Case Studies for the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
The ‘epitome of intellectual sagacity’: Biographical treatments of Newton as a mathematician 47
Rebekah Higgitt National Maritime Museum, Greenwich The ‘epitome of intellectual sagacity’: Biographical treatments of Newton as a mathematician What is there to be gleaned from a study of how Newton has been rep- resented in biographies ‘as a mathematician’? Have contemporaries and later writers not all simply agreed that, as his twentieth-century biographer Richard S. Westfall wrote, he was ‘a mathematician of the first order’?1 Yet a closer study of biographies of Newton reveals interesting subtleties in this matter that are worthy of consideration. As the meaning of the word and role ‘mathematician’ has shifted considerably over three centuries, so depictions of Newton have either changed in order to present him in conformity with current ideas, or he has been judged against dif ferent cri- teria. In addition, the individual interests and preferences of biographers have created a range of images of Newton the mathematician, which have been given more or less prominence within their overall picture. It is worth remembering that many writers and almost all readers of biographies of Newton were not themselves mathematicians or historians of mathemat- ics. This has often made judging and presenting a highly technical achieve- ment either impossible or undesirable. We are, however, able to consider changing views of mathematics and the mathematician. This chapter will suggest that looking at biographies of Newton, as both one of the most famous scientific heroes and an individual with a particularly complex legacy, provides a means of gaining insight into changing ideas about sci- 1...
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