Born on Christmas, 1642

“Isaac Newton said he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not believe it. He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarreled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after. He was chief architect of the modern world. He answered the ancient philosophical riddles of light and motion, and he effectively discovered gravity.  He showed how to predict the courses of heavenly bodies and so established our place in the cosmos.  He made knowledge a thing of substance: quantitative and exact.  He established principles, and they are called his laws.”

These are the opening lines of James Gleick’s Isaac Newton and they are words I wish I had written, for they convey, at least to me, a real sense of the human Isaac, the man and also genius who stood not merely above the world, he also struggled within it.

But here is another version of Isaac, from the Twitter feed of Neil deGrasse Tyson Christmas 2014:

On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642

It has, of course, been re-Tweeted over the past years. In fact, in this Facebook note deGrasse Tyson himself remarks on the magnitude of this phenomenon.  And yet, if Tyson’s intention was to truly honor Sir Isaac, who was indeed born on Christmas (according to Julian the calendar kept by England at the time) and whose anuus mirabilis or years of wonder, did occur prior to his 30th birthday, then why does it ring so differently in tone to Glieck’s opening lines?  I grant that this is a Tweet, an easily and often intentionally misconstrued bit of writing, not something more full or complete such as not a tome, manifesto or credo.  Gleick’s contains more words and is not constructed in Tweet-ese, but to compress it would look something like this:

Inventor of calculus, Newtonian laws, born into darkness and obscurity on Christmas 1642: Happy Birthday Sir Isaac!

Or something similar. Tyson’s, on the other hand, initially conjures or implies–certainly by design?–the birth of Christ, only to effectively mock that birth in the final line.

But Tyson makes no secret of his disbelief in God and because of this disbelief, has no one else to recommend on Christmas but Isaac Newton.  Scientific giant that he was, Newton is not, nor ever will be, able to offer salvation, forgiveness of sins, or eternal life.  Newton did, however, and to a great extent still does, grant us scope for the imagination, confidence in experimentation and discovery, and not least the persistent struggle or effort that a life of worthwhile work cannot hope to disregard.

Newton himself never divorced his discoveries or ideas from his understanding of and reverence for God, and even though he dabbled in the darker arts of alchemy and failed to fully comprehend or accept the Trinity (ironic he attended Trinity College Cambridge), at no point did Newton disavow God and hand over Creation to something impersonal, entirely scientific, or cold.  Despite all of Tyson’s love for Newton (and he has some good love), the comparison Tyson draws in his Tweet cannot be made beyond those he mentions, for it remains true that Newton is dead, buried at Westminster Abbey (interesting link here), a feature he may share with scores of poets and statesmen, but not with Christ.