Walsh on Miller, 'Reading Popular Newtonianism: Print, the Principia, and the Dissemination of Newtonian Science'

Laura Miller
Kirsten Walsh

Laura Miller. Reading Popular Newtonianism: Print, the Principia, and the Dissemination of Newtonian Science. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018. 248 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-4125-7

Reviewed by Kirsten Walsh (University of Exeter) Published on H-Albion (July, 2020) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53076

It is difficult to overstate Sir Isaac Newton’s importance to the development of modern science. His Principia, published in 1686, redirected physics and set its agenda for two hundred years. Along the way, Newton became a near-mythic figure: as Laura Miller puts it in Reading Popular Newtonianism, “Newton’s was a household name that represented the heights of English rational achievement” (p. 128). By the end of the eighteenth century, Newtonianism had become as much a cultural phenomenon as a scientific one.

Focusing on the reception of Newton’s Principia across non-expert audiences, Miller weaves a captivating tale of popular Newtonianism, the emerging middle classes, and the culture of print in the eighteenth century. Each chapter can be read as a stand-alone piece, but together they form a coherent and compelling narrative that takes us from the expert epicenter of Newtonianism in the late seventeenth century through to its still-reverberating tremors across popular culture at the close of the eighteenth century.

The story starts, naturally enough, with Newton. In chapter 1, Miller explores the traces of Newton’s engagement with print as a reader. Through marginalia, dog-eared pages, and references from Newton’s own writings, she paints an image of Newton as someone keenly aware (perhaps paranoidly so) of how public perception can be influenced by print.

In chapter 2, we turn from Newton-the-reader to Newton-the-author, specifically, of the Principia. Focusing on the content and design of the Principia, Miller shows how Newton exploited print conventions to facilitate engagement with the book’s arguments and concepts at many different levels, by audiences with varying degrees of expertise. While few readers could have obtained deep understanding of the mathematical demonstrations, Miller argues that clever use of typography and diagrams worked to foreground and simplify the central ideas, meaning that many were nonetheless able to follow the main claims and basic arguments. And so, for Miller, the Principia is a book that simultaneously invites readers in and keeps them at a distance—both from the tricky mathematics and from Newton himself—and in so doing, secures Newton’s position at the top of the intellectual hierarchy. The Principia, then, was not the inaccessible, alienating, and poorly understood (except for a few elite mathematicians) work that it is often painted as. As Miller stresses, this allows us to make sense of the Principia’s vast reach into eighteenth-century popular culture.

We then move from Newton himself to the transmission of Newtonian ideas through poetry. In chapter 3, Miller focuses on two poems, Edmond Halley’s “Ode to Newton” (1687) and James Thomson’s “A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton” (1730), the latter of which, she argues, reached a much wider audience than previously assumed. Miller argues that poetry was instrumental in the widespread transmission of information about both Newton and his ideas. She shows how Halley and Thomson deliberately and knowingly constructed the image of Newton as hypermasculine and solitary. In so doing, such poetry associated scientific excellence with superior masculinity, in contrast with the gentlemanliness and sociability often promoted within the Royal Society. Newton’s social isolation and general reluctance to publish were framed as features that placed him above other men.

In chapter 4, we move from poetry to popular science texts. Here, Miller focuses on the many editions of Francesco Algarotti’s Newtonianism for Ladies (originally published in Italian in 1737). Despite its title, Newtonianism for Ladies was by no means exclusively read by women, nor was it intended to be. Miller shows that Algarotti had a wider and more diffuse influence on the uptake of Newtonian ideas among the British middle classes than has previously been recognized. The book should be understood as part of a general trend toward catering to an emerging middle class with an avid desire for cultural sophistication. Indeed, Algarotti fed this appetite by producing popular books about painting and opera as well as science. Miller also describes piracy, the sexualization (in print) of both Newton and his ideas, and the strategies employed to package and market Newtonianism to various audiences.

The fifth and final chapter is a highlight. Here, Miller considers popular Newtonianism from the context of a community of readers—specifically, members of the small, developing New York Society Library at the end of the eighteenth century. Miller uses the first charging ledger of the library (1789–92)—a fascinating resource in itself!—as an inroads to the borrowing patterns across a diverse readership who sampled a wide variety of works containing Newtonian natural philosophy, from popularizations and encyclopedias to novels. The resulting patterns challenge the idea that Newtonian popularizations were read by people with a specific interest in science and a limited scientific education, who would encounter “dumbed down” versions of scientific works. Instead, borrowing practices reveal more diverse uses: some families would take out popularizations of all kinds, while others mingled their popular science with works containing more substantial scientific content. Miller describes Newtonian popularizations as “gateway” books, opening readers to many different topics and kinds of reading, related in many different ways.

Reading Popular Newtonianism is thematically rich and, as a historian of philosophy, I sometimes found it difficult to pin down precisely what substantive points were being made. Nevertheless, I think this book offers some important lessons for the history and philosophy of science in the present day. I shall briefly highlight three of them.

First, a lesson about the nature of popularization. Miller emphasizes the dynamic nature of Newtonianism through the long eighteenth century. Scholars have long recognized this feature vis-à-vis practitioners (natural philosophers, mathematicians, etc.). When thinking about non-experts, however, there has been a tacit assumption of homogeneity concerning the Newtonianism that filtered down in highly simplified form to amateur audiences. Instead, Miller presents popular Newtonianism as a phenomenon in flux: changing, developing, and evolving across time, place, and context.

Second, a point about the exclusivity of Western science. Newtonianism was presented as something for, rather than by women. In chapter 3, Miller demonstrates the purposeful construction of the “masculinity” of science. This image is insidious and entrenched, and likely has a long reach underwriting the present inequalities we see for women, BAME, and people from low socioeconomic backgrounds in many scientific disciplines. These attitudes were not invented with Newton—the history of Western science is largely a history of exclusion—but, just as Newtonianism played a crucial role in bringing science to the emerging middle classes, it also played a role in reinforcing the exclusion of women from science and medicine. The masculinization, gentrification, and whitewashing of science has been costly. It has narrowed the topics, attitudes, and perspectives introduced by practitioners and limited the ways in which communities can engage with and benefit from science, medicine, and technology. Miller offers an important analysis of the ways that language and print practices operate to reinforce such attitudes.

Third, a point about how ideas are packaged and disseminated. Miller shows us that non-expert readers did not encounter Newton’s ideas in all their complexity and completeness. Even those who read the Principia only grasped certain ideas, engaging with it in ways circumscribed by the text itself. According to Miller, this was by Newton’s design: which ideas a reader was able to take from the Principia reflected Newton’s presentation and editorial decisions. Similarly, the Newtonian ideas encountered elsewhere reflected decisions made by those authors about what was important, crucial, or central to understanding Newton. As Newton became increasingly identified with his writings, an image of Newton the person was constructed that influenced how readers engaged with and thought about his ideas. In short, authorial and editorial decisions fundamentally shaped how readers encountered ideas about Newton and his science. Moreover, the access readers had to Newtonian ideas reflected the decisions of publishers, purchasers, and librarians. There is a lesson here for how we understand Newtonianism as a historical phenomenon. It is tempting to think of the poets, popularizers, editors, publishers, printers, librarians, and consumers as background extras in a story that is predominantly about Newton and his expert followers. But, as Miller shows, these “extras” shaped Newtonianism in important ways. When we focus on these actors, we end up with a much bigger cast and a very different narrative about eighteenth-century Newtonianism.

On a final note, Reading Popular Newtonianism is a scholarly work, written primarily for an academic audience well versed in eighteenth-century cultural studies. And yet, like Newton’s Principia, this book has wider appeal, and for non-expert readers it may even be a “gateway” to the eighteenth-century popularizations it explores.

Citation: Kirsten Walsh. Review of Miller, Laura, Reading Popular Newtonianism: Print, the Principia, and the Dissemination of Newtonian Science. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53076

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.