Here's What Happens When You Screw With Isaac Newton

Illustration for article titled Here's What Happens When You Screw With Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton reached the level of genius in two different disciplines: physics and making people miserable. This is a tale of his accomplishments in the latter discipline. The object of his scorn, this time, is a poor astronomer named John Flamsteed,who made the mistake of not being agreeable enough.


The Friendship and the Titles

Flamsteed and Newton started their acquaintance on good terms. They spent the 1680s happily corresponding about two lights in the sky, seen in 1680, which were either two comets or one comet that made two trips by Earth. This got Flamsteed interested in cataloging the heavens. If enough information was compiled about the lay of the night sky, astronomers would be able to understand all kinds of things about the shape of the universe and how its various pieces worked. By the mid-1690s, Flamsteed was the Astronomer Royal and was making a star catalogue which he would publish when it was completed.

Newton, meanwhile, believed that returning comets might be drawn to the Earth by some mysterious force. They might circle the Earth, in fact, the way the Moon circled the Earth. Perhaps, the force that drew the Moon and the comets might be the same. Newton wanted to study his "Moon's Theory," and to do so he needed the information in Flamsteed's catalogue, incomplete though it was. Newton had risen to the rank President of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; the titles might leave one in doubt as to who had the power, but Newton's fame and connections far outstripped Flamsteed's. When Isaac Newton wanted information from the catalogue, he wanted it immediately, whether it was published or not.

The (Sometimes Literal) Tug-of-War

Illustration for article titled Here's What Happens When You Screw With Isaac Newton

You can get a lot done when you're friends with the Queen, but it still took a lot of time for Isaac Newton to get what he wanted from John Flamsteed. First Flamsteed sent assistants' work instead of his own. Newton was exasperated with the mistakes they had made. Newton wrote nasty letters. Flamsteed wrote nasty diary entries. Newton turned to the royal Prince George, asking him to order Flamsteed to write a book that would include all his current data. Flamsteed just couldn't get it together to produce the book, much as he must have wished to comply with his Prince's order.

Newton inspected the Royal Observatory. Flamsteed guarded the equipment so jealously that the two physically fought over it. Flamsteed ended that day with a very smug diary entry declaring that the "instruments... were my own."


Now the Astronomer Royal was not only disobeying Isaac Newton but the actual Royals, and so it's impressive that Flamsteed managed to keep his prestigious appointment. He didn't lose his position or his data for over a decade. It wasn't until 1712 that Newton was able to influence Queen Anne and Prince George enough to force Flamsteed to publish his data in a small volume. Still, Flamsteed was bitter at the defeat.

The Fall-Out

If he could have held out another few years, he might have been able to avoid publication altogether. Queen Anne died in 1714, and her successor, George I, didn't like Newton. (It's hard to imagine why.) At Flamsteed's request, all copies of the small book he had published were burned. Newton probably wouldn't have minded, partially because he had already published his theory on the moon's motion, and partially because Flamsteed was dead. Flamsteed's great work, finally completed and published as he wanted it to be, was published posthumously.


Flamsteed was not popular enough (or Newton was not unpopular enough) for Flamsteed to be able to say his full piece. When his complete book on the stars was published, Flamsteed included an introduction that ripped into Newton. Newton was still alive, and Flamsteed, being dead, finally had the fight taken out of him. The introduction wasn't printed at the time. It took two more decades for the nasty introduction to be printed. That's what happens when you fight Isaac Newton.

[Source: Scientific Feuds]

Newton Image: National Portrait Gallery, Flamsteed Image: Wellcome Images.




"That makes Sir Isaac Newton the deadliest sonovabitch in space."

god I love mass effect.