Surely the greatest mystery of the universe must be how and why it is interconnected. Like a cosmic jigsaw puzzle it slots together in mysterious ways, each part connected to the other – moon to earth, earth to sun, all held together by gravity, rock and the ether (which nobody seems to understand yet). An even greater mystery is how we have been able to grasp these interconnections at all, and what we are supposed to do with them.
The late Medieval and Renaissance period in Europe is known as the dawn of modern science. But it wasn’t the dawn of one day. It was a slow boil, a simmering stew of change, with the ingredients having been gathered together centuries before the Common Era by Greek philosophers. It is natural that we think of the Greeks first, but no civilisation exists in isolation. Greek philosophers were influenced by the Persians, and many of these Persians, like the Greeks, were persecuted for their revolutionary ideas. Even Galileo, who burst upon the scene almost two thousand years after the early Greeks, was not accepted with open arms.
Great thinkers make great waves, and society must adapt to them. It isn’t always easy to cast out what we take for truth and replace it with something different. When Galileo claimed that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the centre of our universe, and the other planets turned around it, people found it hard to swallow. He also liked to say that nature was written in the language of mathematics, and the more you study nature, the more maths you see. And that, in itself, was a revolution at the time.
Consider the flow of a river; laws govern the flow, and the laws produce a pattern. These patterns lie at the heart of mathematics, and mathematics lies at the heart of the universe and its natural laws. It’s not only true of rivers; the laws of nature govern all natural phenomena. There have been individuals during our history who have glimpsed these laws, and tried to understand them.
Leonardo da Vinci was one, but there were others too. Some picked up the pace after him, inspired by the idea that there was uniformity to the world, which could be understood. And that if it could be understood, it could be mastered. It was the birth of a new age, the age of science. It was also, in many ways, the end of an old age of magic. And the man who straddled both ages, exploding onto the scientific stage in the 17th century with the force of a meteorite, was Isaac Newton.
Like any scientist, Newton owed a debt to those who came before him, on whose shoulders he stood. Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and Bacon – without the input of these natural scientists and philosophers perhaps Newton would never have been able to elaborate his famous treatise on the principles of natural law. Behind the apparent simplicity of natural laws there is great complexity, and the task of unravelling it cannot be achieved in one person’s lifetime. When a discovery is made it becomes the substance of yet another question, which someone else must try to answer. Will these questions ever come to an end? Probably not, since the more answers we find, the more new questions we need to ask as a result.
Newton was many things: a genius, a magician of a kind, an alchemist and a philosopher who dreamed of unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Like Leonardo da Vinci, Newton had a tendency to experiment. He was fascinated by alchemy, and obsessed by the idea of the existence of a philosopher’s stone – he almost blew himself up trying to create it, and practically poisoned himself by using mercury in his experiments.
To make matters worse, he suffered from a disorder that caused him to make waves on a personal level as well as on a professional one. He had asperger’s syndrome, a condition that gave him the social graces of a bull in a china shop, and he was well known for upsetting people, even if none understood at the time that it was not really his fault. Asperger’s sufferers do not make friends easily; others need to accept them for what they are, different. Newton’s brain was hard-wired for rationality, not emotion, which was probably why he had such extraordinary focus in his work. His tunnel-vision attitude was unconventional; even his students did not always understand him. He apparently sometimes delivered lectures to a hall of absent students at Cambridge, where he taught. The schedule was fixed in his mind, and nothing could change it, not even an empty room.
Like dyslexics, asperger’s sufferers see things differently; they think in pictures, spatially, and manipulate numbers easily. They are fascinated by systems of all kinds, and apt to fiddle obsessively with them for a length of time beyond the patience of the rest of us. Such extreme characteristics can cause them to be labelled as geniuses, which they often are to some degree, or as freaks to those who do not understand them. Suspected modern sufferers of asperger’s include Vladimir Putin and Bill Gates, although it is possible to suffer from the syndrome to greater or lesser degrees, resulting only in milder symptoms, such as slightly obsessive behaviour, inflexibility, refusal to accept change, lack of social empathy and so on. Einstein was also said to have suffered from some form of autism, possibly asperger’s. It makes sense that some of the greatest scientists of our time suffered from the disorder, because the functioning of the brain in such cases gives extraordinary focus and a way of thinking that is more connective than linear. Isaac Newton certainly excelled at making connections. The apple with gravity, for instance. How did it come to him?
According to Newton’s own testimony, his understanding of gravity really did dawn on him when he sat in the orchard of his family home in Woolsthorpe beneath an apple tree, and the image of the falling apple is rooted in our national consciousness as a moment of gravity in every sense. I doubt it actually fell on his head though. I prefer to imagine him taking a fallen apple from the ground on a night in late summer and holding it up to the moon between two fingers, so the fruit would eclipse the planet. I can think of no better way to make a connection between the nature on our planet and the nature of the cosmos. If he did, I wonder how long he would have stayed out there, mulling things over. Given his focus, I’m ready to bet it was a long night.
As to what he felt that we should do with this new understanding, who can say? But he perfectly demonstrated how the law that governed the movement of the apple was the same law that governed the movement of the planets. Now it would be up to Einstein, his successor, to ask another question, and this time the question would be even more explosive.