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An Introvert as Deep Thinker
Let’s examine the personality of introvert Isaac Newton, considered by many scientists and historians as the most brilliant man who ever lived.
In many respects, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), whom we still revere for Newton’s laws of motion and other revolutionary work in math and physics, fits the stereotype of the nerdy, driven introvert. As a boy, instead of playing with other children he spent all his spare time devising mechanical gadgets, including a miniature windmill equipped with a treadwheel that he encouraged a mouse to run on.
Despite his spotty formal education, he was admitted to Cambridge University, where he studied on his own and often forgot to eat or sleep. After being appointed a professor there, his academic responsibilities took a back seat to his burning need to understand the workings of the universe.
Newton never married and is not known to have had even a semi-serious romance. He cared little about being liked by others, and for this, some commentators flatly call him a “jerk” or even an “asshole.” His reputation – a matter of respect – did matter to him quite a lot, however, especially from mid-life on. Does that make him an “egomaniac,” as some say? This type of vanity actually crops up in the biographies of quite a few brilliant, high-achieving introverts. Newton understood the importance and originality of the work he had done, and he wouldn’t stand for any of that being undercut or disparaged.
Like Charles Darwin (also an introvert) a century and a half after him, Newton was in no hurry to publish his discoveries. He needed to make sure that his reasoning was tight and absolutely correct. This created problems for him late in life, when Gottfried Leibniz of Germany claimed to have developed the calculus. Newton entered into a frenzied and sometimes vicious endeavor to prove that he had actually come up with it first and influenced Leibniz’s work.
Since relatively few people, in Newton’s day or now, can follow and appreciate the depth of his scientific brilliance, it’s easy to imagine him as relentlessly logical and rational. From our standpoint today, that’s not the case. In addition to science and mathematics, Newton poured an intense amount of energy into both alchemy and religion.
For more than 200 years after his death, few suspected the extent of his involvement in alchemy. This came to light only after 1936, when economist John Maynard Keynes purchased a huge batch of papers Newton had left behind. In secret, Newton had conducted decades’ worth of experiments aimed at discovering how to transmute ordinary metals into gold. Why the secrecy?
According to professor Bill Newman of Indiana University, in that era rulers had been known to kidnap, imprison and torture alchemists to extract their presumably priceless knowledge. Alchemists “couldn’t trust anyone because anyone you trusted might reveal that you had knowledge of the philosopher’s stone, and then you’d wind up strangled in your bed because somebody wanted to steal it,” explains Newman.
Also little appreciated is the amount of energy Newton devoted to religious studies. He owned at least 30 Bibles, many of them dog-eared and soiled from Newton frequently thumbing through them. His research and thinking led him to disagree with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which in turn almost led to his expulsion from Cambridge. In 1675 a new requirement decreed that all professors be ordained as Anglican clergy. Newton’s conscience wouldn’t allow him to swear allegiance to beliefs he didn’t hold, however. He decided he couldn’t comply. This type of stand on principle, where no one but himself would have known he didn’t hold the required beliefs, makes perfect sense to introverts. At the last moment, however, someone intervened on his behalf, exempting Newton from the decree.
The divergence of Newton’s life story from that of a classic nerd dates from 1696, when Newton left Cambridge to run Britain’s Royal Mint. A few years after that, he also became President of the Royal Society, Britain’s premier professional body of scientists, serving until his death. After reading two biographies of Newton and many articles, I puzzled through the question of why such a dyed-in-the-wool introvert made this leap to public life from a largely private life, where he had been investigating fundamental questions to satisfy his intense intellectual curiosity.
As for the Mint, he suddenly began devoting himself to matters of governmental coinage partly because of the technical challenge of deterring counterfeiters at that time. Using his knowledge of metals derived from his alchemical experiments, he innovated methods of striking coins that made them harder to imitate. According to the Newton-was-a-jerk camp, he unnecessarily went way above and beyond in catching, prosecuting and executing forgers. Quite possibly, though, Newton felt it would have been senseless to improve coins technically without also pursuing those criminals.
Newton’s abandonment of university life also came about because he subscribed to the belief, still prevalent today, that the type of thinking power needed to break ground in mathematics and physics belongs only to young people. He had passed the age of 50 at that point.
And as for the Royal Society, Newton had become a public figure, without intending to, because of the profound and vocal admiration of his peers after his Principia was published in 1687. By heading the Royal Society, elected repeatedly to that position though never unanimously, he acquired the means to support certain scientists and to toss obstacles in the way of some rivals. The philosopher John Locke once conceded that though he considered Newton a friend, Newton was “a little too apt to raise in himself suspicions where there is no ground.” Clearly Isaac Newton was a hard person to like, but keep in mind that – as with many other world-class introverted thinkers – that criticism would probably not have stung him in the slightest.
Lost and Found with Marcus Aurelius by Marcia Yudkin