“Hero” might seem to be the wrong word to use when one looks at dictionary definitions of the word, but Isaac Newton is someone whose work I admire greatly, whose career was wider and more interesting than most people know, a scholar who revolutionised science, a man of such single minded dedication that he stuck a bodkin in his eyeball as part of an experiment, a transformer of the Royal Mint, and ….. a man who I have a “family tree” connection to!
My wife and I travelled to Glasgow for the inauguration lecture by the late Professor John Ottaway as he was confirmed as a Fellow of The Royal Society, excited to be meeting up with him again and our fellow PhD students from several years back. We had been only his second and third PhD successes in Chemistry in 1971-74, my wife also being the first female doctorate from her country, Nepal.
I guess everyone expected a technical presentation about his latest research and direction, so for the first 5 minutes they weren’t disappointed. But then John changed direction and started to talk about…… his students, beginning with Colin (his first) and a married couple (ourselves), regarding not only our research but also the strong social relationship we shared and how that was important to him. Within a few minutes he had a slide looking like a family tree with himself at the top as a father and his successful PhDs underneath as his children.
But then he moved upwards, and told of himself as a student at Exeter with Professor Eddie Bishop as his supervisor, (our metaphorical science “grandfather”) before moving up again showing the name of Professor Bishop’s supervisor (our great grandfather). He continued like this working backwards through THREE centuries but goodness knows how he traced all of the records.
You may now have worked out where this is going, but eventually the whole audience is stunned as he works back to and stops at ………… Isaac Newton! I still feel emotional as I remember that day, that moment, bloody hell, seeing myself and my wife linked scientifically to Isaac, unbelievable.
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” is a saying attributed to Isaac in 1676, maybe one of his only moments of acknowledging the exploits and discoveries of scientists before him.
Since that time we have visited Isaac’s house in Lincolnshire and read several books about him and his life.
Firstly there is the beautifully created Newton’s Notebook written by Joel Levy which gives a fascinating insight to the whole of his life and his work.
Then there is Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson. It is the true story of how Newton became Master if the Royal Mint, transformed its running at The Tower, and how he tracked down the infamous counterfeiter William Chaloner. As Levenson says, “Chaloner had no idea who he was taking on as Newton pursued his enemy with the cold implacable logic that he brought to his scientific research.”
Finally there is the gargantuan trilogy by Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle, set in time from 17th to 18th Centuries across America, Africa and Europe. These books are amongst the finest I have ever read, historical, political, science, pirates, detective work …… and Isaac Newton. If I told you more it would be a massive spoiler, but be patient and know that Daniel Waterhouse in the first book is a close friend of Isaac!
So this is our tribute to Isaac Newton, in our view ‘the greatest scientist of all time”. Do you agree?