remain embarrassingly homogeneous. However, the fear is not so much that we might be failing to find or support working class, black or female geniuses, but that we are more broadly missing out on other perspectives and experiences that would help frame different questions and solutions. It is for this – as well as the good health and useful productivity of academics – that we need to fight not just for better investment in Higher Education, supporting excellent outreach and teaching as well as research, but for a fairer society.

Advising government: did Isaac Newton get it wrong?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Just as today, governments past took advice about science. Isaac Newton gave evidence on solving the longitude problem. Was his advice as counter-productive as many have said?

Isaac Newton

There have been a lot of posts lately in the Guardian Science blogs about the role of the new chief scientific adviser, Mark Walport. While finding myself in the novel position of attempting to offer some thoughts to this incoming chief, I have also been co-writing a book about the search for longitude at sea, much of which revolves around issues of the relationships between skill, expertise, government and the public.

It turns out, of course, that advisers to government have often drawn flack, usually from those who stood to lose out financially as a result of their advice. Sometimes, though, that criticism comes as a result of hindsight. Given posterity’s tendency to condescend, that criticism is not always fair.

When the first Longitude Act was passed in 1714, the Walport equivalent was Isaac Newton. Although most often thought of as a solitary genius with apples falling on his head in Lincolnshire or writing an incomprehensible but revolutionary book in Cambridge, Newton was also to be an MP, Master of the Mint, President of the Royal Society and adviser to government.

When parliament considered a petition that asked for rewards to be offered to those who could help solve the problem of finding longitude at sea, Newton’s evidence was very clearly incorporated into the Act as written. As, thereafter, an ex officio Commissioner of Longitude, Newton also became one of those who judged submitted ideas and advised on whether they might be worth supporting.

It has become common to blame Newton for deflecting the commissioners and British government from what has been judged as the “correct” path to a successful outcome. It has been suggested that Newton was naturally biased to favour astronomical solutions and had little time for or interest in clocks as the way forward.

It seems clear that Newton did think that astronomical methods would – at some point – provide a successful solution. He believed that his evidence about their potential accuracy was reflected in the several levels of reward offered in the 1714 Act. In addition, the fact that the Act indicates that a reward might be payable after a single successful trial may show an assumption that the answer would lie in something universally applicable, like astronomy, rather than a machine.

Usually seen as most damning is the fact that Newton stated several times that longitude was not to be found by clockwork. He also suggested that clocks put forward for reward should be examined and trialled by others before the commissioners need meet to consider them.

Such facts have led some to declare that “even Newton could get it wrong”. Such a view has been put forward in histories of longitude and, unsurprisingly, by those writing the biography of John Harrison, whose disputes with the commissioners and well-rewarded sea clocks are well known. However, it has also been stated in Richard S Westfall’s biography of Newton that (p. 837)

His deprecation of clocks may have helped later to delay the acceptance of Harrison’s chronometers [sic], which did in fact offer a practical determination of longitude at sea.

Leaving aside the fact that Harrison’s unique watch left the British public a long way from possessing a practical solution, is it fair to say that Newton was prejudiced against clocks and retarded the putting of government funds into this method? Nope. Not really.

Firstly, Newton was dead right that longitude “is not to be found by Clockwork alone”, so long as astronomical methods were the only way of checking that an on-board clock was behaving itself.* As he said, a clock might be able to keep track of longitude but, should the clock stop or become erratic, only astronomy could help find longitude again. This essentially remained true until wireless radio signals could be used to compare a ship’s local time (determined astronomically) with a broadcast reference time.

Newton was also not so prejudiced against clocks that he did not wish to be bothered by applications from their makers, or at least no more than he was by any other such applications. In the case of astronomical methods, too, he advised that they be examined by other experts before being presented to the commissioners.

We also know that, several years earlier, Newton had been interested in Henry Sully‘s ideas for making a longitude timekeeper – something he went on to do in the 1720s – and had encouraged him, even passing on information about another horological novelty that he had come across.

Newton certainly could be wrong – I am sure that everyone can think of a few examples – but not really about this.

The difference in longitude between two places is equivalent to the difference in local time.

Gulliver’s travels in science and satire

Cross posted from The H Word blog.

Jonathan Swift

For historians of science, Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels is well known both as a work of what we might call proto-science fiction and as a satire on the experimental philosophy that was being promoted by the Royal Society at the time of its publication – two years before the death of Isaac Newton.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk at the very same Society that Swift had mocked as wasting time on projects such as the extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers. It was given by Dr Greg Lynall, a Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. He is author of Swift and Science: The Satire, Politics, and Theology of Natural Knowledge, which looks well-worth a read from the review posted on the website of the British Society for Literature and Science.

Swift was a High Church Anglican and Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Knowing this, some might leap to the conclusion that here was someone who did not and could not understand the important work being done by Fellows of the Royal Society, that here was a clash of world views and evidence of a natural hostility between science and religion. This, of course, is completely off track. It ignores the complexity of Swift’s views, the validity of some of his targets and the fact that, while sectarianism might be rife, the importance of religion per se was not in question.

In many ways the whole of Gulliver’s Travels is a satire on the scientific approach of the Royal Society. It is presented as a travel narrative, reporting on extraordinary sights and experiences in foreign lands in a calm, detached and, whenever possible, quantitative fashion. The Royal Society had often encouraged travellers to make such records and reported on information collected in circumstances that ranged across formal experiment, mathematical proof, astronomical observation, field work, library work, happenstance and even hearsay. Curiosities and natural monstrosities took their place alongside Newton’s crucial experiment.

Title page of Swift's Gulliver's TravelsThe most significant section of the book from the history of science point of view is Gulliver’s visit to the floating island, Laputa, where the inhabitants are enamoured of mathematics, measuring, quantifying, experimenting and astronomical predictions. The island floats by magnetic levitation, in what seems to be one of the only ‘practical’ applications of their knowledge – their obsession with accurate measurement has led them to apply the use of quadrants to the art of tailoring, resulting only in badly-fitting clothes. Their heads literally in the clouds, they have to be woken up from their speculations to communicate with Gulliver.

Swift was satirising the ubiquity of Newtonian philosophy in polite society of 1720s London, but he was not being ‘anti-experimental philosophy’, just as no one today is ‘anti-science’. Yes, there was fun to be poked at some of the extravagances and plain oddness of the new philosophy and some its followers, just as in Thomas Shadwell’s play The Virtuoso, which targeted Robert Hooke. However, it works as satire because of genuine concerns lurking beneath – and some of those concerns remain legitimate today.

Most obviously, in Laputa, Swift criticises a world of mathematical and philosophical endeavour that does little or nothing to better people’s lives, especially those of their subjects in the colony Balnibarbi, located beneath the floating Laputa. In fact, satirising the power relations of Britain and Swift’s native Ireland or, more broadly, the rich and poor, we find that Laputa is used to subdue Balnibarbi by threats to block the sun or rain, by throwing down rocks, or even crushing rebel cities by lowering Laputa onto them.

While, in the real world, there was much rhetoric around the beneficial usefulness of new knowledge and, indeed, much focus on practical problems like navigation, mining and agriculture, Swift was surely right that useful applications of the new knowledge either seemed a long time coming, or were clearly in the interests of King, government, military and landowners (who, after all, are much more useful patrons of science than the poor).

Lynall’s talk made it clear how political much of Swift’s satire was, even when the focus might appear to be science. While often associated with the Tories, Swift was suspicious of party politics and the patronage and jobbing that went along with them. Newton became one of the targets of his attacks not because of his science, but because of his influential and very well remunerated position as Master of the Mint, bestowed on him by the Whigs.

Swift once claimed that he had a “perfect hatred of tyranny and oppression”. Lynall showed that if the knowledge or authority of experimental philosophy were used in backing it, that too should be called out. A key episode was where Newton presented evidence to back William Wood’s application for a valuable contract to make new coinage for Ireland. Corruption and bribery – including involvement ofthe King’s mistress – were widely rumoured, as was the claim that the coins were of inferior quality. Swift took Newton, and what he viewed as his fraudulent use of technical evidence in the assays he carried out in Wood’s favour, as legitimate targets for denunciation in his Drapier’s Letters and vicious satire.

Swifts targets were political and often very personal. But, where he smelt corruption, it would seem that the sins of blinding people with ‘the science’ or impressive credentials only made a bad job worse. Meanwhile, the folly of being satisfied simply with the wonder of astronomical prediction, experimental apparatus and exact measurement, while outside people continue to starve, is one we should always be reminded of by the best critics and satirists.


Grantham celebrates Isaac Newton

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Statue of Newton in Grantham
The 1858 statue of Isaac Newton, by William Theed, in Grantham. Photograph: Wikimedia

In a recent post on this site, Stuart Clark introduced the Gravity Fields Festival, and the complexity of the figure it celebrates – Isaac Newton. The festival, being held in Grantham, where Newton went to school, runs until Friday 28 September. Its theme is Newton and science, but it is an arts as well as a science festival, with plenty of history and heritage thrown in for good measure.

Thus there is room for museums, archives, galleries, music, history, theatre and events in an eclectic range of venues. My talk on Monday, on Newton’s public and prolonged interest in the very practical topic of maritime navigation, was undoubtedly improved by being in a pub. Elsewhere, Grantham’s schoolchildren have been introduced to novel spaces: an apothecary’s shop and an alchemist’s laboratory.

Grantham, of course, has long celebrated its connection with Newton. The nearby Woolsthorpe and its apple tree have been a pilgrimage site from at least the later 18th century, with visitors often making off with a few leaves or even roots. One of Newton’s earliest biographers, William Stukeley, visited the area to talk to people who remembered the young Newton. His unpublished memoir, which recorded some of the most memorable Newtonian anecdotes, has been digitised and can be read on the Royal Society’s website.

The townspeople’s own sense that their most famous son should be celebrated publicly developed in the 19th century. Thus, well over a century before the classic Isaac Newton Shopping Centre was built, a bronze statue was raised. This was to be a moment of national as well as local significance for Grantham. Thus just as in 2012 South Kesteven District Council has enticed luminaries including Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, in 1858 Grantham Town Council hosted the then president of the society, Benjamin Brodie, and a flock of eminent visitors from Oxbridge and the metropolis

The guest of honour and keynote speaker was Lord Brougham, a former lord chancellor who had just published an analysis of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Representatives of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science were also present. Flanked by boys of the grammar school and the townspeople of Grantham, it was a spectacle impressive enough to be engraved for the pages of the Illustrated London News.

It included an element that could never be repeated today. As well as a president and assorted fellows, the Royal Society sent along a chair believed to have belonged to Newton (on which Brougham sat), and three treasured relics that were paraded through the town. They were Newton’s reflecting telescope, his prism and a first edition copy of Principia, carried on cushions and then set up, in open air, before the statue.

Although such objects would never be treated in this fashion today, Grantham has nevertheless imported a number of treasures. Perhaps most impressively, the National Portrait Gallery has loaned portraits for display in Belton House. The scale and scope of the celebrations are, of course, much greater than the 1858 event. As a finale, it is the ambition of Gravity Fields to transform the town – “Grantham as you have never seen it!” – this Friday. Weather permitting, a pedestrianised town centre will “come alive with Newton themed processions, aerial displays, light projections and … performers”.

Back in the 1850s the former mayor of Grantham, Thomas Winter, had claimed that “All civilized nations may … claim an interest in Newton” and lauded him as a benefactor, philosopher and man of science, “no mere flash of genius, but the steady process of untiring industry” and not just wise, but “the most practical of philosophers”. Everyone should appreciate and revere his memory.

Such heroes are much less relevant to our times. The Gravity Fields Festival has been considerably more of the “warts and all” approach to Newton’s life and personality, recalling his enmities, frailties, and interest in alchemy and revelation as well as optics and mathematics. It nevertheless demonstrates that Newton, and the whole range of things his life and after-life are associated with, can generate an interesting, eclectic, non-reverential and inspiring series of events.

Visiting Woolsthorpe

Recently, on an evocatively misty day, I finally had the chance to visit Woolsthorpe Manor, the National Trust property that was once Isaac Newton’s family home. It was, you might think, high time I did so, given my interest in Newton’s posthumous reputation and Woolsthorpe’s role in Newtonian folklore. Reverence for the man has long sparked interest in the place: it is not only Newton’s place of birth and where he grew up, but the theatre in which he set the account of his annus mirabilis. The darkened room in which he placed his prisms. The apple trees that sent his thoughts to the moon. The rural quietness that allowed his fluxions to roam free.

Of course, it would seem that Newton was also profoundly unhappy at Woolsthorpe, at least before he returned as a university man. He was unsuited to the life of a yeoman farmer, by all accounts, and, at least occasionally, wished ill toward members of his Lincolnshire family. It is the result of accident – the arrival of the plague – that Newton, at the height of his “inventive genius” in his early 20s, could situate his series of significant strides here rather than Cambridge. While relative solitude and free time might have been a factor (on a farm? with your parents and siblings?), we should remember that much work before and after was required to develop these ideas. Intentionally or not, by highlighting his exile Newton presented his achievement as purely the result of his own, unaided genius.

Woolsthorpe Manor, as a museum, reflects this mixed story. Initially, there is little of Isaac to greet the visitor. The rooms are dressed as appropriate to a 17th-century farmhouse, with thanks to the V&A’s collections, and guides and educators are able to talk visitors through historic domestic arrangements. Upstairs, however, there are displays about Newton’s life and work, which of course largely took him away from Lincolnshire. We get a roomful of text panels (up, I believe, for renewal soon), a hint of Newtoniana and a large Thornhill portrait of the elderly Newton, acquired in 1994, which looks slightly out of place in the comfortable but modest building. Among the outbuildings, however, is a rather shiny-looking ‘Science Discovery Centre’, in which the principles behind Newton’s most famous discoveries are laid out. While largely, in science centre style, this puts the science across without context, the text and illustrations in the room continue to present the historic Newton. Rather nicely, some of the stories that William Stukeley collected in and around Grantham after Newton’s death are presented, including a model that might look something like the model windmill that Newton was said to have built, complete with the mouse-‘miller’ that was supposed to turn it.

The accounts of the youthful Newton that Stukeley collected were sent to Newton’s nephew-in-law, John Conduitt, for a planned biography that never saw the light. Along with other reminiscences, they can be found on the Newton Project website here, as can the 1750s Memoir of Newton by Stukely, which also went unpublished (until 2006). Despite the richness of the tales -told many, many years after the events – Stukeley’s information rested in the family archives for the next eighty years until published in a tome of local history, called Collections for the History of the Town and Soke of Grantham, in 1806 by one Edmund Turnor. MP, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and Royal Society, Turnor was spurred to publish by his family connection to the locality, and to Woolsthorpe itself: the family had purchased the Manor in 1732. Edmund’s brother Charles had also felt the urge to collect, celebrate and publicise his connection to Newton, presenting several volumes of Newtoniana to the Royal Society in the 1840s.

The Turnors, we must assume, were happy enough to greet scientific pilgrims who came to their door or, at least, to their orchard. Jean-Baptiste Biot was one such, who recorded that he had gathered a few leaves from the famous tree. Even David Brewster, who was unconvinced by the apple anecdote itself, was recorded in his daughter’s biography, to have seen “the celebrated apple-tree” in 1814 and “brought away a portion of one of its roots”. This seems a trifle destructive, but may be a result of the exposure of the roots after the tree was blown down at some point before 1816. In general, the amount of wood taken and used in the form of snuff boxes and other trinkets would seem – like the true cross – to be enough for several trees. And yet the tree, or a 350-year-old tree (see this history and analysis), appears to have survived, a new growth, like Joseph’s staff, having sprung from the felled tree.

Forgive the slightly blurry image: the light was poor and the camera was a phone. Forgive, too, the biblical and religious imagery here, but it something that this story seems to conjure up, as Patricia Fara showed very well in her Newton: The Making of Genius. Like Brewster I have my doubts about the story (see this discussion in the comments of a previous post) but I too could not resist when there. The following shot, from inside the Manor, was clearly set up by some National Trust employee.

The National Trust’s page for Woolsthorpe Manor encourages the visitor to

  • Experiment in the hands-on Discovery Centre.
  • Be inspired by the house where a genius grew up.
  • Contemplate the apple tree with a place in history.

I can’t admit that I did the first two – the visit was brief and the house closed to the public, so there was little chance for hands-on and some of the furniture and props were packed up (literally, in bubble-wrap in one case). I am not sure that the rooms, however presented, could really make me feel the presence of the geni loci. This list also does not give due to the house’s role as a rather humbler property than many historic houses, which allows visitors a glimpse of life among a class other than the nobility. Particularly memorable were the cubby-holes in the wall next to the chimney, where wigs could be kept aired, and the markings outside one of the doors, intended to deter witches.

However, I certainly did contemplate the apple tree with a place in history. Not, perhaps, to think about “Newton’s passage from a falling apple to a falling moon” – a “leap of the prepared imagination” – as Tyndall put it, but to consider how and why the tree got that place, and retains it, even with sceptics like Brewster and me.

Re-reading, re-creating

I have recently been going through the somewhat unnerving experience of re-reading my own book. There are good reasons for this, to do with writing something that closely relates to work that I completed more years ago than I care to remember. The book came out of my PhD dissertation and it is a sobering experience to see how much research, detail and sheer blooming time I could command back then. The question, naggingly, creeps up on me: will I ever manage to do something like this again?Read More »

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.Read More »

Newton and alchemy: a constant surprise?

Recently there was an article in the New York Times, which, surprisingly enough, reported reasonably accurately and interestingly on the work of an historian of science, William Newman (who I mentioned in my previous post on 19th-century views of alchemy). In the article Newman says, of course, that it is not surprising that Newton should have been interested in alchemy; that alchemical work was not diametrically opposed to the ‘scientific’ work Newton did in mathematics, optics and astronomy; and that, altogether, “It was perfectly reasonable for Isaac Newton to believe in alchemy”. Yet the title of the article bugged me: “Moonlighting as Conjuror of Chemicals”. In what way, unless referring to his paid work at Cambridge and the Mint, can we say that Newton was moonlighting? And in what way conjuring?Read More »

Representing astronomers: absent-minded or drunk?

Prompted by the call for posts on ‘Visuals and Representation’ for the Giants’ Shoulders Blog Carnival, I fell to thinking about the National Maritime Museum‘s print collection, which includes a nice range of images of astronomy and its practitioners. Astronomers are, popularly, represented with and by their telescopes, whether a hand-held object pointed to the sky or an enormous (probably intentionally phallic), reflector mounted beneath a dome. This is despite the fact that few professional astronomers today go so far as to put their eye to their instruments.

The telescope clearly indicates the obsession of the astronomer with things beyond the earthly realm and, ipso facto, a lack of interest – even lack of understanding – of things going on closer to home. This image of the scientist or philosopher as being concerned only with higher things is an ancient one, being at least as old as the Greeks (Steven Shapin has discussed such tropes, especially the idea that philosophers are so other-worldly that they forget to eat). Tales of lack of mundane concerns or, its satirical equivalent, absent-mindedness, can be admiring, affectionate or critical. Related humour in prints and cartoons can be pretty broad, and tend to follow one of two obvious lines.Read More »