Happy Newton’s Day!


Two years ago we at 3QD as well as Richard Dawkins independently decided to celebrate December 25th as Newton’s Day (it is Sir Isaac’s birthday). You can see my post from last year here. So here we are again. This year I will just provide two interesting things related to Newton, who some argue was the greatest mind of all time. For example, did you know that he hung out in bars and pubs in disguise, hoping to catch criminals? He did. Read this, from wikipedia:

As warden of the royal mint, Newton estimated that 20% of the coins taken in during The Great Recoinage were counterfeit. Counterfeiting was treason, punishable by death by drawing and quartering. Despite this, convictions of the most flagrant criminals could be extremely difficult to achieve; however, Newton proved to be equal to the task.

He gathered much of that evidence himself, disguised, while he hung out at bars and taverns. For all the barriers placed to prosecution, and separating the branches of government, English law still had ancient and formidable customs of authority. Newton was made a justice of the peace and between June 1698 and Christmas 1699 conducted some 200 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers and suspects. Newton won his convictions and in February 1699, he had ten prisoners waiting to be executed. He later ordered all records of his interrogations to be destroyed.

Newton’s greatest triumph as the king’s attorney was against William Chaloner. One of Chaloner’s schemes was to set up phony conspiracies of Catholics and then turn in the hapless conspirators whom he entrapped. Chaloner made himself rich enough to posture as a gentleman. Petitioning Parliament, Chaloner accused the Mint of providing tools to counterfeiters (a charge also made by others). He proposed that he be allowed to inspect the Mint’s processes in order to improve them. He petitioned Parliament to adopt his plans for a coinage that could not be counterfeited, while at the same time striking false coins. Newton was outraged, and went about the work to uncover anything about Chaloner. During his studies, he found that Chaloner was engaged in counterfeiting. He immediately put Chaloner on trial, but Mr Chaloner had friends in high places, and to Newton’s horror, Chaloner walked free. Newton put him on trial a second time with conclusive evidence. Chaloner was convicted of high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered on March 23, 1699 at Tyburn gallows.

More from Wikipedia here. And if you are in the mood for something much more substantive, I highly recommend watching this video of my mentor and friend, Professor Akeel Bilgrami, delivering the University Lecture at Columbia earlier this fall, entitled “Gandhi, Newton, and the Enlightenment.” I admit that the subject is only weakly related to Newton, but it is well worth watching on Newton’s Day nevertheless. The following description is excerpted from a Columbia University website:

Screenhunter_4_18Bilgrami devoted much of his talk to tracing the origins of “thick” rationality as well as the critiques it has received over the years. He identified the 17th century as the critical turning point, when scientific theorists such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle put forward the idea of matter and nature as “brute and inert”—as opposed to a classical notion of nature as “shot through with an inner source of dynamism, which is itself divine.”

Even at the time, there were many dissenters who accepted all the laws of Newtonian science but protested its underlying metaphysics, Bilgrami explained. They were anxious about the political alliances being formed between the commercial and mercantile interests and the metaphysical ideologues of the new science—anxieties echoed by the “radical enlightenment” as well as later by Gandhi.

According to Bilgrami, both Gandhi as well as these earlier thinkers argued that in abandoning our ancient, “spiritually flourishing” sense of nature, we also let go of the moral psychology that governs human beings’ engagement with the natural, “including the relations and engagement among ourselves as its inhabitants.”

Bilgrami expressed a certain sympathy for this dissenting view, noting that even if we moderns cannot accept the sacralized vision favored by these earlier thinkers, we should still seek alternative secular forms of enchantment in which the world is “suffused with value,” even if there is no divine source for this value. Such “an evaluatively enchanted world” would be susceptible not just to scientific study, Bilgrami argued, but would also demand an ethical engagement from us all.

See the video here.

And Merry Christmas!!!