Virtually every survey of the public’s choice for the most important persons of the second millennium includes the name of Isaac Newton. A poll published in the 12 September 1999 issue of the London Sunday Times Magazine ranked him first, even above Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin and similar canonized stars. Among his crowning achievements were his research starting around 1670 on light and color (eventually published in 1704 in his book Opticks), but he is best known for his enunciation of the laws of motion and of gravitation and their application to celestial mechanics as summarized in one of the greatest tomes in science, the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, usually shortened to PRINCIPIA—the first version of which was published in 1686.
Putting physics on a firm experimental and mathematical foundation—an approach coined Newtonism—earned Newton the ultimate accolade as father of modern scientific thought. However, a revisionist historical analysis, based in part on the discovery by the economist John Maynard Keynes of a huge trove of unpublished papers and documents, has led some scholars to consider Newton the last great mystic rather than first modern scientist. While his work in physics and mathematics set in motion the Age of Enlightenment, revisionist historians point out that neither as a person nor an intellect did he belong to it. As debunking of some of the hagiography surrounding Newton commenced in the latter part of the 20th century, it became evident that Newton spent much more time on alchemy and mystical theology than on “science”—composing over 1 million words on each of these two endeavors, much more than all his writings on physics combined! His alchemical library was huge and his alchemical experiments, though kept secret from all but a few intimates and servants, consumed much of his waking hours for decades. Even his religious convictions had to be kept secret, because his faith in Arianism (holding that Christ and God are not of one substance) was considered heretical within the Anglican Church.
Born on Christmas day in the year of Galileo’s death, Newton was so convinced of his supernatural powers that he once constructed a virtual anagram of his name (Isaacus Neutonus) in terms of “God’s holy one” (Jeova sanctus unus). His position as a fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a chair now held by Stephen Hawking), his subsequent elevation to the important government rank of Master of the Mint, and conferment of a knighthood by Queen Anne all should have required open adherence to and even ordainment in the Anglican Church. Yet Newton managed to sidestep it throughout his adult life, with open defiance only surfacing in 1727 on his death at age 85 when he refused the last rites. Even that noncompliance did not prevent a state burial in Westminster Abbey nor the unveiling there in 1731 of a monument in just recognition of his towering contributions to science and of his services to England.
As a person, Newton was not only deeply complex, but also morally flawed. Adjectives that could be used to describe facets of his personality are remote, lonely, secretive, introverted, melancholic, humorless, puritanical, cruel, vindictive, and perhaps worst of all, unforgiving. Even one of the most famous quotes attributed to Newton, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” is open to different readings. Often cited as a sign of his modesty, it has also been interpreted as the ultimate poisonous lacing in a disingenuously polite letter addressed to one of his bitterest scientific foes, Robert Hooke, of pronounced dwarfish stature. It is worth noting that the origin of the sentence long antedates Newton since it can be traced to at least John of Salisbury in the 12th century.
The character trait most relevant to the present play “Calculus” is Newton’s obsessively competitive nature. Frank E. Manuel wrote in 1968 in one of the great Newton biographies that “the violence, acerbity, and uncontrolled passion of Newton’s attacks, albeit directed into socially approved channels, are almost always out of proportion with the warranted facts and character of the situations.” While this statement characterizes some of Newton’s best-known bitter conflicts such as the ones with the physicist Robert Hooke or the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, it applied in spades to the decades-long battle with a German contemporary of almost equal intellectual prowess, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz.
In addition to his monumental contributions to physics summarized in his PRINCIPIA, Newton was also an inventor of the calculus (which he first called the “method of fluxions”). Up in Parnassus or down in his grave, he would immediately interject: “A inventor? Was I not the inventor of the calculus—a bedrock of modern mathematics since it first revealed the relationship between speed and area?” Why would such a genius even ask such a question? Because Sir Isaac was also a fallible human being for whom priority—and especially priority about the calculus—counted above all else.
But priority can only be determined after a definition of the term has been agreed upon. No such unambiguous definition has been produced in science, where multiple independent discoveries occur all too frequently. For instance, in the play “Oxygen” (written jointly with Roald Hoffmann), we asked whether the ultimate accolade for the discovery of oxygen—an event that triggered the modern chemical revolution—should be assigned to the first discoverer, to the person who published first, or to the one who first understood the nature of the discovery. In the case of the calculus, it is now clear that Newton was first in terms of conception, but Leibniz first in terms of publication. But since in Newton’s mind and words, “second inventors have no right,” resolution of that priority dispute required for him a fight to the death, like a gladiator in a Roman circus. But unlike the gladiators, Newton was a consummate master of using surrogates, continuing the struggle even after Leibniz’s burial in a pauper’s grave in 1716.
The calculus priority struggle—with each protagonist ultimately charging the other with piracy—has, in the words of William Broad, “been fought for the most part by the throng of little squires that surrounded the two great knights.” It is through the story of some of Newton’s “little squires” that the play “Calculus” tries to examine one of Newton’s greatest ethical lapses.
The stage was set by Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a brilliant natural philosopher from a Geneva family, who became Newton’s most fawning disciple. Indirect but reasonably persuasive evidence of a homosexual (though unconsummated) attraction between Newton and the 20-year younger Fatio has surfaced in recent years. At times called “the Ape of Newton,” Fatio shot the first brutal salvo openly accusing Leibniz of plagiarism. Like Newton, Fatio never married; like Newton he indulged in alchemical experiments and religious fanaticism; but unlike his mentor he went way beyond him in that regard by openly associating with the Cevennes Prophets who spoke in tongues and became possessed during religious ecstasies. Fatio’s accusation of Leibniz was not pursued, partly because of the former’s religious excesses, but in 1708, another loyal follower of Newton, John Keill (secretary of the Royal Society as well as “a war-horse, whose ardor was so intense that Newton sometimes had to pull in the reins”), formally repeated the charge of Leibniz’s plagiarism—an accusation published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1710. And when Leibniz, as a foreign member of the Royal Society, demanded an official retraction, Newton in his capacity of President created a commission of eleven Fellows of the Royal Society (“a Numerous Committee of Gentlemen of several Nations”) to adjudicate the conflict. On April 24, 1712, a 51-page long report (partly in Latin and replete with references to private as well as published letters and documents primarily in the possession of Newton’s correspondent John Collins) was published by the Royal Society under the title “Commercium Epistolicum Collinii & aliorum” (“exchange of letters from Collins and others”) in which Keill’s accusation was totally supported.
Such a blatantly biased procedure, though clearly to be condemned, was nevertheless to be expected, considering that Newton as President of the Royal Society had indirectly appointed the committee. But further scrutiny reveals much blacker details.
The composition of the Committee that never openly signed the document, did not become acknowledged for over 100 years. Not only do we now know the identity of the eleven Fellows, but even more importantly, their dates of appointment. The famous astronomer Edmond Halley, the physician and well-regarded literary figure John Arbuthnot, and the little-known William Burnet, Abraham Hill, John Machin and William Jones were all appointed on March 6, 1712. Francis Robartes (Earl of Radnor) was added on March 20, Louis Frederick Bonet (the King of Prussia’s Resident in London) on March 27, and three more members, Francis Aston and the mathematicians Brook Taylor and Abraham de Moivre on April 17.
Why should these dates be significant? Because it is patently impossible that at least the last three members, appointed on April 17, could have had anything to do with a lengthy and complicated report published 7 days later! In point of fact, none of the eleven Fellows was authorially responsible, because Newton himself had written the report! And in spite of the claim that the Committee consisted of “Gentlemen of several Nations,” only two out of the eleven—Bonet and de Moivre—could be categorized as foreigners. In the case of Bonet, so little is known of him that even the Sackler Archive Resource of Fellows of the Royal Society does not contain his date and place of birth, although German and Swiss archives do shed some light on him. The question can rightfully be raised why such a diverse group of Royal Society Fellows, some of them of major distinction, should have allowed themselves to be so blatantly manipulated by Sir Isaac Newton—ostensibly to be chosen as watchdogs and then so quickly transformed into barkless showdogs.
Calculus provides some speculative insight into this scientific scandal through the personalities of John Arbuthnot, Louis Frederick Bonet, Abraham de Moivre and Nicolas Fatio de Duillier with most of the biographical references firmly rooted in historical records. And while the particular meeting of the playwrights Colley Cibber and Sir John Vanbrugh in Calculus is invented, both are historical characters whose respective plays Love’s Last Shift and The Relapse: Or Virtue in Danger and their final collaboration, The Provok’d Husband, as well as The Rehearsal (by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham) are part of the proud canon of British Restoration drama.