I find myself suddenly having to become a bit of an expert on Isaac Newton and, because the task is rather impossible to one of little scientific brain, I just try to find morsels of knowledge about his life and chew on them. But there still is the big picture, or literally, several big portraits that I came face to face with as I found myself in the august surroundings of the Royal Society this week. And there is the frowning, oh-so-severe face of Newton staring at me as if I were the ignorant, unthinking worm that I am, especially when it comes to force and motion and anything to do with calculus, but I do like the spectrum of colours . . . .
Those giant portraits of Newton merely echo the stature of the man as he presided over the Royal Society like, as Peter Ackroyd says, a king in his court, thus lending a new dignity and authority to the society that it had never before possessed. But then we have to remember that Newton saw himself as a natural philosopher rather than a pure scientist, and that he regarded his work as a means to finding and explaining the ways of God to men. So, to his mind at least, his authority largely derived from his quasi-divine status as God-explainer. It was all so very orderly out there in the universe, if only the mass of men could see God’s order. Then we are left with the huge paradox: that Newton is credited today with elevating science to its supreme position where it is used so frequently to explain away God, where it is common to hold debates pitting Science versus Religion and amazing new discoveries are used to make the very idea of God seem less and less important. I can’t but think how much more severely Newton would have frowned at such debates, as if the entire point of his life’s work had been lost.