Simon Schaffer

Professor Simon Schaffer
Dept. of History of Science,
University of Cambridge

2008 Harry Camp Lecture

"Newton on the Beach:
The Information Order of
Principia Mathematica

Stanford Humanities Center
Monday, January 14, 2008, 7 pm

Sir Isaac Newton

Preface: Professor Bender welcomed the audience to The 2008 Harry Camp Memorial Lecture, saying that the fund was established in 1956 by friends and associates of Harry Camp, a prominent businessman and philanthropist in San Francisco, who was described as "a gentle and wise humanitarian. The public lectures promote the study of "the concept of the dignity and the worth of the individual. Former speakers include Frank E. Manuel, Kingman Brewster, Rene Girard, Elie Wiesel, Kenneth J. Arrow, E.P. Thompson, Edward W. Said, Elaine Pagels, and Anthony Grafton. He then yielded to Professor Michael Friedman from Stanford Department of History of Science to introduce Simon Schaffer. Professor Friedman welcomed Professor Schaffer of the History of Science Department at the University of Cambridge. Schaffer is the co-author with Steven Shapin of Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) on the polemics between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes on British experimental science. It won them the 2005 Erasmus Prize. Schaffer has published 120 articles and books on the history of science. His favorite is the 1978 paper "Phoenix of Nature" on Kant and Thomas Wright, how this British astronomer influenced the German philosopher's views of cosmology and philosophy. Another favorite paper is "Glass work: Newton's Prisms" (1989), how the angles of refraction of light after going through a prism provided the foundation of Newton's Optics studies. When Professor Schaffer began his lecture, he said that "Sir Isaac Newton exemplified the concept of the dignity and worth of the individual" so he's happy to be here tonight giving a lecture on "Newton on the Beach". Professor Schaffer showed 33 images from his PowerPoint presentation, fontispieces from books, maps of trade triangle and tidal interferences, text of comet positions, and length of pendulum clocks. I'm only focusing on the three quotes attributed to Sir Isaac Newton in this web page.

Professor Schaffer showed the famous Newton quote (Image 1):

I now not how I may seem to the world, but as to myself
I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore
and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble
or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth
lay all undiscovered before me."
                                                — Sir Isaac Newton

Schaffer: "It's inconceivable that Newton said it", and gave three reasons:
(1) It's too poetic, and Newton never wrote anything poetically.
(2) It's too modest. Newton is well-known for his pride.
(3) Newton was never on a beach, for he rarely travelled. Only once,
    in 1689, Newton was on a boat down the Thames looking for a job.


(Image 2):
Title Page of Newton's
Principia (1686)
Frontispiece of Newton's
Principia (1686)


(Image 4): Etienne-Louis Boulée,
Projected cenotaph for Newton (1783)


(Image 5): William Blake,
Newton as Divine Geometer (1795)


Schaffer acknowledged Newton's "standing on the shoulders of giants",
referring to Robert K. Merton's book On the Shoulders of Giants (1993).
Later, I found the book in Stanford's South Stacks and traced the source
to Newton's February 5, 1676 letter to Robert Hooke (p. 31):

I hope you will find also that I am not so much in love with
philosophical productions but yet I can make them yield to
equity & friendship. But, in ye mean time you defer too much
to my ability for searching into this subject. What Descartes
did was a good step. You have added much several ways, & especially
in taking ye colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration.
If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.

Robert K. Merton traced this famous Newton aphorism to 26 other writers
before Newton (1676) and 19 writers after Newton in his book (pp. 268-269)
including the following writers (More sources):

A dwarfe on a gyant's shoulder sees further of the two.
— George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum (1640)

I say with Didacus Stella, a dwarf standing on the head
of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.

— Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (1624)

In comparison with the ancients, we stand like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants.
— Bernard of Chartres, as recorded in John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, III.4 (1126)

The aphorism by Bernard of Chartres was first noted
by George Sarton in Isis 24, 107-109 (1935).


When Newton was writing his Principia (1685-1687), he was also working
on his Biblical prophecies and "Day of Judgment and World to Come".
Professor Schaffer concluded his lecture with this quote of Newton:

"And as the Planets remain in their orbs, so may any other bodies
subsist at any distance from the earth, and much more may beings,
who have a sufficient power of self motion, move whether they will,
place themselves where they will, and continue in any regions of
the heavens whatever, there to enjoy the society of one another,
and by their messengers of Angels to rule the earth and converse
with the remotest regions. Thus may the whole heavens or any part
thereof whatever be the habitation of the Blessed, and at the same
time the earth be subject to their dominion. And to have thus the
liberty and dominion of the whole heavens and the choice of the
happiest places for abode seems a greater happiness then to be
confined to any one place whatever."

This then, not the boy on the beach is the true Isaac Newton.

Note: Having jotted down the phrase "As the planets go on their orbs", I couldn't
find this quote in Google. After Professor Schaffer's Wednesday lecture, I asked him
on the source of his closing quote. He told me that it was from Frank Manuel's book
The Religion of Isaac Newton on page 121. I thanked him, saying that I've attended
Frank Manuel's lecture at MIT. I rushed down to the South Stacks of Green Library
where I located the book and have typed out the above quote from pages 101-102.
Source is Yahuda Manuscript 9, folio 140 (Jewish National & University Library,
Jerusalem). Frank Manuel's remark on this quote: "This from a man who virtually
never in his life ventured beyond the Woolsthorpe, Cambridge, London triangle!"
Freeman Dyson also cited this Newton quote from Frank Manuel's book in his
Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen, Scotland. It was later published in his book
Infinite in All Directions (2004), pp. 50-51


Books & Interviews by Simon Schaffer:
Simon Schaffer Interview by the BBC
    Documentaries: Light Fantastic (October 18, 2004)
• Simon Schaffer & Steven Shapin, Leviathan and the Air Pump:
    Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life

    Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985 (QC166.S47.1985)
• Michael Hunter & Simon Schaffer, Robert Hooke: New Studies
    Boydell Press, Wolfeboro, NH, 1989 (Q143.H7.H86.1989)
• William Clark, Jan Golinski, Simon Schaffer,
    The Sciences in Enlightened Europe
    Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1999 (Q127.E8.S356.1999)
Simon Schaffer, The Mindful Hand
    Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2007


Books on Isaac Newton at Stanford Library:
• Frank E. Manuel, A Portrait of Isaac Newton
    Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1968 (QC16.N7.M3.c.5)
• Frank E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton
    Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1974 (QC16.N7.M32)
• Robert K. Merton, On the Shoulders of Giants
    University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1965 (QC16.N7.M38.1993
• Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton
    Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1980 (QC16.N7.C35.2002)
• Gale E. Christianson, In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times
    The Free Press, New York, 1984 (QC16.N7.C49.1984.c.2)
• Michael White, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer
    Fourth Estate, London, 1997 (QC16.N7W45.1997)
• Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius
    Macmillan, New York, 2002 (QC16.N7.F37.2002)
• I. Bernard Cohen & George E. Smith, The Cambridge Companion to NEWTON
    Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2002 (QC16.N7.C35.2002)
• Rob Iliffe (Ed.), Early Biographies of Isaac Newton (1660-1885), Vol. 1
    Pickering & Chatto, London, 2006 (QC16.N7.E18.2006.v.1)
• Rebekah Higgitt (Ed.), Early Biographies of Isaac Newton (1660-1885), Vol. 2
    Pickering & Chatto, London, 2006 (QC16.N7.E18.2006.v.2)

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P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (1-16-2008)