Quick digression on revolutions and their eras

Newton's gravity concept ten years after the apple's fall.

Newton’s gravity concept ten years after the apple’s fall.

There is a problem with the time scales: what is a revolution in one, is continuity in another. Time slowly gives birth to the new and the historian transforms it into a rupture. Any event that delimits a new era will contain in itself the old and the new, subtly mixed in the trivial matters of the quotidian.

Years ago, I put some effort into understanding the natural philosophy of the 17th century, in particular, questions related to Isaac Newton.

After reading a number of original works and lots of secondary sources, my main conclusion was that Newton was an intellectual typical of his own time!

Such obvious conclusion was all the way veiled by the myth of Newton’s geniality, which made me expect him to be an  extemporaneous being, floating above a sea of ignorance.

In the long-term – say 200 years – I have no doubt that Newton’s work was a trigger of a cultural revolution. His outstanding theories on mechanics and optics had the most deep impact on the European culture. But this long-term focus blinds the historian to the small things of the daily life.

Looking at Newton’s routine in Cambridge through his youth manuscripts and letters, comparing his writings to those of his colleagues and mentors, I did not find such revolution. In this other time scale, I found a very intelligent and educated man, living at the right place in the right moment.

A man discussing alchemy with Robert Boyle and trying to find the date for the end of the world in the Bible. Strongly disturbed by the atheism of the natural philosophy of Descartes and Hobbes. Deeply influenced by today’s obscure names of Pierre Gassendi, Isaac Barrow, Henry More and Francesco Patrizi. A neoplatonic thinker attempting to build up a natural philosophy out of a theogony. (I will tell this story  in another occasion.)

This is the problem with the time scales. What is a revolution in one, is continuity in another. Time slowly gives birth to the new and the historian transforms it into a rupture. Italian Renascence, Industrial Revolution, Quantum Theory, any event that delimits a new era will contain in itself the old and the new, subtly mixed in the trivial matters of the quotidian.

Thus, I will not find myself surprised by the time traps laid by the historians anymore. Newton was a revolutionary scientist and a neoplatonic mystic. In his contradictions, he was just in the flow of his time, as we are in ours.

MB

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Categories: Culture, History, History of Science, Science, Scientific Culture

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  1. The several ends of the world | Much Bigger Outside
  2. The Crooked Lines of Mr. Newton | Much Bigger Outside

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